MasterChef India – Season 7 is one of the popular cooking reality shows on Sony Entertainment Television and SonyLIV, and it is currently in its semi-final week. For the first time in the show’s history, many contestants, or home chefs, from the Northeast have participated. Two of the regional contestants, Santa Pawan Sarmah and Nayanjyoti Saikia from Assam, are competing for a spot in the finals. In a candid conversation, the contestants discussed their journey so far, northeastern cuisines, and much more. Q: How did you start your journey from passion to professional cooking? Nayanjyoti: I started my journey of cooking by making desserts. I have had a deep inclination towards cakes since I was a child. As I prepared my cakes, I tried to elevate them with new techniques and precision infusing different flavours. I made it with frosting, with cake bases experimenting with new ways of baking. Then I gradually started making other desserts such as ice creams with gelato, parfait, mousse etc. Apart from it, I also learned to make savoury dishes. Pasta is one of my favorite savoury dishes. Through self-learning methods and references from online cooking channels, I upgraded my skills in professional cooking. Tinsukia, my hometown, is a small city in Assam where it is difficult to get urban ingredients which was a huge challenge. So I try to look out for substitute ingredients to make international cuisines.
Q: When and how did you decide to become a professional chef? Nayanjyoti: I didn’t ever think of competing for Masterchef. When I was doing my graduation in Guwahati, I stayed in a college hostel and the food that was served was not that good. They had pulses filled with water, and overcooked rice, at times it is too salty and sometimes the food had no salt in it. Hence, I usually carried chips with me and ate them with rice because of which I had a vitamin deficiency and was hospitalized. My doctor suggested that I eat healthy vegetables. So after completing my first year, I shifted to rented accommodation. There I started making new dishes with fresh ingredients available in the city. Whenever my friends or cousins visited my place, they loved and praised the food I cooked. They also asked me to explore more and think of professional cooking which infused a spark in me. Q: In the latest season of Masterchef India, we observed that many of the dishes presented were innovative. Speaking of it, you (Santa Sharma), during auditions had prepared Sushi with Butter Chicken which received a lot of appreciation from the judges. How did you think of it? Santa: I lost my mother at a very young age and began cooking for my family. But soon, that interest explore and cook more cuisines grew. As I got busy with my studies and due to the lack of guidance, I could not do a professional cooking course. I am a self-learner. I must say, I learned a lot from my grandmother who taught me something g as basic as the proportion of water that goes in rice, the exact time it takes for something to be cooked, etc. Eventually, when I got married, I was more inclined towards professional cooking. My husband encouraged me a lot. He always inspired me by saying “if you do not want to do any job or engage in any activity, aspire for your hobby”. This motivated me, and gradually, I started posting the recipes of my dishes on social media and started participating in cooking contests. Soon, I participated in one of the popular cooking reality show in Assam and was declared the winner of the show. This boosted my spirit and I continued my journey by winning many laurels for my state. I always made sure my dishes reflect a taste of Assam. When I started competing, I realized that people outside Northeast India didn’t know much about our food and culture. So my primary goal in Masterchef kitchen became to popularize the dishes from Assamese and Gorkha cultures, on the world stage. We consume simple food in our homes. But at Masterchef Kitchen, we can’t just still make normal dishes. Initially, I thought to carry an Assamese dish for my auditions but since innovation is what makes a dish creative, I tried to elevate it by making sushi with chicken and bamboo shoots. The judges really appreciated my efforts and here I am standing as a finalist today making me and my region proud I am happy that I have been able to achieve my dreams to a large extent and I will continue to work hard in near future.
Q: For a new entrant who wants to take up a career in professional cooking, do you feel it is mandatory to have some professional knowledge or technical expertise or just passion is enough? Nayanjyoti: The knowledge of the basics of cooking such as baking and glossing, for instance, is necessary. Once a person is confident about them they can further experiment and try for innovation. Santa: Passion is the source of motivation that keeps you going. Even if you have the basic knowledge without a passion to pursue, you cannot achieve your goals. Passion is the ultimate driving force. So both should be balanced. Q: As Santa said that passion is important and one must keep at it to develop skills. However, Masterchef is an experience where you meet new people and experts from different cultural backgrounds and places you have never been to. How has that contributed to your learning? Would you say it is important to meet new people and travel to new places to learn more? Santa: I cannot deny the fact that I can always stick to making region-based cuisine. In MasterChef, we have to try and make cuisines from different parts of the world which is fun as well as challenging. In my MasterChef journey, I came across such ingredients that I had never seen or tasted in my life. But as soon as we start competing, we have to ideate and include it in our dishes. I feel that elementary knowledge of Mediterranean food or Mexican food is necessary to elevate the dishes. In India, we have so many cuisines in written form that are known to people. Apart from that, we have a number of unwritten ones hailing from ethnic tribes and communities. Knowing about them can also give us so much understanding of food and its diversity. Practising international dishes and cuisines can help us to be more equipped with our skills. Q: When we see the dishes Nayan and Santa presented during the episode of MasterChef, there is always an element of vibrancy and colour that makes it unique. Dishes from our mainland have many similarities in comparison to international cuisines. What is your take on it? How similar or different are the dishes of North East from the rest of India and the world? Nayanjyoti: The Northeastern cuisines have a lot of similarities with the South East Asian cuisines such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia etc. For example, their vegetables are quite similar to ours. They also use different varieties of spices and herbs which are similar to ours. So when we are given the challenge to attempt South East Asian cuisines, we have