Earlier in the lockdown, after reruns of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and a ton of nature documentaries, my partner and I settled on the newly released MasterChef Australia Season 12 to watch over meals. With new judges that grew on us as we watched, this season saw some of the best contestants from the previous seasons battle it out in the Back to Win series. The globally popular cooking competition has been a raging hit in India, where the three original judges are considered rockstars and where seeing any kind of Indian dish or even any South Asian reference on the show makes all of my friends just a little wet.
One of the episodes from the new season—part of which was shot during the pandemic—saw the team journey into Melbourne’s suburbs. For an Indian viewer like me living in one of the many cramped “flats” that dot Mumbai, watching perfect houses laid out in perfectly leafy surroundings gave me a deep sense of that looks like utopia but also envy at the kind of life I might never have.
One of the episodes featuring the (in)famous Pressure Test, then took the team into the backyard of a certain Helly Raichura. The sweet and slightly shy Indian-origin chef, who runs a “secret” home-based experience called Enter Via Laundry, presented a dish that the contestants had to replicate.
The dish, called “Pasta Not Pasta”, saw luscious swirls of yellow that were actually not pasta. “Arre this is khandvi!” I exclaimed, happy that for once I not only knew how the dish tasted but actually knew how to make it—which literally has never happened with any dish made on the show. Not like I’d be able to replicate Raichura’s masterpiece ever but at least I could pass the first half of that Pressure Test that included tasting and guessing the dish’s ingredients (pfft!) and not have to fail that and cook the dish too.
To know more about the lady making MasterChef contestants cook an elevated version of the popular and commonplace Gujarati dish, I got in touch with Raichura to know more about not just the television appearance that led to her website crashing but also how the Aussies are taking to her brand of regional Indian food made using indigenous Australian produce that once you once had to enter via someone’s laundry room after having waited for a whole year to get to a booking.
VICE: Hi, Helly. Did you have fun on the MasterChef show? It always looks like so much fun on the TV but I wonder if it actually is.
Helly Raichura: I’ve watched MasterChef for ages and this was a dream for me. The shoot was also amazing. I took a day off work [at the time, she was working as an HR advisor, but she quit just a month back to cook full-time]. The crew was so organised and they had thought of everything on this earth needed to do this shoot. The judges were also down-to-earth and chill. It was good to see how reality TV can work—with no retakes.
And you gained over a 1,000 followers in 10 minutes of the show airing.
Ya, and the waitlist was so long after that that my website crashed with the first few minutes itself.
You run something that before moving into a central kitchen, was literally at your home just for two nights in a week and meant for 10 people max. Is the newfound success exciting or intimidating?
I feel lucky and it's exciting. Due to COVID, we have started a food delivery service where we pick a state each week and cook dishes typical to that state. For example, we have been cooking Kosha Mansho, Sev Tameta, Kadala, Yakhni, Pandra Rassa, Sorpotel, etc. These dishes are unheard of here in Australia and I feel fortunate to be able to showcase dishes that are a staple back home but have not gathered attention here. I feel immense joy when serving these authentic dishes from back home, and this would have not been possible otherwise. When we return to normal, I have planned a menu that showcases Indian techniques using Australian native ingredients; this menu is finer and has a lot of plated dishes. So long as I can keep cooking and showcasing these dishes, I am very happy.
Your journey to cooking was not a straight path. You moved to Australia in 2007 to study Human Resources and International Business. How did you find your way to food?
I’ve always wanted to do pastry and after my son was born, I started making elaborate cakes. I’d never learnt to cook in a professional setting or done a course. But after a while, I realised that the client was interested more in the look of the cake, and not, say, a goat cheese and rosemary cake that would taste amazing. It had come down to only making figurines of fondant. I got so bored of making Peppa Pig cakes, but my maternity leave ended and I went back to work.
After a while, I started thinking again and that’s when I came up with this concept just as a hobby. I got some training under Gaggan [Anand, who’s been awarded two Michelin stars and has topped the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for four years in a row] by asking him in front of an audience at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants event in Melbourne if I could train under him. He agreed, and after working with him for a couple of months, I started Enter Via Laundry at home.
No one was doing regional Indian food at the time and I didn’t want the usual Butter Chicken or Palak Paneer on my menu. People loved the idea of sitting with strangers on a table and literally entering via the laundry. After working in an office Monday to Friday, I’d cook a degustation for up to 12 people at my place. I’d do everything myself—from the cooking and setting up the table to the dishes.
How did MasterChef hear about you?
My husband’s colleague is a friend of George’s [Calombaris, one of the three original judges]. He came over one night to eat along with friends and family. He was shooting at the time and raved about us. A lot of the team came and ate with us too, and I guess we caught their fancy.
You work a lot with Indian dishes and technique but the idea is also to put in native Australian ingredients. How do you describe your food to people?
I would describe my food as an evolving cuisine. History is the evidence—food keeps adapting and changing. In this global era I think it should not stop evolving. I like to highlight the technical side of Indian cuisine. It is not less technical than any other cuisine out there, there is a lot about spices but it’s also not just about spices. I think I have found a balance where I am learning and using Indian cooking technique and using some of the most gorgeous and unique produce Australia has to offer.
We know about the Pasta Not Pasta/khandavi but what do you serve that you also love?
Khandavi is our bestseller, It has been popularly known as Pasta Not Pasta—this name was given to it by one of the journalists here. It is my personal favourite too. We unroll Khandvi and instead of shredded coconut, we use coconut milk and add some bush tomato oil and native basil oil, and dot it with some wild garlic flowers.
Along with that, we make a vegetarian version of Shikampuri Kebab made with raw jackfruit instead of meat, and that is my absolute favourite! The centre of this kebab is filled with yogurt and some native finger lime that is like citrus caviar that pops with acidity in each bite. It is then dressed with some mint coriander chutney and beautiful micros like oxalis leaves and flowers like bergonia and geranium.
When you’re taking regional Indian dishes, you’re also borrowing from their history and culture. How do you stay true in paying homage to these elements?
I am on a journey to learn Indian cuisine which is vast and endless. I spend my days and time researching regional dishes from back home and the history behind them, what makes them unique, recipes that are not always grabbing limelight but have great culinary value and reflect the food evolution. Along the way, I have found not all heirloom produce is available here though there is always something local with similar characteristics that can be used instead. And so that's what I do, and that's how my food adapts to native produce here. I find this adaption of new and unique ingredients to regional Indian cuisine very exciting.
How have Indians in Australia taken to this?
My fellow Gujarati friends are very interested in how thin I can spread khandvi, and I think so far they have been happy with it. But on a serious note, I think everyone is tired of Indian cuisine being looked upon as a takeaway here or restricted to just a few popular dishes. They are very happy to see regional Indian dishes finally being cooked and talked about.
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