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Chef takes flavours of Kashmir, Karnataka to Australia

Sandeep Pandit, who co-hosts ‘India Unplated’ on SBS Food, Australia, talks about showcasing regional Indian food, and his idea of a perfect ‘thali’ 

 Kashmiri ‘damaloo’ (left), and ‘idlis’ by Sandeep Pandit, who was born in Kashmir and grew up in Bengaluru.
 Kashmiri ‘damaloo’ (left), and ‘idlis’ by Sandeep Pandit, who was born in Kashmir and grew up in Bengaluru. (Photographs courtesy Sandeep Pandit)

Chef Sandeep Pandit has made a jar of traditional Kashmiri knol khol pickle (monje aanchar), a recipe he has gleaned from memory. Speaking over the phone from Melbourne, the Masterchef Australia 2019 contestant says he vaguely remembers watching his late maternal grandmother make it once and “kept it in my mind”. It took him a few attempts to get it right. “I also make the (Kashmiri Pandit) damaloo very well, not many people can claim to do so,” says the 40-year-old.

If you scroll through Pandit’s Instagram account, you will notice that Kashmir and Karnataka figure prominently—in fact, he speaks both Kashmiri and Kannada fluently. There is gur ki kheer made with “jaggery from my beloved Karnataka”; rustic, slow-cooked methi maaz (fenugreek lamb) “from the land of my birth, Kashmir”; and a photograph of idlis with coconut chutney, which says, “I miss home”.

Born in Kashmir, brought up in Bengaluru and based in Melbourne since December 2016, Pandit, is the co-host on India Unplated—a 10-episode series currently airing on SBS Food, Australia—along with chefs Adam D’Sylva and Helly Raichura. Each episode showcases a specific region. For instance, on episode 5 on Kashmir, D’Sylva cooked tabak maz (lamb ribs), Raichura, gucchi pulao (morel pulao) with native Australian ingredients, and Pandit tamatar gaad (tomato fish), using Australian barramundi. The chefs also provide their own interpretation of a dish—in the episode on Gujarat, D’Sylva made Dal Risotto with arboria rice and split mung beans.

Also Read: There is more to 'panta bhat' than just being a Masterchef finale dish

Pandit, who has a degree in chemical engineering, juggles a day job too: He works as a project manager with the Victoria state government. Plus, he has his own line of spice blends, called The Spice Angel (now available on Amazon in India). In an email and phone interview, Pandit talks about his perfect Indian thali and using Australian regional produce for traditional Indian dishes. Edited excerpts:

What is the biggest misconception about Indian food in the West?

The one-word answer is “curry”. The other misconception is that Indian food is “very hot and spicy”. Both these statements are partially true and woefully short of the complexity and technique that are the foundation of Indian cuisine.

Do you think in recent times there is a growing awareness about the diversity of Indian food?

There are definite changes that have happened and I feel proud that I am one of those change factors. After my appearance on the Western television, I could see that a lot of Western and non-Indian background contestants on MasterChef were calling the Indian dishes as aloo gobhi, sambhar, laccha paratha and using ingredients like hing (asafoetida), mustard oil than ever before. Even the judges would ask contestants the background of a dish, if they just called it “chicken curry”. Such changes are vital in changing the (subconscious) mindset of the audience. My current show, India Unplated, is the first of its kind show in mainstream Australian television (or across the Western world) that’s completely based on the concept of regional cooking/dishes.

Sandeep Pandit was a contestant on MasterChef Australia, Season 11.
Sandeep Pandit was a contestant on MasterChef Australia, Season 11.

If you had to showcase Indian food in a ‘thali’, which are the five-six dishes you would choose and why?

I believe in the ancient Ayurvedic concept of rasa (flavour). Ayurveda says that a great meal needs to have six rasas: lavana (salty), tikha (pungent/spicy), amla (sour), katu (bitter), kasaya (astringent), madhura (sweet). So, my six dishes would be: vegetable/meat pulao; spicy ghee roast (of choice, meat or veggies); raita and a traditional pickle (lemon, mango, chillies, etc.); crispy bitter gourd (karela) chips; a chai (perhaps a kehwa from Kashmir, with very little sugar); and a rabdi-jalebi to end the meal.

Our food is shaped by our culture, tradition, the places we live in. One dish you make that brings Kashmir, Karnataka and Australia together?

Food, health, seasonality and creativity—these are the corner stones of any ancient culture (like Indian cuisine). I have always tried to create traditional dishes with local produce and one such (experiment) I did was with the humble (and my MasterChef Australia 10/10 winning dish), “lemon rice”. Rice is a staple in Kashmir, so I used the favourite rice of J&K, basmati, to make a lemon rice (Karnataka’s favourite brekkie dish) that was flavoured with lemon myrtle (native to Australia) and a bit of lemon juice. Indian cuisine has always (from millenniums) accommodated spices from other cultures and made something unique from them. I wish to do that with native Australian herbs and spices.

Pandit's jar of knol khol pickle, or ‘monje aanchar’, left out in the sun for fermentation.
Pandit's jar of knol khol pickle, or ‘monje aanchar’, left out in the sun for fermentation.

There are a lot of spice blends in the market. When we simplify a complex dish, say a Kashmiri ‘damaloo’, by providing solutions like these, do you think in the longer run, there is the risk of losing/diluting the traditional recipe or is it a way of taking it to a wider audience?

There’s indeed an inundation of spice blends in the market and I have also introduced Kashmiri Dum Aloo and Kashmiri Rogan Josh to the Indian market. We do run a risk of diluting the ancient recipes, however, it also depends on the credibility of who is giving you those blends and their pedigree in that cuisine. These are traditional recipes from my home or the ones I picked up from neighbourhood grandmothers in Bengaluru (he has a sambhar masala spice blend). I guess as long as the end user is paying a premium, there are always going to be “traditional spice blends” that respect the traditions of a particular region or home.

You have learnt cooking from your mother. Your favourite dish cooked by her, one which sums up “home”?

My mother is my first love and my first guide in the kitchen. Her absolute masterpiece is a Kashmiri dish we call tamatar gaad that is flavoured with mustard oil, Kashmiri red chillies, fennel, dry ginger and Kashmiri garam masala. This dish served on hot rice with sides of haakh (collard greens) and fresh salad, is home for me. I had dedicated this dish to my mom and dad when I made it on the sets of India Unplated.

Tell us a little bit about ‘India Unplated’—will audiences get to watch it in India?

This show is like a walk down the memory lane, as I and my co-hosts recreate dishes from various regions of India. The show is dedicated to changing the perception about Indian food as just “curry” and also features dishes that use minimal spices. There are mainstream items like butter chicken, pakoras, barfi, etc., but also gems like aloo pitika, bhoot bhaja, butte ka kees, pessarattu. We are hoping that the show will air in India as well (shortly).

Your biggest takeaway from ‘Masterchef Australia’?

Participating in MasterChef Australia as the only Indian background contestant in 2019 was an honour for me, and being called the best Indian cook that ever entered the MasterChef Australia kitchen was a dream come true. The show taught me humility and a respect for many other global cuisines, particularly the simplistic brilliance of the Italian cuisine.

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