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Australia's most exciting Indians #3 Australia's queen of Bengali food

She is part Indian, part Bangladeshi and wholly Australian, being born and raised in Melbourne. Kishwar Chowdhury has put Bengali food on the map of Australia, and while doing so, she even got into the finals of MasterChef Australia. She spoke to Akasha Usmani.

Kishwar Chowdhury says her work is more than just about food - it is about establishing and celebrating identity.

Akasha Usmani (AU): So how has your experience been in Australia before being accepted for this popular show MasterChef Australia?

Kishwar Chowdhury (KC): Well I was brought up in Melbourne and I have lived in Melbourne, Australia most of my life and for a few years I studied in London and then Germany for a little while, lived in Dhaka and then came back so having lived in Europe and Asia, I think coming back home to Melbourne was always like this is where I am from, this is my homeland so my experience has always been really wonderful as a South Asian-Indian Bengali Australian.

AU: What made you make this decision to participate in MasterChef Australia?

KC: I think the overriding decision was from my son, he was really into junior masterchef and really looked up to all the people who cooked on TV and he really nudged me and he was like mummy you should really try MasterChef, you love cooking, you do so many different things with food, you should really try out for this and he's actually the one who opened up the application and signed up for it.

AU: That's great! As you mentioned, you lived in three different continents, what made you choose this cuisine as your main style of cooking?

KC: Showcasing regional Indian food specifically for me its East Indian like Bengali food, it was as I got older so when I was younger and living in London, like my husband and I would catch a train to Paris and I was obsessed with French pastry, I think when I lived in Dhaka, at that time I really missed food from Australia so I would make, like there is a lot of things I learned to make, I learned to make sourdough bread from scratch with all of my sourdough starters, I learned to make pasta from scratch because I couldn't get really good handmade pasta so these were the things that I was missing and I always cook from my heart and gut I guess, just whatever I feel like eating I make and if I can't find it or buy it or find it in a restaurant I learn to make it.

As my children were getting older and I was back here living in Melbourne, I really felt that all those foods that my parents has passed down to me and everytime we used to visit India and Bangladesh and all those foods that my grandparents introduced to us, they are the things that I was going to miss out on and these are the things that my children would miss out on if I didn't hurl on those skills if I didn’t learn to preserve those dishes so it was really like I think at this age I really feel the importance of cooking food that has been passed down from generation to generation.

AU: The show has time restraint and a limited pantry and we all know about Indian food that it can be very time consuming and there's a technique so what was the situation there like? Were there any other challenges as well that you faced in the show?

KC: Yeah, first of all, being brought up in Australia we still have a pantry that is often we buy particular ingredients from our local Indian grocers. So when you go to the Masterchef pantry although it might be a similar product, it might not be the products that we are used to working with and so I’d say that was learning to adapt and finding different products that are part of your pantry staples in MasterChef, to be able to use in our heritage dishes.

And the second one of course is time, like you mentioned our dishes, they take a lot of time and they are low and slow, often we maritane things in a day in advance so it was replicating those dishes in the time limit that was given, how do I punch in a lot of flavour, how do I make this the best haryali or risala [types of kebabs and curries]?

When you are presenting these really iconic dishes on a platform like MasterChef Australia you do wanna make sure you’re doig the best and the judges see the best version of it so yeah, you just push yourself and learn to cook in the time limit with the ingredients that you have.

AU: Yes, can you please share your thoughts on the similarities and differences between Indian and Australian food cultures?

KC: I will start with the differences, I think the major difference between Australia and Indian food culture is probably the heritage of our cuisine. Australian cuisine as you can imagine its, years and years and generations of different migrants adding to that cuisine so if you look at the Australian native indegineous ingredients, the foods that were grown here for thousands of thousands of years, in Australia we don't actually use a lot of those ingredients whereas in a country like India or a continent like Asia we do use the ingredients that our from that country and we do have a focus on regionality, we have a focus on seasonality and locality. So those things are really prominent in India and outside they are not as prominent in Australia because of a lot of the cuisine as we count as the Australian national dishes can often be European dishes so I think that's one major difference I would say between Australia and Indian cuisine.

Similarity I would say is the dishes that, there are lot of dishes that are similar, I was in Bengaluru last month with the AIBX - Australia India Business Mission and I tried something called a ‘honey cake’ which seems to be the afternoon snack or lunch box cake that is quite popular and it's quite a heritage sort of cake from V. B. Bakery in Bengaluru and it tastes a lot like lamington, which is our classic Australian sponge cake with jam, coconut and chocolate, so I think there are a lot of baked goods we see that are similar - cookies and biscuits and things like that.

Also I would say when you have all of those very home-cooked dishes that are passed down through your country, and women’s baking cookbooks [in Australia], I find that very similar to what my grandmother would pass down to me.

AU: Talking about the AIBX - Australia India Business Exchange, how was your experience? How do you think AIBX will strengthen relations between India and Australia?

KC: Well, It was an extraordinary experience, it was beyond anything I have seen post MasterChef in terms of its scale and all the thought that's behind it, to have this business exchange first of all but in my realm it was to have culinary exchange. Within the kitchens of India we were bringing in premium Australian produce like western Australian lobster, truffle, finger lime caviar and scallops.

