An Aromatic Conversation

Kishwar Chowdhury MasterChef 2021 finalist and her delicious plate of sweets celebrating Diwali.

We all sensed the warmth that Kishwar Chowdhury portrayed in MasterChef but in reality, she beams humility tenfold. For us, at G’day India and The Indian Weekly it has been long overdue to meet Kishwar in person, so when the moment came we had to cease it over a cup of tea, coming out of lockdown. She did a bit of fresh baking for us, dressing up her beautiful tray laden with shooji (semolina) halwa infused with saffron and pista, her signature nankhatai (parsi biscuits), and jalebis.

“We’re so close to the end of the year and the festive season (Diwali) and everything that’s coming up. I guess leading to the end of the year it’s something that you can share with family and friends, especially if you’re in a picnic outdoors,” says Kishwar.

When we first spoke to her earlier this year, Kishwar was on a journey, giving MasterChef viewers a run for their money with a nail-biting finish. Introducing panta bhaat (fermented rice with dash of smoked dry red chillies and onions) to Australia did it for us.

Can you share how you started your MasterChef journey?
The MasterChef journey started about this time last year. My son led me to it. [Cooking] is something that we do together as a family, even with my daughter who’s five now. It’s because my son said ‘Mom, you should really apply for MasterChef’. I really never thought of putting myself on such a public arena and doing that.

What was the best thing you learned as a MasterChef contestant?
I went in there thinking I’ve already had a really good life; I know where I am with my family, my career and my kids. MasterChef stripped a little of that away and made me revisit who I am without all of that. It makes you very vulnerable. You really have to know yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses. I think MasterChef definitely made me stronger and taught me a lot about myself that I didn’t expect to find out at this age.

What went through your mind during the MasterChef journey?
It’s very long days. We get up very early. We shoot late at night. My greatest hurdle [was being] away from my family. I learned that my kids are okay and how capable my husband, mom, dad, sisters, and friends are – how much they love me to let me do this for myself and take care of my ecosystem without me.

What was going through your mind during the MasterChef finals?
No one really thinks that they’re going to get in, so being a part of that in itself is surreal. It just felt larger than myself; for me, putting on the chef’s jacket and being there it was a huge honour. And I felt like I had to really carry myself and step into these big shoes. It was a very big turning point in my life.

How was the experience introducing Bengali food to Australia?
It was an amazing, emotional experience. I think one of the very early conversations I had with the judges that didn’t come on air is that you don’t see people like me on television, cooking this food.

It’s not that people don’t celebrate and love South Asian cuisine or Indian regional cuisine. It’s just that we don’t see variety, and we don’t see a lot of female South Asian Chefs on Australian television live. Then you have someone like me doing this for the first time and saying this is authentically what we eat at home and sharing that.

How has life changed, post-MasterChef? What sort of opportunities are knocking on your door?
I really wanted to get into a kitchen and be trained by the greats. And I think that was the biggest thing MasterChef gave me: that platform into Michelin Chef Yomoda’s kitchen. Chef Yomoda was an incredible mentor. I’m also collaborating with restaurants like Tonka, and brands like Cargo Crew and Dilma. I just finished a campaign with the UN World Food Program. For them to reach out to me – It’s amazing to be a part of that.

What does cooking mean to Kishwar?
I think now I can categorise the different types of cooking I do. Some of it is research. Some of it is recipe development. Some of it is to scale up or in a restaurant. It’s very different. [Restaurant cooking] has to be homogenous and you have to be able to scale it and repeat it night after night. And then when I’m making produce, that needs to be scaled to a greater quantity that you need to sell.

Could you name one of your most beloved ingredients?
I’ve been tinkering with many Japanese ingredients like Miso that put in a punch of a flavour. But I think before that, I’d say tamarind adds a really great flavour profile. It can be used in a lot of things. Aside from that, I really love working with nigella seeds. They always have that very earthy flavour that we use in savoury food.

Where can we find Kishwar’s menu?
Hopefully throughout November, you’ll be able to find my menu in Tonka; I’ll be going back there. After that I’ve got some flavours that we’ll be releasing with Boca in Ivanhoe. I have a few more goods that will be released in 2022. I’ll be sharing all of that on my social media and I think that’s the best place to keep track of where I’m doing and where I’m cooking.

How do you keep your family life and commitments balanced?
I think we’ve all really had to dig deep and juggle during the lockdown. I think it’s just finding routine and balance, saying no to things, not scheduling things when my children need my time and attention. I can’t say I always succeeded or epically failed, but somehow, we stumbled through it to find a good balance to do all of that.
I’m still figuring out what works. I think something that the pandemic has taught me to do is just be very open. Be ready for everything and take a few more knocks and punches there.

What is the next five years for Kishwar looking like?
I’m still in the whirlwind of post-MasterChef. So, I have a lot of exciting projects where I’ll get to cook on TV or come and do interviews like this and have collaborations.
I think something I want is to take that time and write my book. That’s something that is very important to me.

How do you handle the newfound fame?
In Melbourne, we’ve been locked down for a very long time. When I do interviews in the UAE, India or Bangladesh, and in Asia as well, that’s when I hear how big and popular MasterChef really is, and people following my food is incredible.
I’m still a mom; I still cook and I go about my regular day. If we’re to travel to Asia and India, or even the UK and North America, that’s where I think I’ll notice a greater difference, but here at home, it’s still just … home.

Has being on MasterChef changed your goals in life?
I think my core goals are still exactly the same. In one of the conversations we had in the wine room, I said to the judges it’s like ‘coming on MasterChef feels like you have got the golden ticket’. I get to do what I love, but I get to do it on such an amazing platform.
[My goals] have very little to do with the fame that comes off the back of MasterChef or the recognition. It is the happiness that I get through cooking, through my family – and I guess that ambition of writing my book. Those very core things are still completely integral to me.

How would you say that fame and cooking will always be together?
I know one thing: I didn’t come into this to try to attain any fame. I feel like that’s something that’s fleeting. I’m very grateful that people feel connected to me and want to know what I’m cooking, or what I’m writing or saying. But cooking is always going to be my life, whether someone’s watching or not.

How do you keep yourself fit?
It’s long hours. Last week it was International Chef’s Day and I addressed the Chef’s Federation in Bangladesh. I think generally when you’re around food, it is a lot of hours that you’re on your feet. We’re always eating and tasting things, and I eat a lot more sugar now than I would like to – but we are also burning it off. I guess it cancels itself out a little bit.

Any message to the aspiring chefs, housewives and young girls who are not dreaming big?
I think I’d like to say it is very true that as a South Asian we do expect the role of cooking to be passed down through the women in the family. Not to let the weight of responsibility of cooking fall just on your daughters.

As we sit to conclude the interview, Kishwar talks about growing up in a house full of home cooks, inheriting her skills from her parents and passing them down to her children, who cherish this gift. Cooking is not a special talent or a hobby. It’s a life skill.
Her words are eloquent and her cooking is a stroke of passion and flavour. We not only wish her and her family a very happy Diwali, but we can’t help quoting the famous Madhur Jaffrey: “It’s a life I wanted, I chose it.”

By Nandita Chakraborty