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Why Masterchef’s Gary Mehigan loves Indian food...

In a candid chat, the famous Masterchef judge tells us what makes him keep coming back to India

brunch Updated: Dec 24, 2017 13:35 IST
Lubna Salim
Gary Mehigan is no stranger to Indian food. From Parsi pulao and mutton biryani to sarson ka saag and seekh kebabs to vada pav and bhelpuri, the world-renowned chef  has sampled everything
Gary Mehigan is no stranger to Indian food. From Parsi pulao and mutton biryani to sarson ka saag and seekh kebabs to vada pav and bhelpuri, the world-renowned chef has sampled everything(Mark Chew)

Picture chef Gary Mehigan flipping fluffy dosas and appams off the pan at his home in Melbourne, Australia. Then go on to imagine him devouring a spicy mound of bhelpuri followed by pani puris straight off steel plates from street stalls in Mumbai.

Now don’t be surprised to see him sitting across you at a table at New Delhi’s upscale Indian Accent restaurant as you order your favourite butter scallops and rawa prawns. Because there’s nothing the cuddly and straightforward chef-cum-judge-cum-co-host from the popular show MasterChef Australia will not try when he’s in India.

“This is the eighth time I’m visiting India,” he says with his signature chortle. “Indian food was always part of my life in the UK, but after I immigrated to Australia I realised there weren’t many good Indian restaurants there, though some great places are coming up now.”

“The toughest part about cooking Indian food is the complexity of spices: where to stop and how much to use in a dish.”

Gary trained at London’s five-star hotel The Connaught and (the now defunct but then famed) Le Souffle before moving to Melbourne where he led major restaurants such as Burnham Beeches Country House, Browns, and Hotel Sofitel, before becoming a restaurateur with Fenix. He is right now a co-owner of The Boathouse restaurant in Moonee Ponds, a Melbourne suburb.

The English-Aussie celebrity chef, whose twinkling eyes after tasting dishes on the reality cooking show give both contestants and viewers butterflies in their stomach, became a global household name with MasterChef Australia (MCA), but he’s a chef at heart. So these days he’s busy trying different spice mixes for galouti.

“I just fell in love with green cardamoms and the aroma of freshly ground coriander this time,” he says, when we manage to catch him for a quick chat between shots for his forthcoming food show on Fox Life channel, which has brought him to Mumbai yet again.

More recently, Gary picked up the recipes for dosa and mutton curry from a South Indian banquet, and has been playing them up by adding twists (Mark Chew)

He’s as neutral in his replies as he is on MCA, but his love for all things savoury shines bright as he shares his long list of favourite Indian dishes. Even his preferred desserts bear salty notes, (he’s just found a new one to play with in Mumbai).

“From north to south and east to west there are so many different types of cuisines with so many kinds of flavours,” he says, bemused. “I learnt this only when I came to India, because the focus outside India is more on north Indian cuisine.”

Touched by tradition

The toughest part about cooking Indian food, says Gary, is the complexity of spices: where to stop and how much to use in a dish. Knowing that comes from a very good understanding of flavours, he feels. “The first Indian dish I ever cooked was a simple yogurt-based South Indian pepper curry tempered with spices. The recipe was passed on by an Indian friend,” he says. More recently, he picked up the recipes for dosa and mutton curry from a South Indian banquet, and has been playing them up by adding twists.

On his very first visit to India in 2012, Gary recalls being advised by a friend to keep an open mind. “I was coming to Delhi and one of my friends told me not to go with preconceived notions. So that’s what I did. I visited Delhi and Mumbai and found them to be chaotic, crazy, and mad, but at the same time, unique, diverse and colourful too.”

These days Gary is busy trying different spice mixes for the galouti (Mark Chew)

The star chef has traversed through Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Rajasthan, sampling everything from the best restaurants in these cities to the most mouth-watering street food on offer. By now, his Indian palate is used to everything from Parsi pulao and mutton biryani to paneer masala and seekh kebabs to sarson ka saag.

In Gary’s good books
  • Spices: Cardamom and coriander
  • Indian dish: Sarson Ka Saag
  • Currently working on: Galouti spice mix
  • Indian dessert: Rabri
  • Indian restaurants: Bombay Canteen, Bastian and Indian Accent

“On my current visit, I loved the delicious Sarson and Bathua Ka Saag at The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. It’s served with jaggery caramel popcorn, white butter and corn rotis,” asserts Gary in a tone that’s distinctly reminiscent of food tasting scenes from MCA episodes. Almost immediately he goes on to add street yummies like pav bhaji, vada pav, bhelpuri, pani puris and bhaturas et al to his list of favourite Indian fare, without faltering even once on the pronunciations.

A matter of taste

High end Indian cuisine is had at restaurants like Indian Accent, Bastian, and Bombay Canteen. “What I like about these restaurants is their cutting-edge cuisine,” explains Gary.

He’s not that fond of Indian desserts, though he declares the “not-so-sweet rabri” to be the clear winner in a competition of sweets. “I find gulab jamuns and jalebis very sweet, but the rabri is so subtle, I just love it,” he declares in the same tone in which he announces the winners of the pressure test on MCA. “Besides, sweets with salty notes are trending big time globally right now, so I loved this dessert of rasgulla soaked in espresso syrup with salted caramel ice-cream and peanut chiki at Bombay Canteen,” he adds.

Gary trained at London’s five-star hotel The Connaught and (the now defunct but then famed) Le Souffle before moving to Melbourne (Mark Chew)

Ever the diplomat, Gary will never publicly admit to any bad experiences in India, whether it’s the food or the service. “I find everyone to be very respectful and polite,” he says. “In fact, for this shoot, I’m working with an all-Indian team and everyone is very helpful.”

“I’d like to bring my 16-year-old daughter to India for a long vacation. This country is chaotic, crazy, colourful...with so many kinds of people — the very best and worst of humanity !”

This diplomacy spills over to how he reacts to criticism or praise of his food on social media. “I’m a very positive person,” says Gary. “Instagram and Twitter can be used by people to say the meanest and most spiteful things. I neither take criticism not appreciation to heart. I try to put it in perspective. So, for instance, if the criticism comes from a food critic, then I try to improve myself.”

Try as I might to get him to share some something really rude he’s heard or read about himself, Gary won’t do it. “I think I’ve given you a very nice answer,” he says firmly, and once again I feel like one of the contestants on his show!

But I regroup and ask: What would he like to do on his next visit to India? “I’ve always been here for work. I’d like to come here for a long family vacation and force my 16-year-old daughter to come along too,” he says. “India is chaotic, crazy, colourful with so many different kinds of people – the very best and worst in humanity.”

From HT Brunch, December 24, 2017

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