Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

By Usraat Fahmidah

Masterchef Australia finalist Kishwar Chowdhury talks about identity, legacy, and the problem of food waste

Kishwar Chowdhury has undoubtedly captured our hearts with her heartwarming personality and moved the whole nation to tears with the dishes she presented in the MasterChef challenge that showcased a personal heritage and pushed her to the Grand finals.

We sat down on a beautiful February day where Kishwar joined me all the way from Australia via Zoom to talk about MasterChef, Dhaka Lit Fest, her upcoming cookbook and more.

Let’s start from the beginning: Masterchef. What’s something you know now that you wished you knew when you were heading into the MasterChef Australia challenge?

When I started MasterChef and now that I look back at it two years later, I can see that I was quite nervous bringing my cuisine and culture. And it’s so personal that you’re really baring yourself. It’s an emotionally difficult process, I would say. But I had a lot of faith in it. Now I can see that it has impacted so many people. If I could go back in time and tell myself something it would be that: “Don’t worry. Things are going to be amazing.”

If you had to describe the whole MasterChef Australia experience in three words, what words would you choose?

I don’t know three words, but I always say this. It’s five words but it just sums up all of the MasterChef experience: “Falling down a rabbit hole.”

Speaking of experiences, you recently spoke at the 10th edition of the Dhaka Lit Fest on three brilliant panels. How was that like?

Dhaka Lit Fest was a few weeks ago, and I am still reeling from it. It was the first time that I have actually come into touch with the Bangladeshi community at large. Everything else that I have come up to in Bangladesh before has been corporate and private events. I’ve sort of always been behind closed doors. So, I have never done any public events like this. I think, finally coming out to Dhaka Lit Fest and meeting so many people and getting that in-person experience and hearing other people’s stories and connecting with so many people in Dhaka over those four days – I absolutely loved it. I didn’t realize it was going to have such a beautiful impact on me.

You’ve mentioned that you’re currently researching for your cookbook. Can you tell us what we can expect from it?

I think the cookbook is a representation of food that is very me. This is not the fancy food or the food I have made in my chef life or that’s part of my career and what I do now. This is really just food that’s a reflection of me. And when I say that, I mean, here we eat dal, bhaat, alu bhorta, of course we have that. It is the type of food globally people are very interested in knowing. Like, what does a Bengali version of dal look like? Dal is just so common now. Everyone has a version of it all the way from the Middle East to Africa to India to the Asian sub-continent. I think, people are interested in Bengali cuisine. A lot of these dishes are interesting comfort foods but also how I grew up eating being a Melbourne girl. It’s an important part to put in all of this that I was born and brought up in Australia. And that does look really different. So, this cookbook is a personal reflection of my food.

On that note, what’s a cuisine you have not tried yet but want to?

I’ve tried it but I have not deep dived into Ethiopian cuisine or proper, I would say Central and South African cuisine. There are a lot of headways in it and I am so interested in it. But there aren’t many restaurants that showcase it in a big way. I love South American food, and even food that is from the south of America. Like, Mexican food, and you see a lot of Peruvian and Argentinian food and I love that. I love exploring all these continents that aren’t always in the mainstream. But that’s what I want to do next. Once this book is out of the way, I want to have a proper deep dive into the African continent.

You’re driven to push the boundaries of what Bengali food can be. You’ve reimagined what Bengali cuisine is in your own way. Where does that drive come from?

The initial drive was to keep our food relevant. The whole reason why I came to MasterChef in the first place is because if we don’t tell our own stories then it’s really hard to pass it down and hold on to it. My parents raised me in Australia and I was born and brought up here. And it’s only now as a mom and as my kids are growing older that I realize the relentless work that my parents have put into doing that and just to feed us. It wasn’t just through food but it was also through arts, music, culture, and language. There are so many facets of what it meant for them to pass on something that otherwise dies. I feel like I have that responsibility now. So, it started very simply and what it turned into was the fact that there isn’t that representation. There are 200 million Bengalis in the world and we just don’t have that culinary identity that people can turn around and say: “Hey, this is Bengali food.” Or when people want to know more about what I do, because there are not a lot of people doing what I do. So, that’s my biggest driving factor. I find the work extremely important and I have a lot of passion for this. It just drives me to keep doing this.

You’ve talked about your love for Lau and I was amazed to learn from you how every part of it can be repurposed into a delicious dish. How can gastronomy help reduce food waste in your opinion?

It’s the responsibility of modern chefs. It can’t be done alone. Chefs in a certain way like fashion designers actually set trends for how other people eat and how other people think about food. There is a moving away from those wasteful kitchens and lavish French kitchens that I would like to see. A lot of celebrity chefs of the past who would take out the lobster medallion and throw away the whole lobster. And that to us is a sign of opulence. Wastefulness is a sign of opulence. You’re so rich that you can be this wasteful just to get this small set of food. And many chefs are not just in a visible position but chefs like René Redzepi of Noma and all of these amazing chefs who are headwaying that motion of not being wasteful and eating farm to fork [deserve more recognition]. The labor of cooking food and when that food hits the plate is more important than how perfect something looks or how homogenous it is. And that to me [is important], combined with the fact that in our own heritage that this is how we have eaten and it’s in our very doctrine and philosophy of eating: To not be wasteful. Like, eating a fish from nose to tail and how unwasteful we are generally within our culture. It’s just like this amazing two-part reason to make sure that it is how we drive the future of food trends.

If food is a form of story-telling, what’s the story you wish to tell the world with your dishes?

Very authentically it took me a while and it took me coming on to MasterChef to consolidate or think about my identity. Of course, I came with this dream of writing a Bangladeshi cookbook and passing it down to my kids. It took me a while to realize that I am an Australian, and what does that look like? And there are hundreds and thousands of people like me who are part of the diaspora and really accepting that when people bring up questions of authenticity or whether a dish is Bangladeshi, Indian, or Bengali, it is to be able to say that the story I am trying to tell is the story of people like me who hold on to these traditional ways of life, these traditional way of food and food philosophies and this whole way of eating but doing it in another country. So, the ingredients I use authentically being from Melbourne look very different than the ingredients found in any city of Bangladesh. I think those things are very important. It’s also taking ownership of the native Australian ingredient that are found in Australia because as a country I believe there needs to be an ownership of the indigenous cultures and the First Nations people of this land.

For my final question, what’s the most gratifying part of cooking for you as a chef?

I think when everything sort of comes together. There can be a lot of frustrations in the kitchen and there’s a lot of nerves and planning. A lot of dishes that you see and all that I present take months to plan. When it all comes together, in the events that I do, there’s a sort of elation when you send out something into the world and it’s well received and you feel that that moment in the room where people understand you. I think it’s like any other form of art. Even in the culinary arts, it is to be able to translate, communicate, to be seen and to be felt in the moment and I absolutely love it. I have had that quite a few times in my career and it never gets old. It is a fantastic feeling, especially when you move a room to their feet and get a standing ovation for the work that you have done. You really feel that content in the room when something is done successfully. And that to me is just worth everything I work for.

Photographed by : S.K. Heemel
Source : Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation

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