A CONVERSATION WITH KISHWAR
Juairia Haque Mahi
It certainly feels ecstatic to watch a MasterChef contender of Bangladeshi descent showcasing heritage cuisine, receiving rave reviews, and making headlines. As an ardent MasterChef viewer for a very long time, it was startling to watch classic Bangladeshi meals being presented on an international platform and receiving immense appreciation, especially because Bangladeshi food culture has always been geographically confined due to Eurocentric outlooks reflecting a narrow view of what constitutes a top-quality dish that can be enjoyed worldwide.
The handful of times South Asian cuisines were represented, the dishes were condensed into “curry” or “spicy food”, and often lumped in under the label of “Indian cuisine”. While MasterChef has had a fair number of contestants of Indian descent in the past, watching someone bring a creative twist to contemporary Bangali cuisine has been a feast for the eyes.
That being the case, approaching Kishwar Chowdhury who is ever so passionate about passing down Bangladeshi flavour, ready to take up challenging tasks of developing flavours, and mastering intricate details of dishes within a strict time-frame, seemed simply momentous. While we get to see Kishwar sharing bits of her journey on social media handles every now and then, the Royal Bengal Tiger mum, as she addresses herself, expressed her delight to share her reflections beyond her journey.
Hello, Kishwar. We appreciate that you took time out of your schedule to engage with us. Did you reckon that you would gain immense recognition in national and international media during the initial days of the competition?
Kishwar: Hello, thank you for having me on The Dhaka Apologue. I was on my own journey in the competition and sort of had my blinkers on. I didn’t expect to gain this sort of interest in my story.
Born and raised in Melbourne, Kishwar is the daughter of Laila and Kamrul Chowdhury, who are the founders of the Bangladeshi community in the Australian state of Victoria. She completed a Bachelor of Commerce from Monash University, and then received her post-graduate degree in Graphic Design from the University of the Arts in London. Supported by her family, high-school sweetheart and husband Ehtesham, and two kids (Mikayle and Seraphina), Kishwar’s journey in this season of MasterChef Australia will surely go on to inspire many.
You have mentioned in several interviews that your passion for cooking began in childhood. Have you ever pursued cooking as a career option?
Kishwar: No, I haven’t. Cooking brings me immense pleasure and I’ve always participated in cooking for the community or cooking for charities, but haven’t ever pursued selling my food.
As far as Kishwar can remember, she has always cooked. She comes from “a big family of cooks” and is proud of using recipes from her loved ones to make her own versions of them in the kitchen. From having milling flour to growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and raising their own cattle, growing and preparing fresh food has been a day-to-day part of Kishwar’s life.
At the very beginning of the competition, you spoke about “mum-guilt”. Many stay-at-home mothers undergo guilt-tripping if they try to pursue their own career, namely cooking. Many of them don’t receive enough familial support or resources to start a career or pursue their passion. Have you faced anything of this nature?
Kishwar: The world’s economies are held together by unpaid labour, mainly that of women and some men who choose to forgo their careers. I chose to stay at home and I have to say, they were some of the most fulfilling years of my life. Having said that, when it’s time to pursue your passion or your dreams, finances or family support are setbacks that are universal. Those who are adamant, always find a way.
Have you ever sensed the weight of people’s expectations while you were in the competition, as a torchbearer of Bangali cuisine?
Kishwar: A little bit. Initially, it was an uncomfortable position to be in. I think my discomfort shows.
But I dug my heels in and shrugged that weight off my shoulders, because I truly believe in what I’m doing here and I have to do it unapologetically.
How significant was representing your roots in the MasterChef competition?
Kishwar: Like I said, it was important to me to be authentic. I cook and eat cuisines from all over the world, like any metropolitan family. But I definitely felt high when I was able to cook Bangali dishes, because I’m bringing something otherwise completely unknown.
You have cooked numerous Bangali foods like macher jhol, begun bhorta, phuchka, khashir rezala, etc. in their authentic versions in the competition. Bangali food itself is elevated, but we often don’t regard our traditional, authentic cuisines that have centuries-long history as something special. Why do you think this sentiment of Western cuisine being better than ours has grown among us?
