Deepa Chauhan’s Tryst With MasterChef Kitchen And Her Love For Sindhi Food
Beginning with Mortars and Pestles, a chemical-free brand of ready-to-cook pastes and spices, to the present, Deepa Chauhan made her way to MasterChef India season 7. Being a Sindhi at heart and from her roots, she enjoys experimenting with regional ingredients and elevating Indian cuisine. Find out more about Deepa by clicking here.
The name Deepa Chauhan is familiar to everyone today, right? Deepa is one of the MasteChef India contestants from season 7 and is a Sindhi-born home chef. Sindhi food is one of her dreams and she aspires to make it popular all over the world. Mortars and Pestles, her homegrown brand of ready-to-cook pastes and spices devoid of chemicals, was officially launched by Deepa in March 2018. The original menu consisted of Thai and Middle Eastern cuisine, but it has since expanded to include pasta sauces and rare seasonal Indian dishes. On MasterChef India 2023, she competed in the seventh season. We spoke with her to learn more about her life as a chef.
Tell us about your journey of becoming a chef.
It was the time when my mum and aunt were both ill and the family had to eat, that time I entered the kitchen for the first time at around age 11! After a while, I started to assist with Diwali homemade snacks like mathri and chakli as well as summer delicacies like kheecha, papad, chips, etc. By the time I was 15, I started to hold my own birthday parties and prepare foods like pizza, frankies, and spring rolls, which just started to become popular in the 1980s. Due to my travels and the needs of my children, by the time I was in my 40s, I was pretty knowledgeable about a range of cuisines. I also developed an intolerance to poor cuisine. Living by my palate’s memory, I wished to recreate delicious meals I had enjoyed while travelling if I couldn’t return and had to prepare better meals if I had a bad eating experience at any restaurant or hotel. As a result, I started producing all of my sauces, pastes, and spice blends from scratch. Soon enough, I was operating a little company out of my kitchen, selling products under the name Mortars and Pestles cooking traditions. Regarding my participation in the MasterChef auditions, I did it for fun to see if the judges would be interested in Sindhi cuisine. It did, and the rest is destiny, so to speak.
Is it your first career choice? If yes, why?
Although I had a strong passion for food, I never really considered a career in the field. In a strange twist of destiny, this career selected me in my mid-forties when I had an excess (6 Kg) of Thai curry paste resting in my refrigerator. To purchase ingredients for my yearly supply of Thai curry for the house, I went to my go-to seller in Mumbai. He was furious that I had forgotten about him and hadn’t made my normal visits to the market every three months as I was returning to see him after a two-year absence. He presented me with roughly 20 kg of winter vegetables and Thai ingredients but would not budge. I suppose he did this to express his affection and esteem. The extra Thai paste was given to a close friend and neighbour who was starting a home-based catering business to sell as a Saturday special but ended up including it on her menu because she enjoyed it so much. She later convinced me to create additional sauces and ingredients, which is how Mortars and Pestles came to be.
Initial reactions from family and close ones on learning about your decision of participating in MasterChef India.
They were extremely happy for me and were not surprised by my pick (though I was shocked for myself). Some questioned why it hadn’t happened sooner. When my daughter felt overburdened, my aunt and sister even jumped in to assist with running my home. I needed a village to have my back, just like it takes a village to raise a child, so I could concentrate on my MasterChef journey.
The most heartfelt thanks came in the form of a voice note from the family who, until recently, resided in our ancestral home at Shikarpur. When I mentioned Shikarpur in my audition, they were ecstatic, and they continued by saying, “You sent us down the memory lane. We are thrilled to tell everyone that you are our family.” They sent me duas to be joyful and advance Sindh and Sindhi cuisine. This was perhaps the first time during my MasterChef journey that I shed a tear.
What do you consider a milestone in your career?
Every stone represents a significant achievement. It paves the way for advancement. You can also use detours to pick which way not to follow. Nothing is wasted, and most importantly, the universe occasionally leads you to your destination without your knowledge.
Some high-points and low-points of your career?
Saying there were no highs or lows would be a lie. But I make the conscious decision to ignore both and simply keep going. When I cease moving, that will be the lowest point.
How was your journey at MasterChef India?
The entire experience at MasterChef India was memorable, from the Bangalore silent auditions to creating a meal that was both appetising and visually appealing on the day I was eliminated. In fact, none of the five of us wearing black aprons wanted any of the others to go since the energy in the kitchen that day was so unique. Each of us tried our hardest.
The week we spent becoming familiar with the workings of a set and the MasterChef kitchen with all 16 of us was the most enjoyable aspect leading up to the filming. The ice breakers and the leisurely trips to and from the sets while playing antakshari were really sweet moments. Because they paved the way for us to succeed, the days that were full of pressure were also unique.
Any anecdotes you would like to share?
