(May 4, 2022) If love and food have anything in common, it’s that you can’t fake a fondness or hide an aversion for either. When MasterChef Australia judge Gary Mehigan tasted Sandeep Pandit’s smoked masala lobster for the first time in 2019, he remarked that “angels are singing somewhere.” The lobster was soon being touted as the dish of the season, courtesy the IT-professional-turned-chef and the sole Indian on the show that day. Australian media were quick to produce a witty moniker: The Spice Angel. “Mehigan said angels were singing after he tried my smoked masala lobster. When I was eliminated from the competition, the Australian media began calling me The Spice Angel and I trademarked that name in Australia. That’s also how i named my business,” says the epicurean IT guy.
The former IT project manager-turned chef wasn’t a winner that year but if anything, his love for food only grew. If he was criticised then for ‘cooking too many curries‘, he has since moved on to less traditional fare like ‘Goa-inspired pulled pork sandwiches’ – his take on Indo-Australian fusion. He has also just launched The Spice Angel, a marketplace for his own brand of spices, secret sauces and everything in between.
Less is more
Born in the early ’80s in Kashmir, Sandeep couldn’t have been more than eight when violence began to rock the community. Like countless others in the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, Sandeep’s family packed their bags and left their homeland for Bengaluru. “I started cooking when I was nine,” Pandit recalls. And back then, it was a “necessity rather than interest.”
They left the violence behind but poverty and stress followed them to their new home. “The kitchen became my happy place,” Sandeep reminisces. “I had to learn to do more from less. That was my culinary learning. We had very little to go by even though my parents were working really hard. I had to make do what we had and the kitchen became the one place where I could be myself.”
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After he got a degree in chemical engineering, Sandeep went on to do an MBA, taking the same route as so many others from the Indian tech capital. In 2016, when he moved to Australia for work and became a permanent resident, he wondered if he should try his luck on his favourite show – MasterChef Australia. He was the accomplished home cook, he knew and would be the sole Indian participant on the show that year.
A ‘crash course in humility’
“The learnings of a lifetime,’ Sandeep says, about his experience on the famed show, MasterChef Australia. The experience proved to be a mixed bag for the enthusiastic, home-taught chef. On the one hand, Gary Mehigan’s praise turned his masala lobster into the dish of the season. On the other, fans heaped criticism on Sandeep, despite his perfect 10/10 score, for ‘cooking too many curries’. A back injury played a role in his untimely exit from the show.
“Before I actually went onto the show, I was getting through the preliminary rounds like, “yes, I’m good. I am an Indian who knows global cuisine and my Indian spices and I can make magic,” says Sandeep. Reality turned out to be rather humbling. “The moment I went onto the show I realised how gifted all the other 23 contestants were and how much I have to learn, not just from a global cuisine perspective but even about Indian cuisine.”
There, despite an obvious penchant for Indian food, Sandeep discovered a love for local Australian produce and for global cuisine. “Before I went to the show, my cup was full. When I left, the cup had been emptied and I’m hoping to put more food learning into it.”
The fusion experience
Today, Sandeep’s specialty is a mix of two very different worlds – the confluence of Oz and Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. “My ethnic background and current circumstances come together to create a unique flavour,” Sandeep says. ‘If there’s one thing that inspires me to create magic, it is being able to give someone happiness.”
The Spice Angel
Inspired by Mehigan’s praise,The Spice Angel is a one stop platform for traditional spices of all kinds, not just Indian. However, he does hope to revive traditional Kashmiri Pandit recipes. “I want to make sure there is someone preserving and keeping the spice blends and cooking techniques at home.” A devoted singer, Sandeep also wishes to have his own restaurant one day, which, “celebrates food just the way he does.”
We need to have more institutions that teach cooking formally in Indian schools. Everyone is gung-ho only about French, Italian or Spanish or what we like to call ‘continental cooking’. However, India’s old-school methods and spice traditions, which have evolved through a series of experiments in the kitchen, are fading away. What we lack is a formal school of Indian cooking that encompasses the magnificent cuisine of the Indian subcontinent. I’m not just talking about North India, South India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, I’m talking about the entire subcontinent where you even talk about parts of Afghanistan, Northwest Frontier almost going all the way to Persia. Our cooking is not just ancient, its methods are refined and technical. It deserves a pedagogy of its own.
Sandeep Pandit, chef and founder, The Spice Angel