Kishwar: It’s how we’ve been conditioned to think over hundreds of years. There is definitely a huge surge and interest in regional cuisine with the rise of social media platforms reaching the masses. I’m hooked on watching a young village girl in China planting, cooking, and preparing century-old dishes. It’s absolutely fascinating and I think the world wants to see more authenticity.
As most upmarket restaurant menus are designed only to serve international dishes, do you think native cuisines are undervalued in the Bangladeshi restaurant industry?
Kishwar: No, I think when we have something so good at home, we don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
I lived in Bangladesh for five years for work and loved travelling to regional areas and eating the local food. A dish that completely blew me away was this chicken cooked inside bamboo; it was steamed with soy sauce and herbs in Rangamati. Totally unexpected.
Considering Bangladeshi cuisine is less recognised compared to Indian cuisine, how can ours carry a distinctive identity on the global food map? Though Bangali communities can be found all over the world, do you think our cuisine is underappreciated in the culinary world?
Kishwar: In short, yes I do. Ironically, a bulk of Bangladeshi migrants across the UK, Europe, America, the Middle East, and Asia go into the food industry, but are, like you said, cooking Indian food. There are 12,000 Indian restaurants in the UK and almost 86% of those are owned and run by Bangladeshis. We definitely have been holding back on our own cultural identity, but I think maybe it’s time that changes.
Getting back to MasterChef, when and how did you start preparing yourself for the competition? Have you always been an ardent follower of the show?
Kishwar: I applied for MasterChef last year during lockdown. I’ve always loved watching the show and for me I love the contestants who have cooked food I could only find in their homes and not in a restaurant, like Julie Goodwin, Poh, Brendan, Adam, Marion Grasby. I sharpened my skills for things I don’t usually make, like different flavoured ice-creams and sorbets, but most of the challenges are about showcasing your authentic self.
Kishwar auditioned for MasterChef for her 11 year-old son, who wrote down the email address and gave it to her.
When asked if she would like to share any behind-the-scenes experience from her time at MasterChef, or a noteworthy moment she would cherish forever, Kishwar wanted to keep the audience in suspense:
“So many moments I’ll cherish, most of them behind the scenes. There are quite a few huge moments that happen on my journey here. There are episodes that haven’t aired yet, so I won’t spoil anything.”
One thing’s for certain, we’ll get to see Kishwar create more delectable dishes as the competition unfolds.
But there must be a personal favourite among the dishes you cooked.
Kishwar: Again, a few of my favourite dishes haven’t aired yet. So keep watching!
MasterChef has seen you go through multiple challenging tasks. Is there any task you would like to go back to the kitchen and do again and again?
Kishwar: I love the service challenges. Anything that reaches out to real people and gets in the professional kitchens.
We have seen you getting overwhelmed when you expressed your dream of writing a cookbook. Coming from a background where cooking or any work related to cooking has been historically unrecognised, then living in Australia as an immigrant, surely the hurdles were not few.
What lessons has MasterChef taught you to uplift your confidence towards fulfilling your dream? What messages would you like to impart to Bangladeshi stay-at-home mothers?
Kishwar: My parents migrated to Australia and I was born here, so I’m the daughter of immigrants. Writing a cookbook has been a pipeline dream of mine for a while, and with the overwhelming response from the show from all over the world, I can see that dream actually coming to light.
To stay-at-home mums, I’d like to say, choosing to be at home with my kids provided me with some of the most fulfilling and enriched years of my life. They’re growing up now and I need something to fill that space, but whatever your choice is, be happy, fill your life with everything that brings you joy. For me, genuinely the kitchen is the heart of my home, so just do what you love doing unapologetically.
Last question, do you ever plan to return to Bangladesh and open your own restaurant?
Kishwar: No restaurant plans as yet. I don’t know if that will change.
Thank you, Kishwar. We hope your dream cookbook emphasising Bangladeshi cuisine comes about.
P.S. Did you know that Kishwar is an anthropology and history enthusiast, enjoys downtime at her farm, and writes poetry?
The interviewer is a part of TDA Editorial team. She can be reached at her currently zucced account: fb/JuairiaMahi