Wednesday 15 May 2013

Things I Have Learned From Masterchef India

Thanks to the Lovely Paul's predilection for cooking shows, I have watched Masterchef UK (foams), Australia (cakes), South Africa (meat), New Zealand (things people have shot) and Ireland (cream on everything).  The one I was really looking forward to though, was Masterchef India, and when I discovered it on StarPlus (somewhere up in the 700s on Sky; purveyor of soap operas and talent shows), it did not disappoint.

It took a few episodes to absorb the differences between the Indian show and some of the others in the franchise.  In India, Masterchef is firmly a game show.  The celebrity guests aren't chefs, they're tv presenters and comedians.  The team challenges aren't focussed on scallop-fed fine diners, but snack-hungry passers-by.  The contestants are not let loose in Michelin-starred restaurant kitchens, but are taken to different parts of India to learn about local specialities.

This last is interesting, as, compared to other Mastercheffy countries, India has such a vast geographical, ethnic and cultural spread that it's hard to pinpoint a "national" cuisine.  So it makes sense that they choose the contestants via a series of regional public cook-offs.  Of course, this gives a slightly higher than average proportion of people who just want to be on the telly, but even the most persistent of squeaking, hopping drama queens on the show at present can at least cook.

The challenges are much more compelling than the ones on UK Masterchef, having been devised with a cackling insanity worthy of the Generation Game.  Challenge one: here is a sumptuous platter of fruits, vegetables and dairy for all the contestants to coo and marvel at.  Before they've finished plotting their spectacular dishes, the goodies are whipped away and replaced with the real ingredients for their invention test: the stems, rinds, whey and other leavings from what they thought they were getting.  They're cooking with a compost heap.  Now that's a challenge, sod the "ooh, whatever am I going to make with just a jar of larks' tongues, an ox and a fistful of razor clams" vapours that tend to overcome the UK contestants.

You'll notice, as well, that there was no meat or fish in that challenge.  It is genuinely not an issue.  The vegetarian is not a second class citizen in India, and it's the first cooking show I've seen, from anywhere in the world, that takes vegetarian cooking seriously.  One of the best cooks in the competition (a young man named Happy Singh who was eliminated shockingly early) had recently become vegetarian, and this was hardly remarked upon.  When he was required to cook chicken, a team-mate tasted it for him with the same casual air that the presenters assumed when helping the talented, popular and illiterate Kokhu with written recipes.  The participants seem to automatically adjust the competition to be fair.

Compare this with the New Zealand  Masterchef-before-last, when the unlovable presenters made some poor vegetarian bastard force down a sausage in front of them before they'd let him progress to the next round.  Surely a good chef should be able to make an excellent meal without using meat?  (and don't get me started on how the Aussies call meat and fish "protein", as if vegetarians somehow magically survive on just carbohydrates and fat.)  Anyway, even Ishrat - who went out first and always had sauce in her hair - is a better bet to make a good veggie dinner than most meat-obsessed Michelin starred chefs (with the exception of Angela Hartnett, whose vegetarian food I have enjoyed as she seems to regard it as a challenge rather than a nuisance).

It's endlessly fascinating to watch, but obviously a culture shift for the average Brit viewer.  As a non-Hindi speaker, I'm reliant on subtitles, and though they're generally excellent, now and again one finds oneself derailed by a "terrain of dedicated coconut".  Health and safety appears rather casual (here, have a feel of this dry ice), though I haven't noticed many fingers seemingly stuck back on with blue plasters, a look UK Masterchef contestants seem to favour. The Indian judges, to me, seem to enjoy playing god a little bit too much, but then most Masterchefs tend to try and convince viewers that they hold much more drama than any meringue-based situation actually deserves.

A big difference is the AMOUNT of food cooked.  In one challenge Doyel and Devyani each had to fill a metre-high sundae glass with some kind of multilayered falooda pudding.  What happened to it afterwards?  Was all that food simply wasted?  It wasn't the sort of thing that could easily be packaged up for the crew to take home for their kids, or given to homeless people.  It would be bad enough being homeless, you wouldn't want to be sticky as well.  In other Masterchefs, quantities are so tiny that the question is never raised.  Saira, highly placed in the UK version recently, defined fine dining as "food that there isn't enough of".  This caused John Torode to raise his eyebrows in what he imagined was a wry fashion, and me to applaud.  Is the difference because most of the Indian kitchen superstars have learned their craft cooking for family, so are used to making in bulk?  Or is Western dining over-dainty?  It's something that hasn't come up in any other Masterchef I've watched, so while I can't say huge quantities are peculiar to India, there must be something going on that I haven't understood.

Now approaching the end of the series, the producers, in one of their beloved "twists" have brought back contestants who were previously eliminated, so at this stage it is anyone's game (my favourite is Yasmin, who seems to know enough about food to be confidently experimental, but tends to just quietly get on with producing excellent dishes).  The "real-time" aspect of the show means that we genuinely can't guess the outcome, unlike the UK version, filmed months before it is shown, and also means that the programme can exist in the real world - it's Holi: create a celebration dish!, it's Chef Sanjeev's birthday: bake him a cake!

I will be sad to see the series end, as the gameshow format allows us to get to know the contestants (as does the Australian one, which makes them all live in a big house together, and once threw someone out for having a mobile phone).  However, once I'm not spending my time actually watching it, I'll be able to try out all the new recipes and techniques I've learned, with the aid of subtitles and search engines.  What does holy basil taste like?  How do I use jaggery?  This is going to be fun.

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