In the kitchen, cooking with spices is not an easy task. The timing, the ratio of spices, and executing the right taste profile is a skill that comes with years and years of experience, so when the team of MasterChef Australia calls someone a ‘Spice Angel’, this can only be termed as an achievement.
Newscaravan caught up with Indian ‘Spice Angel’ Sandeep Pandit who grabbed global attention all thanks to his stint in the Season 11 of Masterchef Australia where he managed to break into the top 11 contestants club.
Sandeep, who is an engineer turned chef, sat down with the team of Newscaravan for a detailed interview. From his family’s painful exodus from Kashmir to his culinary inspiration, no subject was off the table. The articulate entrepreneur gave a deep insight into what drives him in the kitchen and why he wants to redefine Indian cuisine globally.
Newscaravan: You have often spoken about how your family had to migrate from the North Indian state of Kashmir to the South Indian state of Karnataka following the wave of terrorism that hit the valley in the late 1980s, can you tell us how this altered your outlook to food, especially given the fact that the two cuisines are so diametrically different?
Sandeep Pandit: Migration from Kashmir was a cultural shock to me (initially). It’s hard for a kid at the age of 8, to comprehend the situations around him. However, because I was that young, it also made me more accepting to this change. We grew up in HMT (Factory) Colony Bangalore, and all our neighbours were from different South Indian states. Most of these homes had a Grandmother, and these wonderful Grandmothers were a massive influence on my food choices. My own Grandmother, and my Mom kept the Kashmiri traditions alive. The result of this multicultural influence was what you saw in me, at MasterChef Australia 2019.
Newscaravan: Do you think having an exposure to both North and south Indian food culture helped you in your culinary career?
Sandeep Pandit: Absolutely! It’s strange for western countries to imagine the scale of India, but the reality is that, even us Indians don’t fully know our culinary traditions across the country. I have been very fortunate in my upbringing at Bangalore. My roots and my upbringing have influenced my culinary journey. For example at MasterChef, I got the chance to cook again during the judges auditions, due to my Kashmiri dish and got an apron due to a South Indian dish.
Newscaravan: We have keenly followed your Instagram page where you have been sharing several unfamiliar recipes with your followers for example the Pesarattu or Muj Chyettin. Many may argue that this attempt by you to showcase unfamiliar Indian food to the world could be risky as India is known for its curries abroad.
Sandeep Pandit: Then I would say that this is a risk that I am happy to take, No Risk, No Glory (laughs). Unfortunately for us, the world has limited our cuisine to Butter Chicken and Naan. Many restaurants in the western world are only adding to the “Curry Night” concept. CURRY is the colonial British understanding of our vast cuisine. It’s not just unjust, but also grossly incomplete. I truly wish to be the person who challenges and changes that notion.
Newscaravan: Kashmiri food or Wazwaan is slowly gaining popularity across India. However, the biggest misnomer that exists is that Kashmiri food is sweet, a myth that probably exists due to Kashmiri Pulav. Can you describe to our readers why this is further away from truth?
Sandeep Pandit: This is again the outcome of what I consider “a single dish myopia”. It’s true for the ‘currification’ of Indian cuisine and sweetening of Kashmiri cuisine (because people only have eaten Kashmiri Pulao at some random restaurant).
Kashmiri cuisine (like many other cuisines across India), is an art form. As more and more people experience the dishes, the more they come to know about it. In fact, the ex-MasterChef judge Gary Mehigan is a big fan of the cuisine and we have discussed a few times the versatility and the flavor profile of Kashmiri cuisine and spices (particularly the Chilli).
The use of Dry ginger, Fennel powder, chillies (Kashmiri Red) and Hing (asafoetida) with Yogurt and traditional Kashmiri Garam Masala, is very unique and not found in other cuisines across India.
Newscaravan: You have earned the title of Spice Angel, but the concept of using spices is yet to become a trend in the western cooking, do you think you can overcome this hurdle given your primary clientele now could be non-spice eaters?
