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Home > Food & Drink > Dining > Interview: MasterChef’s Sashi Cheliah dishes on his new restaurant in India
Interview: MasterChef’s Sashi Cheliah dishes on his new restaurant in India

From adding his signature fusion flair to a thousand-year-old fish sandwich recipe in the MasterChef kitchen to savouring traditional idly vadai in Chennai – Sashi Cheliah’s culinary adventures are a smorgasbord of flavours. Ahead of his eclectic seven-course degustation affair at Leela Ambience Gurugram, we caught up with him to talk about his new restaurant Pandan Club and his delicious escapades in India.

Singapore-born Australian chef Sashi Cheliah is known to deal in bold flavours and fusion fare. In fact, when he’s not cooking up a storm in the MasterChef Australia kitchen, the spice enthusiast keeps his passion for gastronomy alive by creating and developing new flavours.

True to form, his pilot project in India – Pandan Club – is a celebration of experimental cuisine. Set to open in August, 2022 the space aims to add a few servings of unique ingredients to the culinary pot of Chennai. In an exclusive interview with Lifestyle Asia India, Cheliah talks about his experiences in the country as well as what’s in store for those who’d like a bite of his creations.

Masterchef Australia’s Sashi Cheliah talks culinary adventures

In the time you’ve spent in India, what’s been your biggest takeaway from the country’s culinary culture?

The food scene here changes a lot within a short distance, sometimes just 50-100 kilometres. The same state can have different cuisines, different methods of cooking. Take Tamil Nadu for instance. Chennai has a mixed culture with dishes from different parts of the state but if you travel further down to Madurai, you’ll notice the use of pastes, slow cooking methods, and unique things like jigarthanda. In Kerala, Alleppey is big on seafood but you’ll find different proteins in the hills of Coonoor. You can never get tired of the food here, there’s something new to discover every single day.

Any favourites from all the food you’ve savoured so far?

There’s a lot, I could go on and on! You know, as much as I like to go to big restaurants to try exotic food, I make it a point to go where locals eat because that’s the culture. So in Chennai, I went to Amma Mess, Nagarjuna, and Adyar Anand Bhavan. Idly vadai in both Chennai and Bangalore are amazing! I’ve literally been having them for breakfast every morning. And for lunch I once had the chicken stew with appam at The Leela Palace Bengaluru which was just spot on.

 

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A post shared by Sashi Cheliah (@sashicheliah)

Your new restaurant Pandan Club is set to open in Chennai. Why choose the coastal city?

Even though Chennai is a very developed metropolitan city with authentic traditional food, there’s opportunities for experimentation. Especially with different flavours and cocktails. Cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai already have a fair bit happening. Also, I’m connected to the city. I’ve a lot of family and friends here and wanted to start with familiar ground for my pilot project.

The restaurant menu spotlights Peranakan cuisine. For the unversed, what are its fundamental aspects?

Peranakans are a group of people with mixed ancestry, primarily Chinese and Malay. In Singapore, they call themselves nonya and baba. The cuisine has adopted certain ingredients and techniques from the Malay culture to make something unique. Fermentation is very popular within this culture, so we’ll be experimenting with fermented soybeans like tempeh. There’s also this nut called keluwak which is poisonous in its natural form but becomes edible after fermentation. You’ll see that on the menu too.

 

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A post shared by Sashi Cheliah (@sashicheliah)

Do they have any similarities with Indian cuisine?

People will notice a lot of familiar flavours coming through all the dishes. Because Peranakans use a lot of similar ingredients like chilli, banana leaves, and coconut, which we use in our day-to-day cooking. It’s just that there are some unique aspects and flavours. So you might think, ‘I’ve tasted this somewhere, but it’s something different.’ That’s why I think Peranakan cuisine would work very well in India.

What aspects of the MasterChef kitchen can we expect to see at Pandan Club?

Me? (laughs) I’m not going to give my customers any challenges when they come in. I just want them to enjoy good food and ambiance. But, ofcourse, there will be some good quality food. Just like the judges expect them to be.

 

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A post shared by Sashi Cheliah (@sashicheliah)

You were dubbed the ‘King of Flavours’ in the MasterChef Australia kitchen. If you had to pick five spices that you can’t do without, what would they be?

Turmeric because of its health properties. I strongly believe in food being your medicine. Cardamom since I use it in a lot of my desserts. Star anise, I use in a lot of my pickles. Cinnamon and cumin for curries. And chilli! Even though I don’t like a lot of it in my food, you need a little bit of heat to just get the palate going. I literally use these everyday.

Any simple, easy-to-whip-up or traditional family recipes that you could share with us?

I have a very simple five-ingredient recipe. Get 500 gms of any protein you want like chicken. Grab 30-40 gms of ginger and garlic, thinly sliced and sauteed over oil. Add your protein and cook it through, add oyster sauce, chilli flakes, and toss. Your oyster sauce chicken is ready. You could even dress it up a bit with garnishes like spring onions or add vegetables. You could even switch it up with sriracha sauce or sweet chilli sauce. These flavours work very well together. Usually at my home, I eat rice, this kind of stir fry with meat, and a fried egg. That’s it.

 

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A post shared by Sashi Cheliah (@sashicheliah)

What will you be serving as a part of your seven-course menu at the Leela Ambience this weekend?

So it’s a Singaporean-Malaysian inspired menu. We’re taking authentic foods from the streets of these regions and pimping it up. There’s some experimental cooking, modern platings, and small serves. The flavours are going to be bold and robust.

What does the future have in store for you?

My cookbook Kampong Boy is ready and will come out sometime in August. I’ll be doing a book signing in Chennai and we’ll be giving away some books. There are a few other interesting collaborations in the future as well, you’ll be seeing a lot of me!

All images: Courtesy Sashi Cheliah

Eshita Srinivas
Eshita spends her days writing, rewriting, and thinking of things to write about. In the little time she has left, she daydreams about going on a solo trip across Asia.
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