As the only contestant to ever have scored the hallowed immunity pin twice on MasterChef Australia, Sashi Cheliah is definitely sleeping better these days. Sashi laughs and responds, “You bet I do. Few people on this show have had the privilege of doing something unique. I’m so happy and equally proud of myself.”
He’s a man of few words. But his unassuming nature doesn’t get in the way of his excitement at having come a long way since Day 1. “I never thought I’d get this far. Before this show, I wondered ‘how can my dishes or my style of cooking possibly get me into a show of this calibre? I’m just a home cook’ but now I know: if you hit the flavour profile, you’re here to stay. It doesn’t have to be a complex dish, but when the judges take a spoonful, they have to say ‘Wow!’”
For Adelaide-based and Singapore-based Sashi, though, MasterChef Australia was a happy accident, in his own words. “When I came to Adelaide, I really missed food from back home. So whenever my wife and kids felt like having authentic Singaporean or Indian food, I’d end up cooking it myself. I’d talk to mum or my aunts and get recipes from them or check out YouTube videos,” Sashi tells Indian Link.
Word spread and friends and family urged him to try out for the cooking competition. “They started telling me that I should open up my own restaurant,” he says, laughing. “And for some reason, last year I kept seeing MasterChef ads popping up on my FB feed. I think that was a sign – plus I was looking to start my own business. So I figured ‘Why not food business?’ I thought if there was some way I could get into the contest, it would be a great stepping stone for me. But honestly, I couldn’t believe I got the apron on the first day of auditions! It was a huge confidence boost.”
Sashi moved to Adelaide in 2012. The eldest of seven children, he is a third-generation Singaporean whose grandparents came from Madurai and settled there. Sashi grew up to be in the Star Unit of the Singapore Police Force for nearly a decade, and was trained in special tactics and rescue operations. He worked in counter terrorism, kidnappings and high-profile protection in the riot police. Now in Adelaide, he works at a women’s prison.
Sashi’s earliest memories of food are that of his mum working in their café. “We were introduced to cooking at a really young age because of mum who used to run a café. But it never really interested us then. We saw the toll it took on mum, the working hours were just merciless.”
At the time, Sashi believed that “cooking just wasn’t his cup of soup”. And so, he says, he decided to get into the police force.
“But food was never far away,” Sashi recounts. “We were a joint family – my aunties, uncles and cousins living together. So a lot of my cooking is influenced by them, especially Indian cuisine.”
Thanks to Sashi and other Indian contestants on the show – Loki Madireddi, Nidhi Mahajan, Rishi Desai, etc. – Indian dishes are hitting the spotlight in a big way. “I think Indian cuisine is undergoing a huge makeover, especially over the last couple of years. People are really beginning to experiment freely with Indian fusion – where the flavours are predominantly Indian but are done up with a western touch,” Sashi agrees.
His Lychee Duck, which he cooked during a team challenge, is one such example. “I’m really proud of that dish. It was a fusion of Indian and Thai flavours and typically, you wouldn’t use lychee in an Indian curry preparation, although it’s a fairly common fruit in Thai cuisine. But I decided to take the risk and it paid off big time. The judges really loved it!”
He adds, “Fans of the show in India love it when Indian contestants like us come on the show and try to recreate Indian dishes with different techniques and new ingredients. It’s so encouraging – and that’s what cooking is all about, trying something new every day,” Sashi says.
Although he loves south-east Asian food, Indian food occupies a special place in Sashi’s heart. “I grew up eating food from a lot of different cultures. But my absolute favourite has got to be biryani, I can have it any time of the day. I also love south Indian vegetarian thali, dosa, idli. I prepare my own batter. I love upma too. And oh, Indian desserts – halwa, kesari! There’s nothing else in the world like Indian sweets. It’s such a diverse cuisine and there’s so much depth of flavour. You can spend years eating and you still wouldn’t be able to taste every single Indian dish.”
He has used one of his pins in a recent pressure test, but Sashi is still cooking up a storm in the kitchen. He has now made it to Top 10, and is the ‘curry sauce man’ thanks to the different varieties of sauces he has come up during the competition, his food all the while reflecting his roots. Here’s hoping this foodie enthusiasm carries Sashi even further in the competition – with him in the top 10 and the trophy so close, we’ve got our fingers crossed.
Rapid fire with Sashi
Sweet or savoury: Savoury
Immunity pin or a chance to cook for Nigella: Immunity pin
Tea or coffee: Coffee
Favourite comfort food: Sambar and rice
A recipe you are a master of: Chicken curry
One dish you’ve never tried but want to: Iruttu Kadai Halwa
Dish you’re terrified of cooking: Any Heston Blumenthal dish
Mum’s recipe you love: Ayam Mesak Merah (red cooked chicken)