CHENNAI: Would you ever think of making lemon rice in an immunity test on MasterChef? But if you are MasterChef Australia contestant Sandeep Pandit, that’s exactly what you’d do. With ancestral roots in Kashmir, this Bengaluru boy wowed the judges with his preparation of lemon rice, lemon pepper chicken and raita, much to the delight of south Indians. Who knew that the classic lemon rice would earn him the perfect score (30/30) and an immunity pin.
Taste of two states
Sandeep’s difficult childhood had a big role to play in his cooking. He was forced to move from Kashmir to Bengaluru in 1990. Sandeep says his childhood ended abruptly when he turned nine. “We migrated from Kashmir to Jammu at the peak of militancy in early 1990. My mother was employed with HMT and was given a job at Bengaluru. My parents, my sister and I went to Bengaluru and the rest of the extended family stayed at Jammu.
I still remember that truck journey and watching the last of the melting snow as we were going away, leaving the mountain passes of Kashmir. It was a rough phase, with no money, very limited resources but a strong will to survive. We were encouraged to remember our Kashmiri roots and language, and were also asked to respect the local south Indian culture,” he shares. What started as a necessary chore to help his mother at the age of nine, turned into his happy place.
Sandeep has featured both Kashmiri and south Indian dishes on MasterChef. He prepared a Kashmiri thali during his auditions. “Kashmiri cooking has different nuances, depending upon the communities in Kashmir. The uniqueness of the Kashmiri Pandit community’s food is the absence of onions, garlic or tomatoes in the dishes. As surprising as it may sound, even the meat dishes do not have onions, garlic or tomatoes. For example, the traditional rogan josh is made with a blend of spices, curd etc.
The other unique aspects are the garam masala — which is cumin based — and the fact, that we do not traditionally use coriander seeds (powder) in our spice blend; fennel seeds powder (saunf) are used instead. This gives the dishes an additional aniseed flavour dimension and makes it unique,” he says.
But trolls have slammed Sandeep saying that he cooks only ‘curry’. The man of the moment, however, is unperturbed by such criticism. His focus to showcase the versatility of Indian cooking, which he understood when he had his first idli-sambar in Bengaluru, is unwavered. “Everyone has the right to criticise. Our cuisine is too broad and complex to be subjected to one word — curry. I am trying to cook on the basis of the brief given to us. I am just fortunate that my motherland’s cuisine is so versatile that in most of the briefs I can create a dish from the Indian cuisine,” he says.
One with his art
For Sandeep, cooking is spiritual. His eyes welled up and he folded his hands when his lachcha paratha won over celebrity chef Rick Stein. “My family has always taught us to respect food (Ma Annapurna). Food, to me, is not just nourishment, it’s spiritual. I have always been a fan of Rick Stein and have watched most of his shows. Stein came to my bench and lovingly tasted the food. I was moved by the joy on his face, as he watched me cook Indian cuisine with an Italian Mystery Box.
When they selected me for the tasting, I saw that joy again on the faces of the judges and Rick Stein. I was moved to tears. That entire experience had a spiritual notion to it, because I had just created something taught by my mother to give happiness to another person, and in this case, someone I revered as a Guru,” he shares.From not having a fridge at home to cooking with the choicest ingredients in the MasterChef kitchen, life has come a full circle for Sandeep. He wishes to be associated with food, through cooking or any other engagement. “The world is my oyster now.”Follow Sandep on Instagram: @sandeep_cooks
Keeping in touch with food
From not having a fridge at home to cooking with the choicest ingredients in the MasterChef kitchen, life has come a full circle for Sandeep. He wishes to be associated with food, whether it’s through cooking or any other engagement. “The world is my oyster now.”