--- Discover the comforts of Indian home cooking with Adam D'Sylva, Helly Raichura and Sandeep Pandit on India Unplated, Thursdays 8.00pm on SBS Food and streaming on SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, articles and more. ---
Like any ancient culture, food was central to everything Sandeep Pandit knew growing up as a Kashmir Pandit, a Kashmir Hindu from Kashmir. Food taught him about the seasons, family traditions and rituals of his ancient Indian heritage. It also provided an escape from reality in the darkest of times.
Pandit, the host of SBS Food's new program India Unplated and the owner of spice business The Spice Angel, spent the first eight years of his life in Srinagar, Kashmir, where he recalls many happy memories involving food. Having a large extended family meant that mealtimes were big affairs that featured a spread including rice, dahl, lamb and vegetables. The family would sit together on huge carpets, feasting and laughing late into the night.
This comfortable lifestyle was turned upside down in 1990 when Pandit's family was forced to flee south due to militancy during the Kashmir insurgency.
"From the year 1989 to 1990, things in Kashmir just deteriorated and went from bad to worse almost overnight," Pandit explains. "There was this mass exodus of around half a million people from Kashmir Valley, all from the Pandit community."
To escape the turmoil, his parents, Santosh and Kuldeep, packed the family in a truck and relocated them to the neighbouring city of Jammu.
"We moved from having a huge family and a big house to literally living on the streets overnight," Pandit recalls. "We left everything behind. Our houses were burned, my maternal place, my nonna's place and my paternal house, everything got burned."
The family were soon on the road again and headed for Bangalore (Bengaluru) where they rebuilt a new life. It was easy adapting to food in the south as Kashmir was one of the rare north Indian states where rice was also a staple. However, Pandit was confronted with having to portion his food and no longer being able to afford the luxury of meat.
"You could sometimes buy a kilo of lamb at the end of the week on Sunday and eight of us would eat from that one kilo," he recalls. "If you had even a grain of rice, it would be distributed between eight to 10 people who were there. You really had to be very creative in the kitchen to do the most with the least."
Pandit's mother prepared the family's meals at 5am before work and would leave them on the stovetop ready for dinner, just as she had done in Kashmir. However, hotter temperatures in the south meant that the food would often spoil before they sat down at 9 or 10pm to eat it.
"That's how I entered the kitchen for the first time; to help stop the food getting spoiled," Pandit says. "The kitchen then started becoming my happy place."
The day Pandit made his first cup of chai alone was a defining moment in his cooking career.
"My mum came back from work at 6pm every day and the first thing I remember her doing was brewing a cup of tea," he recalls. "I vaguely remembered how she would put one pot of milk and one pot of water and then some tea leaves, sugar, and spices." When his mum came home and handed her the tea, she was overcome. "That joy of tears in her eyes...I never knew food could make such a statement. It's still the best compliment I've ever received."
"That joy of tears in her eyes. I never knew food could make such a statement. It's still the best compliment I've ever received."
From then on, Pandit treasured any opportunity to cook for his parents who worked 15- to 16-hour days. He had intentions of turning this joy of cooking into a career, but his parents persuaded him to pursue a career in IT. This industry brought him to Australia in 2016 where he now lives with his wife and son. Pandit had grown up watching food programs MasterChef Australia and Food Safari so he felt an immediate connection to Australia's culinary scene. However, he was disappointed with the way some Indian food had been whitewashed and some restaurant menus had been limited to naan and butter chicken.
Since arriving in Australia, Pandit has dedicated himself to educating more people about the history behind authentic Indian dishes and the regions from which they originated. Being a contestant on season 11 of MasterChef Australia gave him the perfect platform to do this.
"I was happy that after my season on MasterChef, they stopped referring to dishes as curry," he says. "I want Australia to look at India as a treasure trove of ancient cultures and not just a single dish and painted with curry. I want Australia to see north, west, south, east and central India in different lights and appreciate it for the land of colours and flavours that it is."
Pandit is excited to shine a light on his home cuisine during India Unplated. It's an opportunity for him to not only share but preserve traditional recipes that've been passed down over thousands of years.
The kitchen remains Pandit's happy place where he says he can "manufacture smiles". He never takes the opportunity to cook for granted.
"Food to me is just humility because it's a mirror of what you have and the way you present it is your way of saying thank you," he says. "Even if you're not wealthy and even if you're not prosperous in life, food is a reflection of the best that you can do with the means that you have."
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Photographs by Sandeep Pandit