Sambar for comfort, biryani for love: Meet MasterChef Australia winner Sashi Cheliah

In this exclusive chat with TNM, the Indian-origin winner of the popular show talks about his favourite spices and how he entered the world of cooking.
Sambar for comfort, biryani for love: Meet MasterChef Australia winner Sashi Cheliah
Sambar for comfort, biryani for love: Meet MasterChef Australia winner Sashi Cheliah
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“And the winner of MasterChef Australia 2018 is Sashi Cheliah”. The confetti came down as he lifted the coveted trophy and the other contestants ran to the centre to lift him on their shoulders.

On July 10, Sashi Cheliah scored a whopping 93 out of 100 in the finals of the tenth season of MasterChef Australia, becoming a household name across Australia. This is also the highest score any contestant has made in the MasterChef finals.

But did you know this 39-year-old prison officer from South Australia began cooking only in 2012?

A man of many surprises, Sashi who was born and brought up in Singapore, traces his roots back to India, with his grandparents originally from Madurai. Sashi, who was with the Singapore police force before moving to Adelaide, however, has not visited the country yet. 

Does he plan on visiting India soon? “Oh yes, I want to come and see India, go to my native place and learn more cuisines in our Indian culture,” says Sashi.

But Sashi shares a deeper bond with Indian food. He recalls his earliest food memory of having watched his mother and aunts cooking. “My first memory goes far back…when I was 10 or 11 years old. Whenever my mom or aunt used to cook, I would be hanging out in the kitchen,” he says.

So what’s his favourite Indian food? “Definitely biryani is my favourite. I love cooking it at home! Anything that is spicy…I love spicy food!” he says, adding, “My comfort food, however, is sambar with rice.”

The judges of the popular cooking show were quick to notice how cleverly Sashi used spices in his dishes, with his sambal prawns with chilli giving him an edge over his competitor Ben Borsht in the finals.

Sashi admits that the prized chilli is the king of his kitchen shelf. “I have two favourite ingredients, one is chilli and the other is lemongrass. They will always be present in my fridge and kitchen,” he adds.

Throughout the show, Sashi showed his mastery over Asian and Indian flavours – be it the Indian-inspired steamed barramundi with ginger and coriander salsa or the Singapore chicken rice with oyster sauce bok choy and a spicy chilli and ginger sauce.

“I have done a very nice dish in the show called lychee duck, which is a combination of both my favourite Indian curry and some lychee and influences of Thai food. I tried it and it came out really well, it’s my own creation,” adds Sashi.

Sourcing some of these ingredients were a challenge for him though. “At MasterChef, we used a very wide range of ingredients, but there are some specialty ingredients that we can’t source so easily. But I still tried to maximise the flavours as much as possible,” says Sashi.

Despite starting to cook properly only 6 years ago, food has played an integral role in Sashi’s life. “You know, Indian festivals and culture…we have food as a huge part of them. There will be plenty of food at every occasion. Food has been such an integral part of my life.” 

But coming from an Indian family, Sashi had to deal with his share of prejudices. “Usually, you know Indian families don’t really encourage boys to come into the kitchen. So, anytime I was hanging out in the kitchen, I’d observe them closely and it had a huge influence on my love for cooking as well.”

His first step into the culinary world was when he started going to barbeques and experimenting with meats there. “When we go for school challenges and all of that…I keep having all these barbecues and I started cooking with that.” 

But Sashi didn’t just discover his love for cooking in these barbecues, he also found the love of his life. “The interesting thing is that I met my wife during my school days at a barbecue!” he laughs.

“When I was doing my stint with the police force in Singapore, I was very busy and my cooking reduced drastically. But when I moved to Australia, I started having a lot of time to spend time with my family. I started cooking with family a lot and that’s how I got much closer to food here than I was in Singapore,” says Sashi.

Having signed up for MasterChef on a whim, after having seen a post on Facebook, Sashi does have quite a few food idols. 

“Gordon Ramsay is my idol! Nigella (Lawson) always makes the process of cooking food very enjoyable. This is something that all chefs should learn from her, which is when you enjoy cooking food…the flavours of the food come out better. She does that very beautifully and gracefully! I love Matt Sinclair’s work too and I can relate a lot to his kind of cooking. It’s very hearty and rustic,” says Sashi.

The next step for this MasterChef history-maker is launching a pop-up in Melbourne called Gaja by Sashi, which will have Indian and South-East Asian food.

“I’m trying to incorporate three different cultures into the food; Chinese, Malay, and Indian. It represents Singapore, which is a mix of different cultures, so in my menu you will be seeing all three,” he explains.

His bigger plan, however, is to travel around Australia with pop-ups in different places. “If the response is good, I am looking at opening my own restaurant or cafe,” he signs off.

The tenth season of MasterChef Australia will air in India from September 10 onwards; Monday to Friday at 9.00 pm.

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