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Not much about cooking apparently… RITAM MITRA on MKR’s Spice Girls
“Our parents are like, ‘Oh, look at that girl, she’s doing medicine.’ We’re like, ‘Why don’t you adopt her?’ Does she look as good as me? No!”
This comment was a small prelude to what Australia could expect from Jessie Khan and Biswa Kamila, the NSW duo who teamed up recently in Channel 7’s reality show My Kitchen Rules (MKR). They ended up going on a ride that has definitely changed their lives forever. On the show, a pair of contestants from each state try to transform an ordinary home into an instant restaurant, complete with theme and table decorations – but they only get one night to impress the judges.
Jessie, a 25-year-old whose family hails from Bangladesh, and Biswa, a 23-year old Indian-Australian, labelled themselves the ‘Spice Girls’, and formed a huge part of Channel 7’s initial marketing campaign for the show. The high school friends were an immediate success for the network – but for perhaps all the wrong reasons.
From their very first words on the show, it was clear that confidence was no barrier for this pair. “We are the true spice girls. Our food is fantabulous – the other states better watch out!” they claimed. Yet it would not be their turn to host a dinner for another three episodes – and so Jessie and Biswa began their long, painful journey towards infamy and social media suicide through an avenue that was both cringe-worthy, yet compelling: their relentless, unfettered criticism of almost each and every dish served to them by their mostly gracious counterparts.
From the first dish of the series, Jessie was ruthless. “The entrée is presented to me and my heart sinks. All the vegetables in that entrée, I dislike very much. I don’t eat eggplants. And especially capsicum. I don’t eat tomatoes at all. I hate tomatoes. Capsicum.”
After refusing to eat more than a mouthful each of any of the dishes served up to them in the first episode, the second barb of Jessie and Biswa’s two-pronged assault on Australian television sets was shot – their incessant arrogance that aimed to belittle their opponents, but in the end only inflated their air of brazen self-importance. As the first dinner wrapped up, co-judge Pete Evans asked the contestants whether any of them were willing to put their hands up and say they have what it takes to be at the top of the group.
As the other pairs looked around the table modestly, avoiding the obviously loaded question like any socially capable individuals would do, Jessie and Biswa glanced at each other and started giggling. “We don’t mean to brag, but… I don’t see any reason as to why we won’t (get full marks from the judges)…the other teams are underestimating us, but they just haven’t seen what we can do,” they said.
If arrogance and unwarranted criticism weren’t bad enough, a lack of common courtesy certainly pushed viewers over the edge. As the group sat down marvelling at the decorations put up by the father-and-son team, Mick and Matt from Tasmania, Biswa piped up, “It’s going to be so exciting for us and for you guys as well. No one’s going to be yawning at our dinner party!”
Through all their snide commentary, including specifically praying for other contestants to fail and taking no pleasure in eating good food (when it wasn’t made up of some of the countless ingredients they didn’t eat, but were happy to serve to others), the pair did themselves a huge disservice – the pressure was all on them by the time it came around to their turn to host the group.
And Biswa’s opening line? “No more boring dinners!” – an insult to six of their previous dinner hosts, a comment which even Jessie appeared shocked by.
Their menu featured an entrée of pani puri and lamb samosas with yogurt lassi, followed by a goat sindhi biryani for the main course, and for dessert, gulab jamun. It was a menu suited to Indian palates – not Australian ones. And even if they intended showcasing Indian food to an obviously Aussie audience, items of familiarity would perhaps have been more appealing.
Pani puri is a largely unheard-of dish outside of India, and hardly belongs in a classy Indian restaurant, given they are enjoyed by the roadside back home. A chicken tikka or chaat would have allowed them to showcase far more traditional flavours and spices, and would have saved the pair from attempting to make three separate dishes for the entrée – which crashed and burned when it was delivered two hours late to starving guests.
The goat biryani was an ambitious choice for a meal that had to be prepared within a stipulated time, and although the meat tasted good, judge Peter Evans commented that the rice was “very, very bland.” Given the plethora of rice dishes from the subcontinent, the girls’ choice could have ranged from an aromatic vegetable pulao, a simple but delicious jeera rice, accompanied by the famed rogan josh, a favourite of Aussies here, or a classical yet tempting butter chicken dish.
As dessert, of all the countless sweets Indians enjoy, the intense sweetness of a gulab jamun is often too much even for those who are used to the dish. For predominantly Australian dinner guests, it was a thoughtless selection. To serve it with sweetened yogurt, which was curdled, sour and warm, was simply silly. A mango kulfi or rasmalai dessert would have been a far more popular option, a more appropriate fusion of Indian and Western tastes.
The girls’ cardinal sin may have been in the menu selection if their cooking had not been strictly deplorable in itself.
