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Every heartwarming story has its sprinkle of sadness, a dash of masala and a cupful of hope; after spending a casual morning with Masterchef India contestant Rohini Chawla, I see too that her story has all of these ingredients. It was her father who inspired her lifelong connection to cooking along with her decision to join Masterchef and ultimately it was his sudden passing that urged her early withdrawal from the competition. She had come full circle, or so she thought. Today, what she gained through the Masterchef experience only strengthens her beliefs in the food journey she had begun all those years ago standing in the kitchen preparing Sunday lunch with her beloved Dad.

Rohini was born in Delhi and as the daughter of a Lt. Col. in the Indian Army, her family lived in Agra, Jammu, Leh, Kerala and many other cities. When she was 19, she went to pursue her undergraduate studies in New Jersey and a couple years of later her parents also moved to New Jersey. Four years ago she moved back to India with her husband and their son. Now with a young son and a two-year-old daughter, they are based in Gurgaon. “Being an Army kid, travel has been part and parcel of my life and since being married we have travelled around the world. These broad travel experiences have given me so much growth and I want my kids to also experience the same.” Rohini and her family are true foodies and they love going to the little mom and pop shops to pick up the local spices and to taste the real flavors when travelling. “We love to do the touristy things when travelling, but the one thing that is always a must are a few trips to local spice/food shacks and grocery stores to pick up food items to bring back and these are like our prized souvenirs. I like to stay authentic to the cuisines of the region.” This is absolutely one of the themes that comes through when talking about Rohini’s culinary philosophy and it’s this dedication to authentic home cooking that gives Rohini’s food such heart.

We sat down over morning chai and had the chance to ask Rohini a little more about her life, her food journey and hopes beyond Masterchef.

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What was your earliest childhood memory around food?

“My earliest memories are two-dimensional, my Mom made us very simple food but when my Dad was home he would love making “fancy” food; he would make samosa’s and mathi’s and sugar coat them so they became little treats, all from scratch. I was in Kindergarten and so vividly still remember him making these delicacies. This is a skill that I appreciate the most about him and feel proud today that I do the same! Even though it may take a lot of time, my style today is to make everything from scratch as much as possible. As tempting as it is when I walk into a grocery store, I refuse to buy anything that is bottled like pasta sauce etc., the concept just doesn’t suit me. From seeing Papa, I’d say this style of soul cooking is very important; like him, I put my soul into the dish from the beginning.”

As a kid were you an adventurous eater?

“No, my love of food came later! I was a fussy eater, though my parents did a great job introducing seasonal food to us. We ate what was cooked, there was never special food that was made to please my brother and I. Now being a mum of two young kids, I let them develop their own taste as I know that ours change as we grow. I load up hidden veggies in dishes so they get what they need but I’m not as strict as my parents were.”

What was your favourite meal growing up?

“Our weekend tradition would start with Friday dinner usually being a slow cooked lamb curry, and then rajma chawal on Sunday’s in our house was always special. This is a wonderful food memory of mine and I love making such food memories with our kids  too. Food has a huge connection with family at a lot of levels. Your mind brightens up at the wonderful memories that food sparks.”

You’ve said before that your father inspired your love of cooking, though this is a sensitive subject, do you mind sharing what influence you feel he had?

“I saw my Dad come back from work and still have enthusiasm to be creative with his cooking. He gave a spin to our everyday Indian food. I have enormous admiration that 30 years ago he was creative enough to jazz up the same ingredients and create something interesting. I love this style of cooking; you give me a red and yellow bell pepper and I’ll make it 5 ways. Nothing goes to waste and you get the best out of the food. I’ve spent so many hours with him in the kitchen when he’s cooking and he would always be happy to toil. Some of his favourite dishes were slow-cooked meat stews that would take hours, like his mutton gravy dish, but he was always so patient because he just loved spending time in the kitchen. I have got this patience and commitment to the dish from him. Even today, though I love entertaining, my happiest time is in the kitchen preparing and serving my friends and family the best food I can create. This is what he was known for. At his funeral service, the most heart-warming stories came from people’s experiences sharing times around the table with him.”

What style of cooking do you enjoy best?

“I love baking, things that are quick yet flavoursome like stir-fries and sautés. I cook everything with love. To get the right flavour I will cook exactly how the dish requires it. If there’s a specific kind of cheese in Greek food and I’m cooking Greek, then I will try to use that same cheese and not try to find substitutes. My favourite style of cooking ultimately is that which is true to its origin.”

What made you try out for Masterchef?

Under a chuckle “I still don’t know…a friend first recommended it and I mulled over it for a while, I googled it, thought about it some more and then thought “ok, I’ll give it a try.” I think I entered to get affirmation from the judges to really see how good my cooking is. I thought Masterchef would be a great platform to understand if all the generous comments from family and friends over the years about my cooking is true. It was extremely hard and stressful leaving my family behind, especially my then 17 month old baby. Overall, it sure has been an amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything…”

If you could sum up your Masterchef experience in 3 words, what would you say?

