Through simplicity, Masterchef contender Kishwar bowls home cooked meals far beyond the boundaries of butter chicken and biryani.
MasterChef 2021 started with a bang this week Monday. What a treat! Amongst all the contenders, one stood out from the crowd – Kishwar Chowdhury, who we have fallen in love with, simply for her simplicity.
Meet Kishwar Chowdhury (38) from Victoria as one of this year’s Top 24 contestants in Masterchef. Kishwar, meaning ‘country’, has crossed three national borders: Bangladesh to Kolkatta (India) to Melbourne (Australia). Expressing my own excitement when she said in Bengali “Aye Paar and O paar,” simply meaning ‘this shore of the land to that’.
It’s not every day you meet someone who shares the same passion as you for Bengali food. I am so glad that someone is going beyond the boundaries of butter chicken and biryani.
Technology is a wonderful way to express emotions. One example recently was the promo for Masterchef 2021 on Channel 10. A well captured warmth that translated onto the screen has not only touched my heart, but also that of our chief editor Mr Sethi’s. Early on in the interview, he points that it had definitely made him teary – simply because of her story, simple but powerful.
During the interview, both Mr Sethi and I elate with rhapsodic shrills every time we hear a certain dish. So, let me take you on Kishwar’s journey – that of a mother, a daughter, a Bangla foodie and a cook.
Her parents came to Melbourne as students more than forty- five years ago to study. They decided to get married – and as a result Kishwar is who she is today, introducing us to Bangladeshi food.
Bangladeshi food is not different to Bengali food, it’s just that the countries have changed. Bangal is a colloquial term given to Bangladeshis. Ghoti is used for Bengalis in Kolkatta, India; it’s a term used largely since the eighteenth century for groups indicating Bengali origins. I am Bangal, with the best of Kolkatta in me. So just like Kishwar, I am blessed because since childhood we have been fed to fall in love with food, as every morsel connects us with a story. Plus, Bangal’s are great cooks – that’s still controversial.
Her mother is from Kolkatta, India and her father from Bangladesh. Kishwar’s parents met here and got married. Soon after Kishwar’s birth, her grandparents from both sides moved to Melbourne. Hence, they have a big family: half-Indian and half-Bangladeshi.
Pre covid Kishwar’s world; jet- setting between Kolkata and Dhaka has been a basket of stories and food for this debutant chef. The thought of Rippon Street makes my thoughts wander to all the street food. Both Kishwar and I can’t stop salivating our words.
Kishwar explains that Bengalis are born cooks and as far as she can remember, she has always cooked. Her journey to Masterchef began not only because of a Bengali passion deep in her veins that has been handed down from her mother and aunties, but also because of her father.
Her training, like most Indians, is instinctive – starting at home with curiosity. She used to surround herself with flour and dough next to the chulah (brick stove), where her father would be cooking porotha or paratha (bread layered with cooked dough). It was very important to her parents in her household that they eat one Bengali meal every day.
She beautifully explains that if we talk about identities, the identity she carries with herself is of an Indian, Bangladeshi and Australian. I know this and it is true that people migrating to another country, especially from southeast Asia or India, tend to carry or replicate the original country.
Living together as a huge extended family of stories and food under one roof – what more does one want? Her father’s printing and packaging business in Melbourne and Bangladesh even led Kishwar to meet her husband.
No wonder I was not surprised when Kishwar said that they all live and grow their own vegetables together in their suburban backyard of Oakleigh. Sometimes they grow ingredients you wouldn’t dare to find in our supermarket. An excited Kishwar says that her mother’s winter melon is taller than her own height. We both laugh with excitement.
As a mother to a four-year-old daughter and to a twelve-year-old son, she says this is the age to pass on the legacy of food.
Kishwar tells me she auditioned for Masterchef for her son, who wrote down the email address and gave it to her. It was during the lockdown as well, which made her think that perhaps it was the right time. I guess the world shut down only to awaken us to our sense of belonging.
As we saw on Monday night during her audition, where she cooked maacher jhol (fish broth or curry), choosing sardines with green mango and ginger. She was very happy to cook this peasant dish for the judges, and it was no surprise to see how they know the regions and their pallet.
Kishwar says that human beings adapt – so did she. Adapting with a lot of Australian produce was also something that she and her family have learned to appreciate. Blending these produce with her heritage and technique is who she is.
It was great to be confirmed by another Bengali that nothing is required to upscale Bengali food, as it’s already upscale. Kishwar explains that a dinner invitation in English translatesin Kolkatta as a Nemontono or in Bangaldesh’s Dawat, Bengali food is unapologetically what it is. The simplest yet most technical thing to make is the baigun bhorta, translating to eggplant roast, or aloo (potato) bhorta. This is a Bengali tonic that no one can get enough of it.
Her favourite food is phucka or golgappas, which Australians have fallen in love with. And her mother’s Bhapa pitha – steamed rice cakes made fresh with ground rice flour, coconut and gur/jaggery – is a winter dish both in Bangladesh and Kolkatta.
Realistically, one person is going to win Masterchef – and her dream is to win.
Kishwar says that in Masterchef we see different food, and she is happy to progress beyond Bengali food. The best thing about Masterchef is everyone comes in with a particular thing, but ends up learning so much more. To Kishwar, Bengali food and her heritage took her to where she is today, and she is ready to break up her skills if needed, to learn and adapt different cultural techniques.
Bengali food is a mix of southeast Asia, with tropical tangy tastes, and Mughlai, Persian (central Asia).
She wants to show Australia Bengali day-to-day food like mango dhal and a good fish curry – and most importantly, how homely nutrients can be an amazing experience. Her edge in the competition that sets her apart from the rest has to be seafood. Unpacking this, she explains that everyone is sheltered in their own ways, but training with Bengali family is her strength.
Mr Sethi struck a chord with her just like the judges in Masterchef when she excitedly tells us her favourite spice: nigella.
Winning MasterChef would be a life-changing experience but for now her journey is all about talking and writing a book on Bengali food. She’s soaking in the experiences and living in the moment.
She often doesn’t keep her nerves under control on a timer. Then again, she sets herself a very early start from the cook.
I would have never imagined seeing Bangladeshi/Bengali food in the thirteen years of Masterchef, and I think I owe Kishwar this huge amount of gratitude and respect for bringing Bengali food to the show and all that peasant food that comes with it – unpacking so many historical stories with dishes that makes the experience exciting and magical. I cannot resist quoting Tagore: “You smiled and talked to me of nothing and I felt that for this I had been waiting long.”
By Nandita Chakraborty