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Why Masterchef India is not (and will not be) as good as Masterchef Australia!

By Anoothi Vishal

If you are struggling to make “party” conversation, a safe topic to touch upon, at least in young, metropolitan India, would be, well, Masterchef. Not Masterchef India, mind you. But Masterchef Australia, arguably one of the best cooking shows in the world, and one, let me confess right at the beginning, that I am absolutely devoted to. It’s a show that has caught on the imaginations of the aspiring and the arrived. That has bridged the gap between the hoggers and the dieters, the cooks and those who can’t (or won’t) boil even an occasional egg, between the party-hoppers and the stay-at-home moms. In short, it is hardly a show merely about cooking. It is entertainment, where food takes centrestage, but it’s also a show where the contestants provide for an emotional connect, albeit, in a good-natured, matey way, not in the over-the-top manner via which reality shows, at least on Indian prime time TV, seek to increase their TRP ratings.

Most importantly, what Masterchef Australia does, is capture a lifestyle to which most of us urban Indians aspire to: Where food is accessible, yet fancy and exotic, where cooking is an activity to be indulged in for fun, a gift with which you can entertain friends over a glass of wine on the weekends, and where food can, in fact, catapult you to great worldly success. It is this subtext that makes this show so different from what we have been seeing on Masterchef India, that show for neighbourhood auntijies and bored mummies, for the last few episodes.

If Masterchef Australia brings to us the sense of a certain, admittedly elitist, lifestyle, Masterchef India appears to do its exact opposite— even though the producers seem to have left no stone unturned to copy the exact format of the Australian show; right from a similar masterchef kitchen, to tasks judging technique, to the three chef-judges (who are the best part of this show, after actor Akshay Kumar was thankfully dumped this season). Most TV programming in India caters to the masses, to the lowest common denominator, if I may be excused for putting it so bluntly, and Masterchef India is seemingly treading this path.

For a show like KBC—whose most recent season has brought us some amazing stories from Bharat; a real-life Slumdog Millionaire from Champaran truly deserving the crowning glory apart from making for some compulsive television— this showcasing of the aam admi, his struggle and triumph, works well. For a show like Masterchef India, this kind of democratization just makes things extremely boring. Do you really want to see a “maa”, mother from Amritsar, make the most basic cucumber raita? Or someone else attempt a no-good paneer bhujji and chole, stuff that many of us eat, and cook reasonably well, almost everyday at home? Where is the drama? Where is the wow factor in any of this? This is precisely Masterchef India’s biggest failing.

In a country where cooking is a competitive sport — that cuts across classes — at par with soccer or cars or art and wine elsewhere, it is disappointing to see the level of contestants in Masterchef India. The episode that I caught yesterday featured a handful of the final contestants, supposedly “India’s top (amateur) cooks”, cooking for a panel of pehlwans (wrestlers). The food they turned out was shockingly mediocre. And indeed one ambitious, 20-year-old cook, thought it fit to cut puris with a katori and serve these up with halwa. Why would we want to watch this on television, unless, of course, it is for the thrill of seeing some bumbling idiots and feeling a little better about our own foibles! Every kitty party hostess in this country displays more elan, more flair and more ambition when it comes to serving up something special to her guests. And here were the judges suggesting that the hapless girl (who finally got eliminated) could have turned out at least aloo-gobhi as a third dish.

Masterchef India, unlike its Australian counterpart, where we have seen the contestants face truly amazing challenges and come out tops, sets the bar too low. I don’t know whether this is set to change in the next few episodes, but for now, even the chef-judges, who otherwise seem quite sensible and dignified, seem to be sticking to the very basics. The cooking class they gave to the contestants yesterday included very basic (vegetarian) Punjabi khana: Dal makhni, karele, kulche and a dodgy looking rajma tikki. Frankly the food looked fairly unappetizing, albeit a little bit more restaurantised than the efforts of the mothers in the cook-off segment where everything was sloppily ladled into casserols (including puris, for heaven’s sake, everyone knows to serve up these puffed breads on a flat platter and not boxed-in) put on trolleys and carted off to the wrestlers. Besides which, what I’d like to know is this: which home cook, or middle-class housewife, does not know how to make these simple dishes? (You may belong to a different part of the country and know how to cook your own community and regional dishes but after the likes of Tarla Dalal, Sanjeev Kapoor, not to mention numerous recipes online, is it really necessary for a Masterchef class to make a Grihshobha-like effort?)