“I’d say inspiring, reassuring and confidence-building.”

What’s the best criticism you received from the judges?

“I think plating-up; my style has always been rustic, organic, free-flowing but there I learnt the art of fine plating. The overload of edible flowers and micro herbs, I learnt how to present food in a style that was different for me.”

Do you feel the experience changed you in any way and if so, how?

“Yes absolutely! It has given me a huge confidence boost. I have received pats on the back and many affirmations on my ability and this confidence is allowing me to take more risks, to be more adventurous with ingredients that I was scared to work with before and say, yes I can do this. In a very positive way, it has given me a purpose; I’ve always loved to cook and entertain but now I can look beyond this to do something more. It has shown me the path that my cooking can take me on and for that I’m very excited.”

What are you most passionate about in terms of your food journey?

“My whole idea is to bring authentic world cuisine to people that is easily replicable at home. We are all busy, we all travel and have full lives but I want people to become smart, to prepare ahead and create authentic dishes from all over the world. If we prepare, we can bring interesting and creative different foods like Middle Eastern and Italian cooking to the everyday. Instead of going out, let’s create these dishes at home. a) It’s made with love; b) It’s healthier and c) I think the family will love it more.”

With such success and your new Masterchef profile, what do you hope to do next?

“I really want to write a book; I want people to start entertaining at home. In India we are all big hearted, we love to entertain but bringing in caterers when we have guests has become the norm. I want to change that. I want people to start cooking at home; when you cook and people enjoy your labour of love, the satisfaction and happiness that this brings is priceless. I want to share easy entertaining recipes, where people think outside of the box, where they prepare ahead and bring wonderful world recipes to life. “

“And one day I want to open a food truck, though there is a lot of red tape here, I’d love to one day make it possible. I’ll have a rotating menu, you’ll find new and different foods to expand your palate, some days there would be all baked goodies, the next day it might be a different world cuisine. I love change and love to express this change through my food.”

If you were to jump ahead 3 years, where do you hope your food journey has taken you?

“I’m still finding my direction, but I hope that people start associating me with the ability to bring world cuisine to them in a very simplified manner. If I can do this, then I’m on the right path.”

What are the personal qualities that make you a great cook?

“Well I’m fun and I think my food also turns out to be fun, in terms of its flavours and the way it is presented. As a warm person, this warmth comes through my food because it brings everyone together, in a happy fuzzy way. I’m also patient with my food preparation and I try to create everything from scratch no matter how long it takes. I don’t mind sacrificing my sleep when it comes to creating a beautiful dish.”

If you were preparing your favourite meal for someone, what would it be?

“This is one of the simplest dishes and the whole family loves it so I would cook Aglio olio spaghetti with basil pesto chicken and now that I have conquered my fear of yeast, a freshly baked bread to go along. This is such a special meal because it’s a dish that all my family loves and my son even helps me pick the fresh basil from our balcony garden and keeps an eye on the spaghetti and my little one can’t wait to slurp up that pasta.”

Rohini’s the kind of girl whose big smile and big heart shines through in everything she does. When she laughs, it’s a big laugh and you can feel the happy place that it comes from. I think cooking is that place because it’s bonded in many ways to her love of family. I imagine her father would be proud; with his flair for making ordinary food extraordinary and his dedication to create beautiful food for his family, when you talk with Rohini, you can feel she shares his heart for this connection. Maybe it’s he who has come full circle.

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The other Taj Mahal

Under the burning sun rows of school kids walk together, their eager beaming faces smiling at the western tourists who are already hot and sweaty by the time they’ve made it from the car park to the first arched entrance. Actually, if you clamber past the long lines for tickets, the rush of teenagers making out and the occasional dead dog, you’ll be well and truly rewarded with one of India’s most sacred and beautiful effigies to her past. Humayun’s Tomb, or the other Taj as it’s sometimes called, is the breathtaking and stately final resting place for the Emperor, commissioned by his son Akbar 76 years before Agra’s Taj Mahal was built. It may not have the Taj’s snowy white marble facade, but what it lacks in reputation it makes up for with an easy and relaxed welcome.

Maybe because of sheer size or simply because Delhi is so old, with so many chapters to her history, that sadly some monuments get left behind. There are few grand approach-ways or stately entrances, most often you see rough stonework walls that stretch for avenues and curve along the road but when you follow them they’ll take you to wonderful relics of the past. They’ll lead you to the landscaped beauty of the Mogul gardens, symmetrical waterways and noble domes that sit against the backdrop of a pale heated sky and echo the sounds of the adhan. Sitting on the upper stone level of Humayun’s Tomb you see the sprawling gardens, the curved domes of the smaller tombs and Persian spires just barely taller than the canopy of ageing trees. It’s like the mystical story books that told of warrior kings and desert queens from childhood.

