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As home to the largest film industry in the world, Mumbai is – or at least pretends to be! – immune to starry-eyed hero-worship that all other cities afford to the galaxy of Bollywood celebrities. But when the food superheroes George and Gary from Masterchef Australia stepped into this Mumbai event, the super-exclusive invitees, about 50-odd very lucky star-struck fans, made up of distinguished food critics, bloggers, chefs and food personalities, welcomed them with open, unabashed adulation – the kind you would reserve for – coincidentally another Aussie! – Hugh Jackman, maybe?

George and Gary purposefully strode into our little world of foodie dreams, to find 3 faint-hearted girls barely able to hold a spoon from all the excitement and nerves, let alone cook anything for them! But trust the judges to ease things out… they immediately switched to Masterchef mode, asking each contestant about their life, their work, what each one of us was cooking for them and what it would take to impress them. They were very curious to know why I chose Jhaalmuri as my dish, a street concoction of puffed rice, with little bits of salad vegies, masalas and sauces. With superhuman effort, my voice replied that I wanted to present India on a platter – the ingredients of this dish coming together in the mouth like a zesty, flavourful punch, much like the first taste of India in all its incredible variety of cultures, flavours, and colours. On finding out that I am a food and travel blogger, and that too the ‘nice’ kind, the judges wanted to know what the ‘food stories’ on my blog revolved around, and playfully complained about not having the luxury to explore the Devon-Cornwall Cream Tea trail that I went on this summer. My heart is such a sucker for flattery…. it slowed down to normal and stopped trying to choke me thereafter!

George ribbed with the other 2 contestants, threatening to reveal the colour of Matt (Preston’s) boxer shorts, but settling down to a ‘safer’ topic of Matt’s cravats and how he has a giant collection of these, each one named after a woman! Both judges easily connected with their adoring audience through what they had loved eating so far in India, like Paneer, Jalebi, Malpua and the famous Mumbai Bhel too. A few more minutes of sharing and laughter, and suddenly it was time… Gary and George paused for silence, built the suspense to a fever pitch, and then, with an ominous voice, flagged off the Cook-Off with the exciting words – ‘Your 5 minute challenge starts NOW!!!’ 

What happened in the next 5 minutes was, and still is, a haze! I seemed to have grown a few more arms because I was heating the puffed rice, adding the ingredients into a mixing bowl, seasoning, tasting and tweaking the flavours all at once! Somewhere in a distant universe I could hear the judges give a running commentary of the frenzy that was unfolding at the Cook-off table, either voicing their doubts, or questioning the use of some ingredients, or defining and refining their expectations from the final plated dish, in terms of taste, (‘Must be Masterchef yummy!’ said George), flavours and presentation. At the end of 4 minutes, my Jhaal Muri was ready for plating – it tasted pretty close to my memories of the ‘real’ thing at the makeshift carts near Victoria Memorial, Kolkata. Now on to the plating…

I had decided to make a Victoria Memorial-like dome of the Jhaalmuri for my presentation, for which I needed to lightly pat the mix into a soup bowl and then turn it upside down on the serving plate. The pressure point? If the mix were too wet it would not taste crunchy, but if it were too dry it would collapse, and not form a dome but just a messy heap on my plate! With a silent prayer, and with 30 seconds on my side, I tipped the bowl over. I realized that the ENTIRE audience, including the judges, was holding their breaths with me, sharing the panic, stretching the nerves. As my quivering fingers lifted the soup bowl off the plate, George in his inimitable style bellowed out the anxious question in everyone’s mind… ‘Will it? Won’t it?’ And…. It DID! It stayed as a dome! Now in the last 10 seconds, with a chorus of voices joining in the now-famous countdown chant, I managed to plonk the 2 glasses of chilled Sweet Lassi on either side of the plate, and coax an incredibly misbehaved long, green chilly into staying upright in the centre of the dome! Phew! Yessss!

The tasting started from the other side of the table… Devika’s wooden platter of Bruschetta looked ‘yummy’, and it was declared delicious by the judges, who loved the familiar Feta cheese. My heart sank just a little bit… Then came Amanda’s dessert, where both judges were all praise for the delicately caramellised bananas. By now, my heart was sinking with a curious ‘glug-glug’ noise, bubbles rising as it flopped down further… Finally, Gary walked up, dug into the mound of Jhaalmuri, and threw back a couple of spoons before gravely nodding and noting the differences with the Mumbai Bhel (a ‘wow’ moment, this, to catch the masters at work! ) … and then declaring how he and George both loved the way all the flavours, the crunchiness and the freshness came together and delivered a punch, only to be soothed by a sip of the cool lassi. My heart smiled its widest smile…

And then it was time for the results! George and Gary turned their backs towards us, and faced the audience, consulting secretly between themselves. The audience was delighted at the deliberately dramatic play, while we girls just froze into blocks of ice. Finally, after a pause that seemed hours longer than the actual 2 minutes it took, the judges declared the winner… and over the roar of excited cheers, claps and smiles, I hear MY NAME floating in from somewhere in the universe… O My God, it’s me! I am the winner of the challenge! And the lucky, lucky one to have won the hearts of these two very well-loved, nearly-worshipped celebrity chefs, restaurateurs, world food personalities, and most of all heart-winners… the charming Gary Mehigan and the lovable George Calombaris!

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