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'I am so lucky to be calling myself an Indian'

By ANITA AIKARA
Last updated on: July 22, 2021 07:20 IST
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'I'd have never imagined to go to MasterChef had it not been for my rich heritage.'

IMAGE: Depinder Chhibber hopes to write a recipe book showcasing Indian cuisine.
Photographs: Kind courtesy MasterChef Australia

Depinder Chhibber made people across the world fall in love with her cooking on MasterChef Australia Season 13.

She impressed the judges and the audience with her stunning take on Indian food. Her culinary skills and creativity has turned her into a celebrity.

It's impossible to forget the delicious-looking plate of tandoori chicken, grilled naan and smoked lassi she made during the cooking over fire challenge that won her the immunity.

Her Indian-style Bento Box with chickpea curry, Kadhai Paneer, cauliflower stuffed paratha, fried okra chips and stir-fried rice with her grandma's pickle made the judges drool because the food was 'just so good'.  

Her signature dishes were Prawn Moilee served with a fragrant coriander rice, Fish Amritsari, and the Green Curry Cake with coconut ice cream and white chocolate chilly ganache.

Shining the spotlight on Indian cuisine, the 29 year old left everyone teary-eyed when she got eliminated after making it to the Top 10.

In an interview with Anita Aikara/Rediff.com, Depinder talks about India's rich food heritage, how MasterChef changed her style of cooking, her most memorable dish on the competition and the Indian cities she'd visit on a food trip.

From cooking meals for your family at home to cooking for international chefs in the MasterChef kitchen, how has the journey been?

Cooking at home is less stressful, less demanding and there's less time pressure

In terms of the stress, it is very easy to cook at home.

In the MasterChef kitchen there are added elements like pressure tests, unknown ingredients and the uncertainty of whether the judges are going to like your food or not.

The journey as a whole has been an absolute adventure for me.

I didn't expect any of this when I applied for MasterChef.

What do you miss the most about the MasterChef kitchen?

There is a sense of energy; an adrenaline rush that contestants get when challenges are thrown their way.

I think the energy and vibe the kitchen brings with it is something that I'll always miss.

Also the fact that you don't have to clean up your dishes after the cook.

The one thing that I will miss -- all the contestants will agree with me as well -- is the beautiful pantry.

It is one of the nicest things I have ever seen in terms of the way it is set up.

It's so versatile. It has got every ingredient, you have to name it, and it's there.

It was a privilege to work with that kind of produce available.

At the time we were cooking in our challenges, no one ever realised that we were going to miss it.

The judges would always tell us, 'Make the most of the pantry, you'll miss it.'

Now in hindsight one feels that we took it for granted back then, but miss it later on.

What do you miss the least?

I think it has to be the stress and uncertainty. Most of the stress is self-built.

After I would finish my cook, I'd think about everything that could go potentially wrong with the dish that I had just made.

Obviously, there was nothing much I could do about it at that time.

I'd just have to wait for the judges to taste it and give their feedback.

But there was an element of uncertainty that was always lingering on my mind.

What's the sweetest thing a fan/follower has shared with you post your elimination?

There have been so many messages.

With all the little time I have left in my day, I try and spend at least a couple of hours daily to go through their messages.

I still haven't gone through all of their messages. But I'm trying to respond to every single message.

Someone sent me a message of their 10-year-old daughter who had drawn a picture of me with my MasterChef apron.

It was so nice and actually looked like me. I think that was very flattering.

Kids are very true with their love and support. If they like you, they're in love with you.

I also received a message from a girl who said she along with her grandmother and mom watched me cook on MasterChef.

IMAGE: MasterChef was the beginning of Depinder's food dream.

How have Indians in Australia reacted to your MasterChef journey?

They have been very excited; way more excited than I have been.

When I step out or go to an Indian shop, people will stop me to tell me how much they loved my cooking on the show.

They were so proud that someone was representing the food they make at home.

One person told me that it was really nice to see me in the MasterChef kitchen because I'm so familiar.

I live in Australia and grew up here, so I'm like every other Indian that lives here.

It is that sense of familiarity that makes them really happy.

