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Exclusive: Meet Bengaluru’s Sumeet Saigal, Whose Pani Puri Took MasterChef Australia By Storm

Sumeet Saigal, a contestant on MasterChef Australia, was influenced by her Punjabi family's culinary legacy. Here's her journey from Bengaluru to Australia.

Exclusive: Meet Bengaluru’s Sumeet Saigal, Whose Pani Puri Took MasterChef Australia By Storm

“We should come up with the recipe for a diabetic biscuit…something diabetics can eat guilt-free,” S Jagjit Singh, a former freedom fighter and an intrinsic part of the independence movement since 1930, once told his granddaughter Sumeet Saigal over chai. The duo treasured these sessions where they spoke about everything under the sun, particularly food-forward ideas.

And this conversation was no different.

As Singh toyed with the brilliant idea of diabetic-friendly biscuits — a rarity at the time — his grandaughter was amazed. “Now you know where I get it from,” she smiles, referring to her passion for food.

The MasterChef Australia Season 16 contestant may have traversed the world, but all roads have always led back home to Bengaluru, where she grew up in a household that witnessed a confluence of culture as the family’s Punjabi descent and love for rajma chawal (red kidney beans in a thick gravy served with rice) blended with their occasional preference for dosa (a crepe made with fermented batter) and chutney (a savoury condiment).

It is this powerhouse of flavour that Saigal has been bringing to the MasterChef table since the start of the season. And her culinary prowess has been winning both palettes and hearts.

She settles down for a tête-à-tête with The Better India where she shares the reciprocal relationship that she’s always shared with food, traces her steps back to the biggest influences in her life, and elaborates on how the dots connected to lead her to the world’s most coveted kitchen.

She shares, “I’d say my paternal grandfather impacted my love for food in a big way. His ideas were almost like mind-benders for me. They caused me to think beyond the obvious.” An anecdote that sums up her darji’s out-of-the-box thinking is when on a shopping spree he picked up a bottle of ketchup, took a good look at the ingredients and said, ‘Oh, we can make this at home!’.

True to his word, he spent the next many hours in the kitchen, experimenting to get the flavours right. And the result was pretty good, Saigal affirms. When he wasn’t prodding her to think beyond the confines of the ordinary, he was researching recipes from across the globe. And as grandfather and granddaughter sat down to dissect these, fascination flooded their faces.

“I just was amazed at his thirst for knowledge and his hunger made me hungry to learn more,” she reminisces.

Astounding cooking skills run in the family DNA; Saigal’s stories reveal.

The chain of restaurants in India helmed by her extended family are a testament to this — The Great Punjab restaurant, Hotel Diplomat (adjacent to the iconic Taj Palace Hotel), Jashan restaurant in Mumbai, and Sher-e-Punjab in Pune. Through these ventures, the family has been delighting generations with their food and flavours.

And Saigal’s brilliant performance in the MasterChef kitchen is an extension of this. But the journey from Bengaluru to Australia wasn’t without its detours.

Keepers of tradition

Every ardent fan of the cooking show MasterChef Australia watched with bated breath as celebrity British chef Jamie Oliver sampled Saigal’s pani puri (deep-fried breaded hollow spherical shells filled with a combination of finely diced potato, onion, peas and chickpea and spiced with tamarind chutney). As the burst of flavour tantalised his taste buds, his reaction gave the internet a field day — “You’re from Bangalore? That dish was bangs galore too.”

Letting us in on the behind-the-scenes, Saigal shares, “It was an incredible moment. He [Jamie Oliver] is such a humble man and for him to taste that pani puri of mine — something that we here in India take for granted — and enjoy it, was amazing. At the onset of the challenge, I remember being sceptical about whether I should make pani puri or not, but then I figured that one cannot speak of street food in India without mentioning the pani puri, and I decided to go for it.”

And having Jamie Oliver love it was all the validation she needed!

Sumeet's pani puri won hearts and palettes in the MasterChef kitchen
Sumeet’s pani puri won hearts and palettes in the MasterChef kitchen

Saigal sees these moments as a nod to her efforts to bring Indian food to a global stage. She enjoys feeding others, a habit she borrowed from watching her parents entertain guests and host parties in their Bengaluru home. Her memories of food are anecdotal, as she shares, “It was fascinating to watch a detailed menu coming to life and watching everyone, not just my mother, but also my father be an integral part of the process.”

Add to these experiences the fact that food was central to their lives, gratis her Punjabi genes.

“We’d wake up in the morning, and while having our chai and paratha (an Indian flatbread), we’d already be planning our lunch menu. During lunch, we’d plan for evening snacks and while having chai we’d discuss dinner,” she smiles.

But on Sundays, the menu was non-negotiable. The spot on the table was reserved for mutton biryani (a dish comprising meat cooked in spices, herbs and yoghurt, served with rice). And as the family gathered to feast, bonds were formed, laughs were shared, jokes were cracked, and memories were etched onto a young Saigal’s mind.

Her professional years saw her pursue a degree in hotel management in Karnataka, followed by an MBA in tourism management in Australia. Corporate life took a front seat for years, but as she maintains, “I never took my finger out of the food pie.”

Harnessing a forte for spice

Everyone in the MasterChef kitchen is familiar with Saigal’s reverence for spices. She insists these aren’t just flavouring condiments but instead powerful symbols of Indian gastronomy; the ingredients that render Indian food its distinct taste. “Spices are our superpower, something we don’t need to double guess. Like the colours of the rainbow, each spice is beautiful in its own right. I see them like music notes. You can adjust the levels but still end up with a beautiful rendition,” she shares.

An apt example of this metaphor is the masala dabba (spice box) in Indian homes.

“We each have the same dabba but a curry in my house won’t resemble the one in yours. That’s what is amazing,” she adds.

And to further pay homage to Indian spices, Saigal shares a dream she has long since harboured — ‘Sauce Boss’, a platform that will make sauces easily available and accessible for people in Australia.

Sharing the experiences that influenced this dream, she says, “On my trips to India, I see a huge variety. A curry in North India is different from one in South India; a curry in Kolkata is different from one you’ll find on the western coast. While we recognise the depth of flavour, popular opinion is that a curry is complex with over 50 ingredients. Through Sauce Boss, I want to bring out the versatility of Indian food, where one sauce can be used to make a range of dishes.”

But right now, it is MasterChef Australia’s Season 16 keeping her busy. As she stands proud in her white apron emblazoned with her name, Saigal sees it as a realisation of a long-time dream. “I recall watching MasterChef Australia for the first time with my twins years ago. We’d watch excitedly as contestants planned their dishes and came up with amazing stuff. My kids would go ‘Okay mom, now you’ve got a challenge. You’ve got to make something using what’s there in the fridge!’”

“That’s how it started.”

Every dish Saigal prepares has a sensory richness to it — sight, smell and taste compete to thrill the judges. “Even when I would watch the show with my twins, I always found it to be so wholesome; a great bonding experience; something to come home to. I would watch in awe as the judges gave feedback, as home cooks dished out incredible things, and pushed the boundaries of their skills,” she says.

The show has watched Saigal grow from strength to strength and she credits its challenges for boosting her creativity and quick thinking. “The expressions of surprise you see are all real,” she notes.

Today, gratitude colours her emotional palette as she looks back on her journey. But it is intriguing how it all transpired.

She reveals, “One day while watching the show years ago, I looked at the screen and said ‘That [the MasterChef kitchen] is where I want to be.’”

Make up your mind and the entire universe will conspire to make it happen. Saigal’s story is a testament to this.

Edited by Pranita Bhat

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