One concept that is really missing from the larger philosophy of Indian food is the idea of the chef: Who is a chef? Is a chef merely a good cook? And if not what separates a good chef from a good cook? The Nala Pakashastra—actually a medieval tome though it is attributed to the mythic king Nala, who had to stay disguised as a cook when exiled and separated from the love of his life, his queen Damyanti; both immortalized in the Kalidas epic poem—actually lists the attributes of a good “cook”. But these are somewhat mystic and include auspicious birthmarks, a pleasing face and so on.

Unlike France, or even Japan and China, where extensive training in the correct kitchen technique and long years in a restaurant kitchen, have been traditionally necessary to be deemed a “chef”, India is a country of many talented cooks and none better than the one at home serving her (it is usually the women) family and following her own special recipe even for something as simple as the tempering of a dal. Cuisine is not codified in India since there is no one cuisine that we speak of. Instead, flavours of the ostensibly the same dish differ not just from region to region but community to community and home to home. With the restaurant business taking off, we, of course, have the professionals, trained in catering schools, but at least when it comes to Indian food, most Indian “amateur” or “home” cooks are generally better at the craft. It is a strangely complex situation for anyone— and any show that is based on a foreign format—to comprehend.

However, to my mind, there is and should be a simple way to discern the chef from the cook. If a cook is a follower of recipes, the maker of a perfect dal makhni or biryani, the chef is someone who uses his mind to cook too. He is more deliberate and cerebral about his art—and goes about using his imagination much more liberally than the conservative kitchen of a middle-class Indian family may permit.

What are the contrasting flavours, textures, temperatures, colours in a dish? How have the vegetables been cooked? Is there a better way to do the meats? And, finally, is this a wow enough dish, visually and tastewise, that is going out of the kitchen? These are all thoughts that must cross a chef’s mind.

One reason I love Masterchef Australia so much, and I assume so do others, is because of this use of imagination. There is an attempt to create something new and different from the techniques and recipes learnt; to do an individualistic take on the classics. And it is precisely this element that seems to have gone missing, at least till now, from Masterchef India.

A note on plating: While I am all against gimmickery in the kitchen and, like all sensible people who often do this instinctively, prize taste and honesty of a dish over mere visual appeal; the latter is pretty important too, especially if you are aiming to get into a professional kitchen. And that’s another critical difference between Masterchef India and Masterchef Australia.

In Masterchef Australia, most contestants have a plan to professional-ise their experience: Some want to open up restaurants, dessert bars, others want to work in restaurants, still others have turned bloggers or organizers of food events. In the Indian version, we are predominantly faced with housewives, who have no expressed aim than to make their “families proud”. Obviously, we are looking at entirely two different levels of contestants and the different level of professionalism in the shows is all too evident.

One of the most clichéd sentiments in the world of food has to do with mother’s (or grandmother’s) cooking. It’s the best in the world, we are told. What I would really like to see are mothers who can’t cook at all—but excel at something else entirely (business/computer science) and make their children proud. And for heaven’s sake, I would like to see more fathers (brothers, young male friends et al) cook. It would be infinetly cooler and make the world an equal-opportunity place.

What India needs desperately is some fun with its food. What the Indian Masterchef needs is a dose of cosmopolitanism. Unfortunately, while I can see the former happening increasingly in our midst, it will take much longer for TV shows to change.

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One Response to “Why Masterchef India is not (and will not be) as good as Masterchef Australia!”

  1. [...] her critical but accurate analysis of why Masterchef India will never be as “good” as Masterchef Australia, Anoothi Vishal writes, “The cooking class they gave to the contestants yesterday included very basic (vegetarian) [...]