An ode to Bangladeshi food
As an avid fan of Masterchef Australia, I have been following the show since it aired its second season (which means I am old enough to remember when Andy Allen was my favourite contestant and not a judge like he was in the latest season). The show gave me the opportunity to explore the world through the lens of food. It is because of Masterchef Australia that I know how to make gnocchi (a type of pasta made using potatoes), what goes into bechamel sauce (butter, flour, milk), or what halloumi cheese is. It was because of the show that I was introduced to Mediterranean flavours, to cooking in tagines (a kind of clay pot), or to the wide variety of noodle dishes that Southeast and East Asia have to offer (besides just the popularly known Japanese ramen).
Masterchef Australia does a beautiful job of representing the Australian food scene. It also shows how you can be Australian and still be proud of your own heritage. More than often, the contestants draw heavily on their cultural backgrounds and cook up fabulous dishes. The judges, too, do the same, as George Calombaris once drew on his heritage of Greek food. I would often watch Indian and Sri Lankan contestants update food from their cuisines and give it a modern twist. And I could not help but wonder what Bangladeshi food might look like, presented as fine cuisine.
Here, I have to confess, I hadn't thought Bangladeshi food could add much since many of the flavours we use would be too similar to those in Indian or Pakistani food. Isn't Dhakaiya kachchi just another variation of biriyani, in the end? But still, I was curious and craved to see the food of my country represented in a global forum so that it could be seen as a country and culture of its own—hoping that one day I would have to stop introducing Bangladesh as "the country located close to India".
My dream seemed to have come true when Rashedul Hasan got into Masterchef Australia's top 24 in 2017. Unfortunately, he had been the first contestant to be eliminated and could not show much of his skills. However, from the very first moment I saw Kishwar Chowdhury walking into the Masterchef kitchen in the show's promotional clips, I could tell that there was something special about her. And over the course of the competition, I have not been proven wrong.
From the very first dish she cooked for the judges in her quest to be amongst the top 24, Kishwar made it a point to declare that she was on a mission to show the world what Bangladeshi cuisine is all about. And throughout the subsequent episodes, she surprised not only the judges but also viewers like myself with how she put a modern twist to casual Bangladeshi food. Who would have thought that the beef patties usually sold by vendors on the streets of Dhaka could be elevated to become worthy of fine-dining, or that judges and food critics would be impressed by turmeric-salt sardines (maach-bhaja, anyone?). I was absolutely in awe when Kishwar's semi-final dessert made judge Jock Zonfrillo put the whole betel leaf in his mouth, looking like a true Bangladeshi uncle. Who knew that everyday paan could be served with ice cream to become an intricate dessert? That same dish was also termed by judge Melissa Leong as Kishwar's "love letter to Bangladesh".
But Kishwar had another true surprise in the bag for everyone. Undoubtedly in a bold move, Kishwar served smoked water with rice (meant to replicate paanta bhaat), aloo bhorta and fried sardines as her grand finale feast in Masterchef Australia. Throughout the competition, Kishwar had been criticised for many things. Some had commented on the repetition of curries. Others, including Bangladeshi viewers, stated that she was a little too teary for their liking. However, as Kishwar served up her last individual dish (where she was in charge of the menu), I was the one to tear up. As a Bangladeshi, it was a moment of absolute pride to see something so simple as paanta bhaat and aloo bhorta being served on such a significant international platform. The dish itself is integrated at the core of what it means to be a Bengali, to be a Bangladeshi. It is a dish that is loved by the hardworking farmers of Bangladeshi villages, who find solace in it after working in the scorching heat. It is the food that is served when there is nothing else available in the typical Bangladeshi home, and simple potatoes have to do. It is food that will rest your stomach when you have eaten too much of Mughal items like polao-korma. Once associated with poverty, rice-water (paanta bhaat) is now part of national celebrations like Pohela Boishakh—and Kishwar has now put it on the global stage. How could she not have pulled at the strings of my Bangladeshi heart?
In the end, Kishwar did not win the title of Masterchef Australia; she secured the place of second runners-up. But if the stories of past contestants are of any indication, Kishwar can still use her experience and exposure to pursue her food dreams, and I have no doubt that she will. At a time when Bangladesh's own food scene is frantically obsessed with foreign food, Kishwar showed the world that Bangladeshi food itself is worth looking into, and that our dishes are gems hidden in plain sight. Kishwar Chowdhury has single-handedly put Bangladeshi food on the Australian food map. And on the global map, too, given the show's popularity worldwide. She has also successfully boosted Bangladesh's image among the global audience of the show. And, as a Bangladeshi, I have only two words to say to her: thank you.
Lam-ya Mostaque is a Research Officer at Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies. Email: email@example.com