Sandeep Pandit, MasterChef Australia’s Spice Angel, Is Smoking Up Mumbai

Mar 31, 2022, 19:06 IST

t Sandeep Pandit

Sandeep Pandit will be showcasing unique spice and smoking combinations at an Aussie-themed barbecue

A former IT project manager, Sandeep Pandit floored the judges on Season 11 of MasterChef Australia with his showcase of Indian dishes. He comes from a large family of Kashmir Pandits and, although he left Kashmir at the young age of eight to settle in Bangalore, food – and Kashmiri Pandit food in particular – is central to his life. He moved to Australia in 2016, and fulfilled a long-cherished dream of participating on MasterChef Australia in 2019. We catch up with the ‘Spice Angel’ – a title conferred upon him by Gary Mehigan – as he gets ready to floor Mumbai food enthusiasts at an Australian-themed BBQ at Novotel Mumbai Juhu Beach on April 1, alongside Natasha Gandhi of MasterChef India Season 6, and the hotel’s Executive Chef Jerson Fernandes.

Although you left Kashmir and relocated to Bangalore at the young age of eight, you have nurtured the tradition of Kashmiri cuisine. Tell us why you’ve managed to keep the flame alive.

I’m happy that I have been able to keep the tradition of Kashmiri food alive, and the biggest reason has been that there are not too many cooks who cook Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. So everyone knows wazwan but people don’t really know Pandit cuisine. And, when I dreamed that I would, someday, be on MasterChef Australia which seemed like a pipe dream at one point of time I always knew the dishes I would want to make. The dishes in our cuisine that I love to eat include teher – which is yellow rice, made with basmati rice and smoked mustard oil; Kashmir Pandit rogan josh, haak – a collard greens stir fry, and muj chutin, which is radish chutney. It’s been that desire to keep the food tradition going that has always kept me grounded. My mum and grandmums, too, have been another reason I’ve kept it alive. And,importantly, if people like me don’t talk about our traditional  food anymore, there’s no chance in hell that someone like my child or anyone in his age group, Kashmiri children, will get to know about it because we are no longer there, and we’re struggling to keep our culture alive.

The three MasterChef judges became great fans of your cooking. Please share some memorable instances related to particular dishes you cooked on the show and the reactions from Matt, Gary and George with us.

The one dish for which all three of them had comments and inputs was my smoked masala lobster. It was a challenge where we had to use one of their secret sauces, and I chose Matt’s chipotle and tamarind ketchup. I used the dungar way of smoking, classic French techniques to poach the lobster, masala traditions from India to bring in the flavour, replaced the butter with ghee… I did everything that a classical French chef would do and paired it with what a decent Indian cook would do, and it was spectacular. No one else used Matt’s chipotle and tamarind ketchup; everyone was using taramasalata or sriracha because that made sense to them. So Matt was super excited and happy that I was using his sauce. Gary called me a Spice Angel for the first time that day; after he took his first bite, he said the angels were singing somewhere. And thereon Australian media tagged me the Spice Angel. But it was George whose comments were incredible. They usually just taste a bit and let go of the food; the four of them finished one and a half kilo of lobster! The fourth judge that day was Poh Ling Yeow; she did not comment, her eyebrows just shot up,and then she gave me the biggest bear hug I’ve ever received.  

A back injury led to your exit from the season, but no doubt you had acquired some great experiences and expertise by then. What are some major highlights?

That lobster dish was called one of the best dishes in the 11 seasons of MasterChef. If I hadn’t hurt my back, things would have been very different… But I made some amazing memories. I was new to Australia, just a year and half in the country, and we travelled to places that I hadn’t known existed, cooked stuff that I never knew existed. The biggest highlight was hugging Heston Blumenthal; he was hugging all the ladies and shaking hands with all the guys, but I asked for and got a hug. It was an honour to cook for Rick Stein; I created a basil lachcha paratha and tamatar ki chutney with an Italian box, and George lost his bet that I would be able to cook Indian with it…. On the day of my elimination, I got the greatest compliment in my life: Matt Preston said, among other things, that I had come in as a student and was going out as a teacher. They really valued what I brought to the table.

In recent years, there has been an increased interest in Indian and South Asian cuisine on MasterChef Australia. Why do you think this is?

South Asian was always spoken about, but the only word used was ‘curry’ - chickpea curry, lentil curry - which was dal. I think it was very important for us to change that mindset. Fortunately, Sashi (Cheliah)’s winning the competition brought the spotlight very seriously onto the Indian contestants. There had been some good ones up until then, but no contestant with an Indian background had ever won. Also, with Gary, Matt and George travelling to India, their understanding of Indian food and Indian regions had also increased, so no contestant would get away with just saying this is potato curry or chicken curry,  or this is onion bhaji, without being shredded. They were really interested in knowing which region a dish came from. Like I did a Kerala crab curry once, and Gary made me break it down for him - I explained that the fat I had used was coconut oil, I’d done a wet grind… Yes, now, hing is hing, it is not asafoetida; tempering is called chaunk, dal is dal, not ‘dhall’ or ‘dal curry’ anymore and thank God for that. 

How has being a part of MasterChef Australia shaped your life? What have you been doing in food since then? 

MasterChef Australia has been the most humbling thing that has happened to me. I pretty much steamrolled my way through the competition until the judges’ audition. There are pre-production auditions as well, and I remember the executive producer walking up to me and saying that the dish I had put out there was an apron-winning dish. But, when I actually went onto the show, the fact that I did not get an apron in the first shot cut me down to size. And the first week in MasterChef was one of the most miserable weeks I’ve had in my cooking life. I just realised how little I knew. I realised how vast food is. I fell in love with Italian food like never before. I realised that pasta from a packet is not pasta, and just how incredibly rich other world cuisines are… Since MasterChef, Spice Angel has become a trademark, both in Australia and in India. I’m into spices, into curating dinner experiences, predominantly preserving old-school spice traditions, learning new things, that’s what’s been happening.

It’s great to see you here in India and especially in Mumbai! What brings you here this time?

Mumbai is very close to my heart, and India is home, no matter how long I stay in Australia. The moment you land, you know you’re home. It embraces you like a warm hug. It’s so hot it’s always a warm hug! I’m here to try out something that is very close to my heart, something I discovered I was very good at at MasterChef - cooking on charcoal, smoking meats. There are very strong barbecue traditions in South America, and there are very strong spice traditions here, but, what most people don’t realise is that India got its chillies from South America; this was not their home. I want to take traditional spice and meat combinations from India, combine them with the barbecue traditions of the West and South America, and create dinner experiences around these. That’s why I’m here. Novotel Juhu has the kitchen and the heart to allow me to experiment, and I’m hoping everyone has a great time. I’m really interested in showcasing some exceptionally well smoked meats including the smoked sambar masala wings - which were a runaway hit at my Goa event. Indians will be familiar with the flavours, and Westerners will know most of the dishes. I’m trying to bring the two together. Food Nazis might call it a blasphemy, but Indian food has been a fusion for the last 1,500 years. The Arabs brought in cumin, Persians brought saffron, the Portuguese brought chillies, and we gave cardamom, cinnamon and ginger to the world (though the Chinese might dispute that). Food is about fusion, and I hope we  are the generation of chefs who give something new to the next generation. 

Also see: Bring home bites of the Middle East