My family and friends in Australia would be glued to the television as soon as the show would start.

Some of them called me a couple of days ago to tell me that they don't know what to do now as the show is over.

They were feeling that empty space in the evening, around the time the show was telecast.

I feel the same as I don't know what to do with my evenings now. I seem to have so much time all of a sudden.

You worked with bold Indian flavours in the MasterChef kitchen and your cooking style incorporated the best of North and South India.
Do you have a personal favourite when it comes to Indian food?

For me to pick a favourite cuisine would be like picking a favourite child.

My personal favourite would be home-cooked Gujarati food.

If someone could give me a Gujarat or Rajasthani thali, I'd dig into it right now.

I grew up eating Gujarati food made at home because my mother is from Vadodara.

My grandparents live there and we used to visit them every year.

That's the kind of food that I make at home sometimes.

Other than that, I love South Indian food, which is very obvious from the dishes that I have made on the show.

I really enjoy the flavours one will find in South Indian food.

There's so much more to it than just a handful of dishes like idli, dosa and sambar.

I am also biased to North Indian street food, the kind you'll find in Delhi.

There's Indo-Chinese food as well which I absolutely love.

My husband and I travelled to Kerala a couple of years ago and we really enjoyed the food there.

We stayed on a house-boat and had authentic Malayalee food.

There is so much to South Indian food that it is a cuisine by itself and deserves a name instead of being just classified as Indian food.

IMAGE: A plate of Fish Amritsari by Depinder.

When you end up cooking for yourself, what does your meal look like?

I always have to do a non-vegetarian dish for my husband because he is a meat eater, and a vegetarian dish because I love eating it.

So a wholesome meal would be like something I made the other day. There was Gujarati khadi, khichdi, and parwal and potato sabzi.

I always try and recreate the concept of a thali similar to what I did in the Bento Box Challenge.

Now that you're back home did you take charge of the tandoor from your husband?

I haven't taken charge because that's the one thing he does, and I don't want to take it away from him.

Nowadays my husband as well as my father-in-law ask me questions in terms of what temperature something needs to be cooked at.

I tell them to cook it how they have been cooking for all these years.

They have seen me in the MasterChef kitchen cooking meat to a particular temperature; it is all controlled and technical.

But sometimes, your intuition as a cook coupled with your experience in the kitchen is more important, especially with South Asian and Indian cooking.

Do you have a personal kitchen secret? Or a cooking hack that you'd love to share?

I do a raita all the time and the one thing I do on top of it is a little tadka.

In that temper I use curry leaves, mustard seeds and red chillies.

It literally just jazzes it up and adds an extra dimension to the raita.

You can make any kind of raita with the tadka. It could be beetroot, cucumber or even just plain yogurt with some salt and sugar.

The temper will also make the raita look fancier.

Is there a dish that you really wanted to cook in the MasterChef kitchen but did not get the opportunity to?

There are actually quite a few dishes that I'd have liked to cook.

There was a massive range of Indo-Chinese food that I wanted to showcase.

I make really nice Manchurian and Chilly Chicken. Even something simple like Fried Rice.

I never touched too much on Indian street food either.

I would have loved to make the lamb samosas I make at home -- maybe like a samosa chaat using lamb.

How did being on MasterChef Australia change your style of cooking?

I think it just made me more open-minded to different ingredients, especially the ones we don't commonly see in our kitchens at home.

If you are growing up in an Indian household there would be several ingredients that you'd never see.

Unless you go out of your way to research or are eating those kind of things.

In MasterChef there were a whole range of ingredients I never cooked with, for example horse radish.

The cooking experience in the MasterChef kitchen made me realise that I need to rely on my own palate and intuition as a cook.

I have cooked for long enough to be able to believe in myself, still ended up doubting myself.

Throughout the challenges I'd doubt myself a lot. I was always unsure and nervous.

That's because I was making food that I make at home and I never tried to change the food to suit the judges.

If I cooked with a certain level of spice at home, I would continue to cook for them with the same spice level.

Being in the MasterChef kitchen, I learnt to believe in myself and being intuitive as a cook.

If you think something is not right, you need to trust yourself and take a call.