It was just not only premium Australian produce but also like Australian lamb but also native Australian ingredients and my role was to show chefs in various kitchen in India, in Delhi and Bengaluru, how best to use these products and how these products are used and it was amazing because not only these chefs were working with scallops and Australian lobster for the first time but I was also learning a lot about not only the Indian food heritage but also the modern side of food and food technology and what it is that's happening in India and how incredible the chefs are as well.

India has an extremely rooted food culture but also just the modern side of Indian cuisine and what the chefs do and how innovate they are, I think all of that provides a big exchange and then using food and recipes that are Indian but using premium produce from Australia really really merries up things up, I mean it's the best stuff because it's the most luxury fine dining sort of you can imagine because you already got great produce then you have got all these amazing heritage techniques.

AU: How do you think Australia has accepted the variety of Indian cuisine and how has Indian cuisine influenced Australia?

KC: In terms of Australia accepting Indian cuisine, Australians like everybody all over the world, like the British and anywhere you go, people love Indian food. One thing I would say, in my generations it's important for chefs like myself to voice more Indian food and the regionality and the nuances of Indian food.

Australia absolutely loves Indian food and culture and its a very easy crossover but having said that, I think my generation and chefs like myself feels that it's important to showcase what food from the south or the north and the east and the West looks like, how diverse Indian food is, that it's not just about butter chicken.

So I think there's a space for that to grow and that space is there and that space is exciting and Australia loves it and embraces it like in my experience always just wants more and wants to see more, learn more and eat more.

In terms of India, my experience in India was they absolutely love the Australian produce and some of the dishes, the quick and easy dishes that we made, I had a cooking, we did a couple of cooking demonstrations while I was in india with the AIBX as well, the recipes are so well received and Australian produce and Australian ingredients are so well received in India because they really lend themselves to our style of cooking but they are just fantastic premium produce so if you have the opportunity to use Australian cheeses or lamb or lobsters or anything of that sort, why wouldn't you cook your style of food with the most premium produce available to you in India. So I have had, it's been such an amazing exchange both ways.

AU: How do you think this will strengthen the cultural links between the two countries?

KC: I think breaking down the cultural understanding on something very very, like something like food, it's just another way of sharing knowledge, culture, sharing those friendships, it strengthens it by understanding what we eat, how we eat, those things you just get to know other culture better and more deeply and I think that is what strengthens ties, although you are on the other side of the world it feels more bonded because you are sharing food and understanding each other through the plates of food that you share together.

AU - You have already represented South Asian culture through your cooking and you also represented the movie Sheer Qorma at the Melbourne Indian Film Festival, so what was it like to represent India on this platform and what was the experience like?

KC: It was wonderful, any sort of cultural crossover that we have here especially here in Australia, what I will say is we such a growing community of Indians in Australia and especially in Melbourne, we have the largest South Asian community right now in Australia.

So in those spaces things like Indian film festival, whether it's the Indian fashion week of Australia which is an event that I went to last night which was shared across a lot of Indian platforms and as the Australian-Indian fashion festival or whether its the T-20 cricket something that I am a champion for this year, I think whether its for sports, movie, arts, fashion or food there are so many links between Australia and India and being a part of that community, being a part of that cultural exchange and the culinary exchange, it feels great to be in that space and it feels important to be in that space so that our next generation can also feel that they don't have to pick and choose between being Indian or Australian or whether how they see how foreign they are, it is normalizing those spaces and celebrating those spaces.

AU: How has your life been after Masterchef Australia? What's your vision for the future?

KC: My life has definitely changed since Masterchef Australia, I had a very private life and it's a little more public now but in terms of what my vision is for the future, I think I feel like its very much in what I am doing and what I have been called to do, to be in the spaces like this, like we were talking about earlier, being visible for the, I say, NRI [Non-Resident Indian] and next generations of South Asian Australians if not South Asian all around the world.

Where we are normalizing how we feel, I grew up, so I am 40 now, I was brought up in Australia, as you can imagine 40 years ago in Australia there wasn't very much representation, there wasn’t very much space or voices or books or people on media, who look like us or spoke like us so I think setting that precedent and showing young girls especially that there is this space to follow your dreams and do what you want to do and taking full ownership of our identities, taking full ownership of our dreams and what we wanna be and who we want to be.

I have a few exciting projects coming up next year which are again empowering young people coming in the kitchen but also supporting young women coming through kitchens.

AU: Do you have any message for the people who will be reading the interview?

KC: Yeah! To my audience I always say this, definitely get in the kitchen, cooking, not being a chef or doing anything fancy but cooking itself is a life skill and it's really important in 2022, almost 2023, actually, to get your sons and daughters into the kitchen at a very early age and own up those life skills.

Because to me I think its like you get dressed everyday, you eat at least three or four meals a day, I think cooking is something we should at a very early age teach our children, to be able to provide for themselves so my message is have a lot of fun, make a lot of mistake, enjoy yourself but at least once a week try and get in the kitchen, girls and boys especially and learn to do something fun!

AU: Well that was a lovely message. Thank you for doing this interview with us. It was great talking to you.

KC: It was really lovely, thank you Akasha.


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