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'Unifying power of food': Masterchef contestants volunteer at Sikh temple

MasterChef Austrlia's eliminated contestants cooking langar in Craigieburn gurdwara. Source: Ruchika Talwar

Australia's multiculturalism was on display as a group of celebrity chefs - each from a different religion and culture - got down to cooking a free community meal at a Melbourne Sikh temple.

Watching former contestants of Masterchef Australia cook langar (free community meal) in a gurdwara (Sikh temple) can invite curious glances, while whipping up appetites of those who come there to pray.

Monica Mignone, Sandeep Pandit and Waleed Rasheed – all now eliminated from the current season – are former contestants of the undisputed world leader of cooking competitions for amateur chefs, MasterChef Australia, and they recently took to the kitchen of Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Craigieburn.

This Sunday dinner also told a beautiful story of Australian multiculturalism: a Hindu from India, a Muslim from Egypt and a Christian who’s half Australian, half Italian, volunteering to cook for a largely Sikh congregation in their temple.

This group, representing a kaleidoscope of cultures and beliefs, rustled up a delicious (and humongous) dinner for the gurdwara’s sangat (devotees). They drew not only curious glances but also thousands of excited fans and foodies alike.

Sandeep blending 100 kg of fried onions into a paste.
Ruchika Talwar

“Large quantities of food are cooked in the MasterChef kitchen. Obviously, all of it can’t be consumed, so a lot remains uneaten," said Sandeep Pandit, a Melbourne-based IT professional, who was recently eliminated at the Top 11 stage from the contest. 

"Even though MasterChef donates most of what we cook to Second Bite, an NGO that collects uneaten donated food, a lot still goes to waste. That hurt me as I had very humble beginnings in Kashmir where we fell on tough times when militancy struck in the 1980s."

"Wasting food burdened my soul, so I thought of doing voluntary community cooking to redeem myself,” he said. 

Sandeep Pandit, who hails from the troubled Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, has been featured on SBS Punjabi earlier.

“When I asked my friends from MasterChef if they’d like to join me in the gurdwara, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many of them say yes, even though they were from a non-Indian religious and cultural background.

"This is the unifying power of food,” he adds.

As soon as these chefs got out from their cars in the gurdwara parking, they were swarmed by fans who wanted to take pictures and selfies with them. It took them nearly 45 minutes to walk around 20 metres from the car park to the temple entrance, as people wouldn’t let them walk away.

All you could hear was: “Oh my god! I’m a huge fan!”

Sandeep (left) meets the Batra family who had expressed their interest on his Facebook post about the langar.
Sandeep Pandit

And their fans came from all over Victoria.

“I’m so excited that Masterchef Australia’s chefs will be cooking in the gurdwara today. We read about it on Facebook and decided to come all the way from Wangaratta. My daughter and I love watching the show,” said Kulvir Kaur Sandhu, who travelled 250 km for over two-and-a-half hours, to be able to relish the food cooked by the chefs she and her young daughter Yasmeen so admire on TV.

Yasmeen, who studies in Year 3, could even tell you that Sandeep and Monica are her favourite chefs from the current season of Masterchef Australia.

Together, this group’s menu featured:

60 kg rajmah (red kidney beans),

85 kg matar-paneer (peas and cottage cheese),

200 kg kheer (rice and milk pudding with dry fruit),

50 kg raita (spiced yoghurt with chopped vegetables),

100 kg rice and over 6,000 parshada (flatbread as they are called in gurdwaras).

These celebrity chefs along with the gurdwara’s army of nearly a dozen sewadars (volunteers) were busy from 3 pm till 7 pm, as they laboured in the temple's well-equipped kitchen to serve dinner to 1,000 people.

It’s another story that those numbers swelled to 3,000, after fans of these chefs read about their gurdwara plans on Facebook.

Monica (right) with a fan in the gurdwara kitchen.
Ruchika Talwar

These seemingly-copious quantities were quickly polished off by the large stream of pilgrims who kept pouring in.

Eventually, the gurdwara’s sewadars had to cook a large vat of pulao (rice cooked with vegetables in a spicy broth), to satiate those who couldn’t get a bite from the celebrity chefs’ goodies.

“The moment I came to know from my friend, Sandeep, that he and his friends from MasterChef will cook langar in the Craigieburn gurdwara, I knew the number of people eager to see them and eventually eat, will multiply," Adesh Singh Kandhari, a Melbourne-based migration advisor and regular visitor to gurdwaras said.

"But you know, nobody ever goes hungry in a gurdwara. I’m even planning to pack some langar and take it home,” he laughed.

Although cooking in a show like Masterchef Australia is challenging and intimidating enough, these chefs say that they didn’t have any idea about what they had let themselves into by volunteering to cook a gurdwara langar.

Large boilers and containers with names of spices written in Punjabi are used in the gurdwara kitchen.
Ruchika Talwar

“The maximum number of people we’ve cooked for is 300 in MasterChef Australia.

"Here, we were faced with 3,000 people! I’ve never experienced anything like that, nor do I think I will ever again,” said Monica, a Melbourne primary school teacher who was eliminated at the Top 21 stage from the contest by celebrity British chef Nigella Lawson.

Melbourne-based marketing professional, Waleed Rasheed, originally from Egypt, is known for his Middle Eastern and North African-inspired desserts but was eliminated at the Top 14 stage in the contest.

“I cooked the dry fruit in ghee for the kheer, because I was in the company of Punjabis who love it," he said.

"I also gave it an Egyptian touch by adding walnuts and cinnamon. Indian kheer calls for cardamoms and almonds instead.

"I’m known for my baklava, and I’ll let you in on a secret: I use ghee to make it instead of butter,” he said, laughing.  

G.S. Pangly, president of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, had nothing but praise for the group.

“Gurdwaras are open to people from all religions. Everyone is welcome to eat or cook here. It was a matter of great pride for us that MasterChef Australia’s contestants graced our kitchen. We usually serve around 1,000 devotees on Sunday."

"But when people came to know about them, the numbers multiplied. But there’s never any dearth of food here,” he told SBS Punjabi.

Click on the player at the top of the page to listen to this feature in Punjabi.

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