What is your major takeaway from the show?

It is being intuitive, trusting myself and making quick decisions.

On the show we were always under time pressure. 

When a challenge is given, you have less than five minutes to take a call.

You cannot spend time thinking, 'I can make this, but I can also make that.'

You have to pick one recipe and stick to your decision.

It is a little bit of tunnel vision as well, but I think it kind of benefits you.

IMAGE: Depinder wearing the black apron in the MasterChef kitchen during a pressure test.

Your toughest cook during the competition?

It has to be the pressure test that I did.

It was a four-hour challenge and was really difficult, not just because of the time, but also the flavours I was working with.

I had to cook with Vietnamese flavours and they were completely unfamiliar to me.

I love eating Vietnamese food, but I don't cook it that much.

There were so many ingredients that you'd find only in a Vietnamese supermarket.

That was the toughest cook. Also for me, it was about overcoming the pressure of being in a pressure test.

It was hard and I just have to give it my best.

Your most memorable cook?

It would be the fire challenge when I made tandoori chicken.

It was memorable not because I won immunity that day, but the environment and the fact that we were doing a night shoot.

It was really fun and we literally shot for that episode overnight -- it started at 10 pm and finished in the early hours of the morning.

Unlike the regular episodes, we were cooking in the garden, which was lit up beautifully.

It felt as though we were cooking at a wedding or a function.

What according to you are the most important things to be a good cook?

One needs to believe in their food, the flavours and the skill that you have. 

In a competitive situation when there are other people cooking, one needs to understand that everyone has a different style of cooking.

You cannot compare your strengths to theirs. It is very different.

My style of cooking is authentic Indian and I try my hand at desserts as well.

There could be someone else like Pete (MasterChef contestant and finalist) who does extremely modern Australian and French cuisine.

Both these cuisines are very high-level and have their own place, but it is hard to compare.

That's why it is important to believe in your cooking without getting carried away with what other people are doing.

What's your take on India's culinary heritage?

I am so lucky to be calling myself an Indian. I'd have never imagined to go on MasterChef had it not been for my heritage. It is so diverse.

Every time I go to India I make sure that I learn something new when it comes to cooking.

I want to learn more. I don't think my entire lifetime is going to be enough to learn every single thing about Indian cuisine. 

Indian cuisine is so blessed and powerful in its own way. It is so regionally enriched as well.

Every region has a really strong heritage. You go to Rajasthan and you'll find Mughlai food there.

The food that comes out of every palace in every Indian state is so different.

I was always interested in cooking but in the last few years I try and cook things that I have not heard about.

Like ghewar for example, I have seen people make it on TV, but I have never tasted it in India.

I wanted to challenge myself and attempted it in the MasterChef kitchen.

But the fun part is I don't know what the dish actually tastes like.

So now I want to go back to India and actually taste it. It will help me find out if I'm on the right track or am completely off.

Which would be your favourite cities in India to visit on a food trip?

Definitely it has to be Delhi. I have experienced food in Delhi because I was living there.

I'd love to go to Mumbai because its street food at Juhu Chowpatty is completely different to the stuff you find in Delhi.

I also really like Maharashtrian and Gujarati food.

The other place that I'd love to visit is Amritsar. There is so much there.

I make it a point to visit Amritsar, especially the Golden Temple, every time I go to India -- it is a family tradition.

The last time when I went to India with my husband and we had an itinerary of what we were going to eat in Amritsar.

IMAGE: The Sydney-based pharmacist grew up watching her grandmother, mom and a bunch of aunties cook.

How do you plan to continue on your culinary journey?

I am definitely working on a cookbook through which I'd love to showcase regional Indian cuisine, but in a simplified version.

It will be for people living outside India who feel quite intimidated by cooking traditional Indian food.

In their mind Indian food takes hours to cook. They feel it is tedious.

Our mothers and grandmothers have been cooking this kind of food all these years.

But for some reason because of our lifestyle, it is hard to come home and cook an authentic meal every night.

What is Depinder most passionate about in life apart from cooking?

My dogs. They hold a big part of my heart all the time.

I'd find my life incomplete without my pets.

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