“A sad case of MasterChef Australia”, this perhaps has been the most apt description for one of India’s most expensive cooking reality shows that has entered its sixth year on Indian television (if you include MasterChef Junior that is). Compared to its Australian original, the Indian version does appear to be often scripted, low on real cooking and melodramatic. So much so that often episodes are sold on reaction than recreations.
But if that was the sole case, shouldn’t the show that gave the likes of Ripu Daman Handa his TV career; gave Neha Deepak Shah a chance to open her own theme restaurant and work with India’s best culinary export, chef Gaggan Anand as the R&D head; and made stars chefs like Kunal Kapoor and more recently, Ranveer Brar, have gone off air by the second season or perhaps the third (which is considered to be the more successful series of the lot)?
Clearly that hasn’t happened. Which makes one wonder, how exactly has the series that a majority – by which I mean the rising foodie community primarily – loves to hate (and yet watches with bated breath and participates too), has ably reached its fifth “brilliant” season with a primetime weekend slot?
An obvious answer to this could be: it’s a reality show and like all other reality shows, this one too sells on emotion, relatability and high octane drama. We watch Big Boss with glee, c’mon, and this is a notch above. That perhaps can explain the various FMCG associations. But without the right deliverables (read: high TRP and clever product placement) there is little likelihood that sponsors will last – lest standby. Interestingly that hasn’t happened either.
So what is it that has worked for the shelf life of the show? Aside the aspirations that attracts home-makers–and recently chefs too –to try their luck in the high pressure competition, a possible argument can also be made on behalf of the series regarding how it transformed cooking good food into an art again. No more was cooking just a hobby but passion, much like the good old times (and after) when a royalty’s high status came not only from the size of the kingdom (and later gun salutes) but also the culinary repertoire, which included the prized khansamas as well. In fact, history is rich with anecdotes, post 1857, when cuisine and chefs were the only privies that allowed nawabs and maharajas to showcase their supremacy. So Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh, traded a good size of his harem to be allowed to take a majority of 2000 khansamas with him in his exile – which led to the creation of the famous Kolkata Biryani.
In fact, it was the magic of good food that led to the first Khansama Chunoti (technically the first MasterChef competition) held between the states of Rampur, Lucknow, and Hyderabad with their respective Nawabs playing the judge and the main sponsors. Much like the series today, khansamas chosen by their rulers took part in the gastronomy fest that lasted almost a month, when finally the last league would fight to create the dish of the century in front of an august audience. A few examples are the parinda pe parinda, gular ke kebab, Sailana’s puri that when pricked would have a life sparrow fly out, laung ka shorba, Amla Ka Salan, Hari Mirch ka Gosht, Aash and the famous Rampuri creation of Dal Khichdi, which had almonds and pistachios carved to resemble kernels of rice and lentils. In fact, the winning khansama’s prize back then included not only an exorbitant pay pack, but a chance to travel different kingdoms in style, training other chefs while enhancing one’s own skills. Much like today, just cooking wasn’t what was expected from these winners.
The competition was reason that Indian khansamas were such sought-after gems. They could not only cook Indian food, but replicate and improve cuisines from France, Italy, England and others with extraordinary finesse. The Maharaja Of Patiala, who was among the first to install a patisserie in his kitchen, in fact had an Indian cook work all the innovation on French baking. Likewise, was the case with the Maharani of Cooch Behar, who though, had a specialist for each cuisine, always relied on a winner of the khansama chunauti to do the real treats for a special occasion.
This is exactly what the present day MasterChef India has tried to replicate since its inception, albeit with much flaws than success.
So where does it fail?
Perhaps in leveraging the aces of Indian cuisine, which is a herculean task given the extensive, outrageously complex food culture we have. Each state has a culinary legacy that has sub-cuisines based on each region, adding to that is popular cuisine that was developed by a string of kings and nawabs, and then the cuisine of the tribes. What’s more bewildering is the fact that cooking styles and taste change every 50 miles. Thus, it makes it rather impossible for the lean MasterChef Food team to have a grasp or even do justice to it all.
Another bummer is of course the camera. Most Indian dishes, though exemplary examples of technique, taste, and thought, look less appetizing in front of the camera. Take the case of lavang shorba or aash. It takes seven temperings of the same key ingredient but in front of the camera, looks like broth in a cup.
Yet, commendably, the past series have done a good job at not only presenting (the ghevar cake for instance) Indian food interestingly, but also put some of the lesser known ingredients (akhuni, fermented soyabean from North East) and cooking styles (bamboo roasting) back onto the popular table. And in the process, egged many a chef to up their game too to be on par with some of the brilliant cooks who competed in various seasons opening a new wave of thought. In some measures, MasterChef India can be credited for changing not only how India cooks but dines too. The sheer number of restaurants resorting to molecular gastronomy (whether they do it well or not is stuff for another article) today stand testimony to the new trend. Clearly there is a void that MasterChef India, in spite its various falls and dramas, did fill.
The need of course now for MasterChef India, which has established itself as the ultimate platform to be in for anyone who cooks and has a dream to join the chef bandwagon on sheer passion of cooking, is to chart its own course: perhaps a new game strategy that brings back the sheer wonderment for which Indian cuisine and Indian MasterChefs were once known for is a good place to start.
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
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