an upper hand. Santa: For instance, the dry shrimp paste or the fermented beans or the sawtooth coriander leaves that they use are very well known to us. The rest of the home chefs competing with us are not much familiar with these ingredients. Another fascinating aspect is that the Umami flavour is a common flavour in Northeastern food and South East Asian food. This enhances our flavor profile and we can proudly present our dishes with ease and precision. The dried fish, which we cook in the fireplace, and the technique of cooking them using bamboo stems, is very similar to other Asian belts. Q: We have seen a representation of Assam and Northeast across the different national-level competitions, but it is the first time we saw so many faces from this region making it among the Top 30. How did you both bag the audition for MasterChef? What led to your selection? Nayanjyoti and Santa: In the beginning, they auditioned in the small cities of India such as Guwahati. They also promoted it across social media platforms and contacted the home chefs. So we went to the Guwahati auditions where there were many participants. Apart from Assam, there were contestants from Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya and other Northeastern states. And for the state of Sikkim, the auditions were held in Kolkata. In the second round of auditions in Kolkata we were asked to bring our dishes from home. After the audition, by the end of the day, we received a confirmation call of selection for cook-offs from the team. However, these auditions are not telecasted on TV. During the cook-offs we were shown the ingredients and using them we have to prepare a 60 minutes dish. After the round, there was a gap of 10 to 15 days after which we were informed of being selected for the TV audition round in Mumbai. And there we got our first apron. From Assam, we both were selected. Also, Nazia Sultana and from Nagaland, Mhabeni Ngullie was among the Top 36 home chefs. The eastern zone auditions were held in small cities such as Bhubaneshwar and Ranchi. Eventually, the Varanasi audition was held in Delhi and so the auditions were completed in 4 days for the eastern zone. Eventually, after near about 15 days grand auditions were conducted for the Top 16 finalists where we had to cook in the MasterChef Kitchen and served the judges. Soon after that, we got the apron with our names inscribed on it. This was our thrilling and exciting journey from our homeland to the world of MasterChef.
Q: Nayanjyoti has a vibrant Instagram profile that reflects his love for culinary art as well as photography and sustainable farming Nayanjyoti: We have our own tea estate and whenever I am at home I get to engage myself in the work. We give the tea leaves in the factory where tea is produced and sold in the market. Moreover, we also have a vegetable garden in our home where we do farming. We mostly don’t buy vegetables apart from potatoes and onions. We also have cows in our home and we use the dung as manure for our fields. The leaves and other vegetable wastes are also being used as compost by mixing them with cow dung. In this way, we try to be as sustainable as we can. Apart from that we also have fruits in our garden. We consume the fruits and also make fresh juices and wines from starfruit and oranges which I also use to elevate my dishes. I also have had a great love for photography since childhood. I had a small digital camera and later on purchased a DSLR. I have also won many photography competitions and whenever I make any dish, I click and post it on social media. When I initially gave my audition for MasterChef, a team from Sony TV approached me and asked about my photographs. When I told them that I clicked those, they asked me to sign it on a paper affirming its authenticity. And eventually, I signed it as a confirmation. Hence Instagram played a major role in my MasterChef journey. Q: Santa reflects a modern woman of progressive India, a homemaker whose love and passion for the regional delicacies from Assam led her to chase her dreams of becoming a professional chef by presenting her dishes on the national and international stages. Tell us more. Santa: I live in a joint family. I involve the children in my family in many creative works and also help them with their school assignments which makes me happy. I also enjoy singing. I have 40 cows in my home. Actually, we have a milk business and whenever I get time, I look after the cows giving them food and milking them. The vegetable remaining in our kitchen garden goes to the cowshed and nothing gets wasted. We also have our paddy fields and as Nayan had stated we also don’t usually buy vegetables and consume the ones which are homegrown. I also love to travel and explore new places and I have a hobby of decorating my home by collecting small artefacts, shapes and idols of Lord Ganesha. I also recently started my own Youtube channel that is still in its nascent stage. But I somehow manage to post my food videos up there and keep them operational. Above all, cooking is my biggest hobby and passion. So I mostly engage myself in trying new cuisines wherever I can. And yes I love to talk a lot. Q: Are you both open to sharing your experience and knowledge with other food enthusiasts? Any message or words of encouragement you want to give for the upcoming generation. Nayanjyoti and Santa: Our first learning experience began in the MasterChef kitchen. All the home cooks here didn’t know anything about Assamese food and Northeastern cuisines. They were backed by many traditional beliefs or stereotypes, to be precise, that we North-East Indians eat all moving objects. That was the notion prevalent in the mainland about us. When we explained to them what we actually eat, what vegetables are grown here, and what herbs are available in our region, they got to know many fascinating new things from us. Initially, they didn’t know about the existence of such herbs or spices, which later on, they became aware of as we introduced them. We also learned many concepts from them. We believe that the ingredients found in Northeast India are very versatile and can be used in many dishes. Moreover, their unique flavours make them stand out. If we promote them extensively, it will boost the economy, and people will know more about North-East India and its rich cultural diversity. For instance, we are familiar with the ingredients from Southern and Northern India and know how to use them in various dishes, despite their regional dominance. However, when it comes to our spices and ingredients, they are mostly known by their local names, and their proper source of information and names are unavailable. They are not even properly available on any public platform and are not famous. Hence, we must all try to promote our food, ingredients, and culture by giving more exposure to our dishes. This will open doors for the upcoming generation.
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