Desi flavours down under

Sep 28, 2013, 22:11 IST | Kanika Sharma

As Masterchef Australia Season Five gains steam and stock, Kanika Sharma speaks to Rishi Desai and Neha Sen, the two Indian contestants, who are leaving no stone unturned to put Indian cuisine on the global culinary map

As zealous followers of the cookery show Masterchef Australia, it was a moment of pride seeing two Indians being mentored by the ‘holy trinity’. This year’s edition, hosted by Chefs Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and food critic Matt Preston; is tinted by spices, curries and oodles more. 35-year-old public servant Rishi Desai and Neha Sen, a 31-year-old IT professional, make quite an impression on our telly screens as they pour out their hearts and souls on porcelain plates with baby herbs to top.

Neha Sen

Kolhapuri import to Canberra
Suave and composed, Rishi Desai summarises his experience on the show as “fantastic”. Looking at the trajectory he has traversed, he shares, “You don’t realise how much you learn on the show until you (actually) go on the show.”

The boy from Kolhapur, who still craves for Sukka Mutton and Tambada Rassa every time he sees his mother, also talks of how learning was all he gleaned, be it from his contestants, the judges or even the equipment. Looking back on his epiphany, he relays, “My mother tells me that when I was five years old, the first time I entered the kitchen, I cooked up something and since then, I have never looked back. I’ve always been in the kitchen; I’ve always wanted to be in the kitchen.”

Rishi Desai

Desai further opines, “My philosophy is essentially what Heston Blumenthal’s ideology is. You eat food with all your senses -- you touch food, you use your sense of smell / hearing, your sight and your tastebuds -- so all your five senses have to be activated for you to enjoy food and I agree on that.” He relates how he has gone on to play around with one of the most traditional recipes, the famous Butter Chicken, in the most unusual way. “It’s Butter Quail. My food doesn’t look the same but when you taste it, all the flavours are in there,” admits the budding chef. As Desai goes places, he recounts all that he has already on roster in a single breath: “I will be doing a series of pop-ups at the Burbury Hotel Canberra. I have also got myself a book deal which will be coming out by early next year.”

The army girl power
An effervescent voice reaches our ears as we speak to Neha Sen, a woman of many worlds. Married to a British-born Aussie, Sen comes from an Army background and has had a host of states -- Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Odisha, Delhi, Maharashtra -- twirled on her fork. Nudging for her favourite dish while anticipating a Bengali bite, she throws us off hand, as she utters Coconut Rice and Mutton Curry. Agape, she traces her genealogical roots to Kerala while a grandmother lends the Russian genes.

“The show has been a rollercoaster ride with the highest of highs and lowest of lows,” she says. Quite relatable to most urban Indian youth in her dilemma, Sen did not know how to cook till the age of 23. “When I shifted to Australia, I was burning rice and dal (lentils). But I couldn’t afford to eat at an Indian restaurant anymore, so I was in sheer desperation. It was then that I decided I needed to do this.”

A devout adherent of fusion cooking, Bollywood Bolognese is one of her most remarkable dishes. Quiz her for details and she says, “I chuck in stuff like cinnamon, cardamom and cumin powder making it Indian in flavour.”

Much like her mélange of a dish, Sen feels that she is a true Indian citizen as she hails from all over and wants to embark on a TV documentary on Indian cuisine. Her next favourite is Vietnamese cuisine due to its zesty and chilli characteristics, signs off the cheerful chef.

“We have lots of Indian applicants this year. This means that there is some bravery coming out, that Indians are going: ‘You know what, I might put my hand up today’. So is the case with Rishi and Neha; especially Rishi. Rishi is an amazing cook who is a very clever man and very creative.

So, we expect him to do very well in the series. I’m looking for something different in the contestants. And I think Rishi is going to do something special -- a very multitalented individual -- as he wants to take Indian food in a slightly different direction. So is Neha. Yet Rishi has a slightly different approach than Neha, so wait and see what happens.” 

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