Before giving me my name-wala apron, Chef Ranveer Brar said, “Aap yahan ke hai.” For a Sindhi to hear “Aap pata hai kahan ke hain”? Because you can’t give a clear response when asked “aap kahan ke ho,” “aap yahan ke hai” was especially moving.
When the contenders who were younger than me tried to address me as Aunty at first, my standard response was Aunty kisko bola? I demonstrated to them certain whatsapp and social media tips and methods that they were unaware of, proving to them that I’m not an aunt. It was hilarious to hear Deepa mam humne aaj tak yeh nahi dekha from kids who are at least 20 years younger than you. The joke was that I am the cool one while they are namaqools.
In the training days when these kids went hither tither and yakkety yak all over the place I would say ‘chop chop’ to get them back in line. When I folded the black apron and left the kitchen for the last time Priyanka called out to me and said Deepa mam ek baar Chop Chop bol do! I said chop chop namaqools tum log cool nahin ho at her behest. I still have a deep connect with her and we speak almost every day. She gave me the title knowledge ka gyaan as I could talk to them about food from almost anywhere.
How do you receive compliments as well as criticism from your judges?
Although receiving critical feedback at first hurts, the judges never allowed us to doubt our abilities. They constantly emphasised to us that they themselves had hard days in the kitchen and that we were only here due of our goodness. We were constantly being reminded by Chef Vikas Khanna that we are only as good as our most recent creation, thus we should always offer our best effort.
Of course, receiving compliments makes you feel happy that such renowned and skilled chefs enjoy your creations, which motivates you to work even harder. The secret is perseverance in both cases.
Who do you consider your role model, if any? And why?
Everyone knows Urmila Ashar, also known as Baa. Not only did she inspire me, but the other finalists as well with her never say die attitude and desire to keep growing and learning even at the age of 78. I aspire to be able to smile constantly like she does.
How do you handle the stress that has become a synonym to kitchen operations?
The secret is to take a deep breath and only bite till you can chew it. As chefs and women, we have a tendency to want to please others and want to go above and beyond for the people we care about or the things we want to accomplish. The best advice I can provide is to overperform and overdeliver rather than overpromise and underperform!
What drives you every day to work?
I like that I can contribute to someone else’s ease in the kitchen without sacrificing the flavour or standard of the food they eat. Nothing else than what your grandmother or someone else’s grandmother would put in her food is used in any of my products since I fully believe in clean labels and no nasty food.
What is it about Sindhi food that moves you the most?
Sindhi food has a profound spiritual impact on me and provides solace during stressful times. It brings back happy memories of times when you were carefree and someone else cooked delicious meals for you. It is subtle and delicate, often simple but flavorfully complex at the same time. The fact that it is not accessible outside Sindhi households or community hubs is what really aggravates me. People are more interested than ever in micro-cuisines and experiential dining, so I hope I can help change that.
What are your views about lost Indian recipes?
Due to a lack of documentation and a shift in belief systems, we are losing a highly developed culinary tradition. While people in our older generations never questioned the wisdom of their teachers and elders, people in their 30s and 40s tend to seek out data that supports their beliefs that a food is healthy. The incorrect assumptions that some of us had about our traditional foods and fats over a period of several decades led us further away from our traditional food systems and vernacular wisdom, which enabled us to make the poor decisions that the large businesses pushed us to make.
Due to the fact that many children were cooking or cooking with awareness for the first time during the epidemic, there were numerous dialogues about food. Many people who stayed at home and had limited access to processed or ready-to-eat meals learned to prefer real cuisine, which led to the unusual case of wanting things done exactly the way grandma did. We travelled so far west that we had to head east again. This was one of the pandemic’s better effects in my opinion since it gave us the opportunity to reflect on how things used to be done in the past.
Do you feel that Indian cuisine has got its right place on the stage of international cuisine?
Indian cuisine really shined by ranking fifth among the world’s most popular cuisines in recent research, which shows that we have begun to gain a lot of recognition. Chefs of Indian descent are taking a chance by offering regional or previously obscure foods on Western menus, and this seems to be garnering more attention than ever. The days when people knew about us were curry and naan are long gone. Indian food is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, even though its spices have been reaching the West for ages. We owe a debt of gratitude to the chefs and immigrants who made it possible by putting their reputations and even financial security at risk.
How has MasterChef India changed your life? Share the before and after.
Before MasterChef, I was really camera-shy (and I still am, for the most part), but I used food and food philosophy to interact with my social media following. The epidemic hooked me on a lot more fascinating debates about food, and MasterChef only added fuel to the fire. I used to post the occasional recipe and talk about my Sindhi heritage. During MasterChef, I became aware of how little people know about our food and how much they enjoy it when it is prepared and presented properly.