Sandeep Pandit: I am humbled that the media and MasterChef Au gave me the title of ‘The Spice Angel’. Many folks in the west (although Australia is technically Far East Smile) have come to appreciate spices in the recent times. The reasons are the better knowledge of Indian cuisine, and many good chefs and cooks coming up here. Previously, the abuse of Indian food by older restaurants and the notion ‘Indian food is cheap’ has harmed the cuisine. Anyone could sell a sloppy mess with floating veg or protein and call it a (whatever) curry. This is changing, but loads more needs to be done.
Newscaravan: Community get togethers and prayer meets were a major part of our upbringing, is there any culinary memory or experience or an anecdote that strikes to you about this cultural experience?
Sandeep Pandit: I fondly remember the prayers and rituals of Hawan that we had at our local temple in Bangalore. The huge scale cooking for hundreds of people and everyone sitting together and eating. That feeling of community, spirituality and satisfying food is a very fond memory of mine. We actually cooked a Langar last year (I was joined by other MasterChef contestants of different faiths) at our local Gurudwara, and it brought back many many more memories.
Newscaravan: Indian Cuisine is a very broad subject, however if you ever wanted to create a dish combining all the rich flavours or techniques from India, what would that be and what would you call this invention?
Sandeep Pandit: I actually did create a dish, that has been celebrated at MasterChef Australia. The dish gave me the chance to cook for Immunity (that I eventually won). The dish was, my Smoked Lobster Masala.
This dish brought together the techniques of ‘Dungar’ (started in the Kitchens of nothern India), flavour profiles of western Ghats and South India… clubbed together with the French concept of cooking a Shell fish in butter (Ghee in my case) using the legendary Australian Lobsters from Tasmania. That dish has been considered one of the best dishes in the 11 seasons of Masterchef Australia, and I am still complimented by the ex judges for it.
Newscaravan: Lockdown has drastically impacted the food industry, what do you foresee the future will be? Will delivery overtake the dine-in culture?
Sandeep Pandit: The Lockdown has been very hard on all of us. But we also need to understand, that this is the first time in our living memory that this has happened.
Human history is riddled with such (and sometimes much larger) disasters, that ruined businesses and livelihoods. We came out of those, we will come out of this. It maybe long, hard and painful, but there will be an end. And once that end of this Pandemic comes, people will venture out to meet and greet. After all, haven’t we all studied in schools, that ‘Humans are social animals’
Newscaravan: What many people don’t know is your love for all things barbeque, can you tell us what sets apart Indian barbeque culture from the rest of the world?
Sandeep Pandit: I LOVE BBQ and particularly the BBQ cooked on coals. Indians may not be known for BBQ, because everyone conveniently ignores ‘Tandoori Food’… The combination of Veg, protein, spices and smoke is an epic food memory and anyone who’s had Tandoori food, will swear by it.
Cooking on fire is primaeval to Humans, I reckon, Fire is the first technology that we truly mastered and which led to Human civilizations being formed. That is the reason why, most of us (if not all) love the food cooked on fires. But it is the understanding (and pairing) of spices with (wood/ coal) fire, that sets apart the Indian BBQ experience with the rest.
Newscaravan: You have worked with some of the best names in the food industry, is there any name that you are yet to collaborate with?
Sandeep Pandit: I have been very fortunate to be noticed and having worked with some exceptional names, both in India, Australia and Europe. But deep inside, I wish to learn the culinary traditions of the old from the Kitchens and chefs of these kitchens.
Like the old Waaza legend somewhere in Kashmir, or the old school cooks in the temples of Udupi and South, or the traditional bawarchis in Bengal… I think I’ve just scratched the surface of the Indian culinary world, there is more to learn and achieve.
Newscaravan: Can you give us a sneak peek on what plans you have for the future?
Sandeep Pandit: There are a lot of exciting things happening!!! I am working on a video series, that will be available on an upcoming App called Graphyapp.
I hope to start online food classes, featuring Indian food, host private dining experiences. But above all, I am looking to partner with a platform or a channel, to showcase my (hopeful) travel back to Kashmir, and document the food cultures of all of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh… and document the history of the cuisine there like the influences of the Silk Route.