Firstly, Biswa’s pani puris were a disaster. After trying and failing several times to get the dough to inflate into golden balls as required, Biswa’s filling was bland, featuring mostly potato and barely any spices. The barely adequate filling was garnished with two chickpeas. The roadside vendors in India would cringe at the fact that the ingredients were not all seasoned together (or indeed, at all). The lamb samosas were well received, but given the haphazard, disorganised manner in which they were prepared – including the fact that they were two hours late – this should have been scant consolation.
Jessie’s goat sindhi biryani was a failure from the outset. The meat was marinated for only 2 hours with yogurt, salt and lemon juice. Then, after adding a few spices to the dish, Jessie cooked the rice separately and mixed the meat and rice together on a plate. The dish had no cohesion, and in no one’s eyes did it deserve to be called a biryani. The pair piled fresh tomatoes, coriander and raw nuts on a mountain of rice and curry and were thoroughly proud of themselves, even as Jessie realised she had complained endlessly at the other dinners about hating tomatoes. The dish was served an hour late.
If gulab jamun was a poor option in itself, to “offset their sweetness” by serving them with a baked, sweetened yogurt, an effort at the common Bengali sweet mishti dahi, was madness. The yogurt was curdled, and did not at all sit well with the gulab jamun. For the first (and probably the last) time in the series, the judges labelled a part of a dish “inedible”.
From the very first episode, Jessie and Biswa were mostly hated around Australia. However, a few might have held out hope that the girls could not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. After scoring embarrassingly lower than the other contestants, with 41/100 but still two more dinners to attend, Jessie and Biswa had more or less already sealed their fate in spectacularly abysmal fashion.
Since being eliminated, the pair have received death threats, racist taunts and have been subject to the full wrath of social media. While there is no excuse for such excessiveness, it must be noted that editing definitely played a part in the team’s portrayal. As such, Jessie and Biswa have been dealt somewhat of a short hand and they deserve some sympathy for some of the criticism hurled their way.
But the girls did not come across as rude, uncivilised and arrogant purely because of the editing. From giggling incessantly to themselves, to pointing and laughing at the food they were served, they undersold everything about the cultures they were representing – Jessie and Biswa were not representing just NSW, but an entire subcontinent community which is traditionally humble and polite. Jessie is of Indian origin and Biswa hails from Bangladesh, two countries well respected for their culinary heritage, among other things.
While all viewers were quick to express their dislike of the girls’ personalities, the duo struck particular discord with Indian viewers. If their lack of any notable cooking ability was not enough, their representation of the Indian and subcontinent culture was incredibly far off the mark. Social media was rife with Indians feeling the need to assure the wider public that this was not reflective of Indian society – and indeed, there was genuine concern that Jessie and Biswa’s poor showing would go so far as to damage Indo-Australian relations.
What came across as spectacularly obvious to the audience was their lack of knowledge of the art of cooking in itself. How they managed to convince the producers of MKR of their culinary abilities remains a mystery. What indeed, were they all thinking?
The girls missed out on an incredible opportunity to showcase one of the richest cultures in the world. Keeping a low profile, concentrating hard on their own dinner and keeping their criticism constructive and impersonal would have done them a world of good. A pair who have professed dislike for cinnamon, capsicum, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and chocolate do not belong in a kitchen.
And while it is no mean task to stand up to the glare of TV cameras and create culinary delights in front of a distinguished set of epicures, the girls could certainly have done better. Or perhaps like the original Spice Girls, they could take their talents to singing, the stage, fashion designing or judging the X Factor. Anywhere really, but the kitchen!
The girls have since expressed their desire to host their own show and admit that both the Indian and Australian communities have rejected them. They have doubtless endured more criticism than most people have to put up with in a lifetime, and it is a shame that reality television is inherently over-dramatised, as the audience were definitely given a skewed view of them.
But, even from what we saw – this pair of girls simply needs to add 10 tablespoons of growing up, 3 cups of manners, 4 teaspoons of talking less and 1 litre of thinking more – a formula suitable for any young adolescents, let alone two women in their mid-twenties. Finally, they should add more than a few generous handfuls of learning how to cook – perhaps then the Spice Girls can host their own cooking show and make Australia watch them for all the right reasons.
Some memorable quotes
“The entrée was just not my cup of tea. It was like, vegetables with pastry”.
“They have unfair advantage, they’re using fresh produce food. Fresh produce food tastes great, you don’t have to do anything to it! It’s unfair!”
“Look at the potato. Looks like poop”.
“The salmon was cooked to perfection. I was sad”.
“This looks like the play-it-safe menu. Everybody loves lamb cutlets, I mean if you put a lamb cutlet in front of a baby, they’d guggle [sic] it like baby food”.
“I just hope it’s not a cake. I am not a big fan of cake. I am not a big fan of chocolate”.
“I would have preferred a bit more cinnamon on the duck. I mean, I know I don’t like cinnamon, but…”