Chef Vikas Khanna remarked that I appeared to be on a mission during my Hyderabad audition, and that is exactly how it has developed since then. I received several texts, voice notes, and direct messages on all social media platforms immediately after my audition and winning the apron aired on television, and frankly, I was a little overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection. Even my relatives got WhatsApp messages and forwards about my audition saying that your daughter has made us proud by showcasing our cuisine and culture on a national stage. I continue to receive notes stating that we want to see an increasing amount of our cuisine. The older generations stated MasterChef gave me and my cuisine a reach like never before, and audiences younger than me said it made them feel nostalgic to eat like their mothers and grandmothers used to.
As a result of watching MasterChef, I no longer dread using any materials or skills that I previously avoided. The first thing we had to do in the kitchen was learn to like an ingredient we didn’t like. I would always steer clear of dried prawns, so that was a big jump for me. I was also given the opportunity to think creatively and was reminded of how much can be accomplished in an hour by this. The learnings, the conversations and the deeper connection with food and foodies continues beyond the show.
Please share two of your favorite recipes
Mogra/ Rabael / Motiya gul Sharbat
Mogra flowers – one large cup – unopened buds
Sugar 500 g (Sulphur free if possible)
Green Cardamom – 8 pieces, lightly smashed
Water – 1.5 cup
Salt – a pinch
Wash the flowers in drinking water and dry them on a kitchen towel. In a thick-bottomed stainless-steel vessel, boil the cardamom, salt, sugar and water to make a syrup of 1- string consistency. Add the flowers immediately, cover and keep them aside to cool for at least 8 hours or overnight. Strain and store in a glass bottle away from direct sunlight. It keeps well for a month outside the refrigerator.
Put 2-3 tablespoons of the syrup per glass and enjoy this fragrant summer cooler with a few drops of lemon juice.
Macchi Maani (made for top 16 audition)
For the Methi Fish
Boneless fish – 250 g (King fish or seer fish)
Onion – 100 g (finely chopped)
Tomato – 100 g (finely chopped)
Methi (fenugreek) leaves – 1 cup lightly packed – cleaned and washed. Finely chopped
Coriander leaves – ¾ cup lightly packed – cleaned and washed. Finely chopped
Garlic – 25 g – finely minced
Mustard oil – 100 mls
Turmeric – 1 teaspoon
Red Chilli powder – 2 teaspoons
Coriander powder – 1 tablespoon
Methi seeds – 1/2 teaspoon
Green Chilli – 1 medium spicy, deseeded, finely chopped and seeds reserved for finishing oil
Salt to taste
For Sindhi Maani – Roti
Whole wheat flour – 1 cup (100g)
Groundnut oil – 2 tablespoon
Water – for kneading, about ½ cup
Makes: two portions
Cut the fish into small 1 inch chunks, apply ¼ tsp salt, ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder and keep aside.
Knead the dough for the roti, saving some flour for dusting. Apply a few drops of groundnut oil on the surface to prevent drying and keep aside to rest.
In a wide, shallow frying pan, heat 35 mls mustard oil to smoking point. Add the fenugreek seeds and turn off the flame. Remove the seeds once browned and reserve them for the finishing oil.
In the same pan, fry the salt and turmeric coated fish till half done. Remove and set aside.
Now add the garlic followed by the green chilli and onions and gently brown them. Add a pinch of salt to prevent the garlic from sticking to the pan.
Once the onions are golden, add half the quantity of the turmeric and chilli powders and all the coriander powder; followed quickly by the finely chopped tomatoes. As the oils start to separate once the tomatoes are cooked, add the methi leaves, cook for 2-3 minutes followed by the coriander leaves. Add half a cup of water and spread the semi fried fish in the pan in a single layer, taking care that the gravy is at the same level as the top of the fish to prevent it from drying. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes or until done.
Divide the dough into 4 and roll the sindhi style roti. Roll each ball into a 5 inch disc, apply groundnut oil and fold into a triangle (half fold followed by quarter fold). Now roll this triangle into a thin roti approximately the shape and size of the baking dish. Cook the rotis as usual but only till 90% done as they will be baked for 6-8 minutes.
To assemble: On a baking sheet or cookie sheet, assemble the fish and roti in the square mould as follows: Put half the cooked fish along with the gravy in a single layer and cover with one roti trimmed to fit the shape of the bowl. Repeat the layering one more time and brush the top roti with the balance groundnut oil. Bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees (top grill only) for 6-8 minutes.
Cut the leftover trims of the roti into small bits and fry in a little oil till crisp. Reserve for garnish.
For the finishing oil: Heat the balance mustard oil in a tadka pan till it reaches smoking point. Pour this over the reserved crushed methi seeds, turmeric and chilli powders, green chilli seeds, a few methi leaves and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cover immediately and allow the flavors to infuse.
Plating: Let the baked macchi maani rest for 4-5 minutes before removing the mould. Slice it into two equal rectangles. Remove part of the corner from one of the pieces to make it look like it has been eaten / tasted. Place the two pieces in the platter slightly away from each other. Drizzle the finishing oil on the top crust as well as the platter. Garnish with slivers of tomato, onion and fresh methi and coriander.