In the concluding episode of the 2013 show Rick Stein’s India, Pankaj Bhadouria teaches the British celebrity chef to make a perfect plate of Awadhi dum machli (steam-cooked fish). When an amazed Rick Stein asks her why the cuisine isn’t widely known across the world, Bhadouria says that many of its dishes are a closely guarded secret.
The show is being aired on Sony BBC Earth this month, as part of a segment of India-centric programmes to commemorate Independence Day. The show documents Stein’s travels across India to find the perfect curry. Bhadouria, who hails from Lucknow, jumped at the opportunity to add Awadhi cuisine into that mix.
“Most often people associate Lucknow food with kebabs and korma but at Lucknow, we have plenty of fresh fish available with us,” Bhadouria told Scroll.in. “An interesting part of the process was also to take him to the fish market.”
Bhadouria won the first season of food reality competition MasterChef India in 2010. Since then, she has opened two restaurants in Lucknow, written numerous cookbooks and has hosted many TV shows including Chef Pankaj Ka Zayka (2011), Rasoi Se – Pankaj Bhadouria ke Saath (2013) and Dream Kitchen (2017). She also has her own culinary academy in Lucknow.
Bhadouria often tries to explore the different Indian cuisines through her shows and cookbooks. The relatively obscure Awadhi cuisine is one of India’s finest, she said.
Her love for the cuisine comes from years spent in Lucknow. “I have been cooking since the age of 11 as my parents too were great cooks,” she said. “I am half-Bengali and half-Punjabi and was living in Delhi. My mother used to learn from a lot of courses and I learnt from her. I then went back to Lucknow and picked up Awadhi cuisine.”
Bhadouria was an English teacher at a school before she became a chef. “At some point in time, you are prompted to listen to your heart instead of your mind,” she said. “And that is what I did, I guess. There was this advertisement on television inviting home chefs to come and participate in Masterchef. My kids and family encouraged me to apply.”
Leaving a place where she worked for 15 years to pursue her dreams wasn’t easy. “I quit my job in very unpleasant terms,” Bhadouria said. “I was actually criticised that I was not applying for the love of food, but for the glamour of the television world. I told them that I was a mother of two. How does glamour attract me? When I quit my job, I was part of the top 14 [at Masterchef]. At times, the pressure did get unnerving. But I knew that this was my calling.”
Years of packing lunchboxes for her school-going children helped her at the competition, she said. “I used to be very innovative while making food for my family and kids,” Bhadouria said. “I had to manage cooking breakfast, lunch and tiffin for my kids within 40 minutes before I left for work. That is what actually helped me out in Masterchef. One-hour cooking in the show seemed like a cake walk.”
Reality competition shows are now common on India television, but a cooking reality show has to be extremely compelling to retain its connect with the audience, Bhadouria said.
“Unlike singing and dancing reality shows, in food shows, the audience cannot be part of the judging system,” she said. “In those shows, you can vote and also form an opinion on what they are doing. With food, they cannot become a part of the judge as they cannot taste the food. But as long as the food is relatable to the Indian audience, it is good.”
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