Emperor Humayun was the second in the line of Mogul rulers and lived a life well assigned to the pages of a novel. In a nutshell, he inherited the throne as a 23 year old man, opium was his drug of choice and history records the early years of his reign with little aplomb. None of his three brothers supported him as Emperor and years of infighting weakened the kingdom until Humayun was defeated and wandered the deserts remaining in exile in Persia for the next 15 years. In the ultimate comeback, Humayun staged an attack on the rulers of Delhi and regained his empirical status. Sadly, within a year of reconquering India a sudden fall down the stairs of his library cut short his life. He had achieved what he was meant to do, inherited, lost and won an empire all in one life. Thankfully in his palatial tomb his memory and legacy remain.

There’s an enchantment about being in a city full of jewels of the past. To know that empires have been built and fallen around the streets that take you across Delhi is quite something. Out from the jagged lines of concrete houses, vegetable carts and kosam trees, the peak of a worn down stone archway surprisingly appears. There are sandstone and brick tombs standing alongside intersections and busy roundabouts as a wonderful reminder of the many faces that the city has bowed to. Humayun’s Tomb is the resting place for many of the Emperor’s family and to think it sits so quietly and unobtrusively in the centre of the city’s urban hustle creates a beautiful synergy between the old and the New Delhi.

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* Adhan: call to prayer

Thank you to Travel Belles for publishing our blog “Things to do in Siem Reap – Top 5 Must See Attractions.” Please click on the below link for our top tips and to the team at Travel Belles, thanks again! Happy travels everyone!

Things To Do In Siem Reap – Top 5 Must See Attractions

 

Angkor Wat a surprise!

When your home is backyard to heritage listed monuments, you’d be forgiven for allowing a nonchalant sort of familiarity to creep in. Remember as kids being persuaded to go along to yet another famous landmark when a visiting Aunt or family friends were in town.  I asked the “other gal” how many times she’d seen the Taj Mahal and she replied wearily “too many times to count.” Every time family came from overseas, back to the Taj they’d go. But over time we find ourselves adding these places to our travel bucket list and getting excited like school kids at the chance to visit them. On the day we first went to see Angkor Wat we were up early, jumped into our tuk tuk where our wide grinning driver promised us an unforgettable day and wove through the busy market streets out into the humid jungle. He didn’t disappoint. With the tall dense tree-line and monsoon clouds emerging you could feel the heat edging in. First stop, find two local hand-woven wicker hats to abate the searing sun and breathe in the moment.

At the approach to Angkor Wat like most tourist sites in Cambodia, rows of wide-legged pants and sundresses make their way towards you, attached to coat-hangers being pushed along by an eager salesperson literally peddling their wares. There are circles of beautiful smiling children trying to sell temple postcards, tourist books and trinkets. It’s the same through most of Asia, though there’s an obvious lack of free-roaming animals that you’ll find in just about all Indian sightseeing spots. Cambodia really has got tourism right. At a very central tourist centre with plenty of help on hand, you can purchase a 3 day temple pass to use over the course of a week. It means that when you arrive at a temple you can go straight in, no maddening crowds or long queues, so we eagerly jumped from our tuk tuk and started the scenic walk to the entrance of Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is the reason most people visit Cambodia, it’s a sprawling network of temples (its name simply means temple city) that remained long-undiscovered in the dense jungle for hundreds of years. When the ambitious young nephew of Dharanindravarman I ambushed his great uncle killing him and pronouncing himself king in the mid 12th century, he set about to do what many usurpers have done, cement their place in history by creating an empire dedicated to their Gods. The young King venerated the God Vishnu and built the temple in his honour through it gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple after his passing. Covering over 400 acres, Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious site, it’s world heritage listed and if the ambitious Kings’ intent was to put the Khmer empire and Cambodia on the map, he absolutely nailed it.

What hits you first is the scale, it is literally sprawling; just when you think you’ve reached the end of one corridor, you peer out through stone archways across the lawn and see that there’s another carved entrance that takes you to a labyrinth of walkways with original 14th century Buddha statues and carvings, draped in gold cloth and standing as serenely as they did all those years ago. We saw many Monks, some sitting in solitude chanting, others industriously running from one wing of the temple to another and yet other’s giving blessings. We waited our turn and sat quietly in front of a Monk sitting cross-legged on a woven mat, his smile wide, his deep voice chanting in song as he splashed water on us from a decorative silver bowl and tied red and yellow string bracelets on our wrists. We figured that if you were ever going to seek such blessings and have them willingly bestowed, then there are few places better than a 900 year old temple. Towards the back of the complex stand the three temple towers, each one lovingly carved with reliefs spiralling all the way to the top. To look up to their summits against the sun with a crisp blue sky as the backdrop, you know you’re somewhere special.

Back in our tuk tuk with our delightfully happy driver, enjoying the cool wind from the breezy ride we circled around the moat through the jungle and found ourselves on a bridge where he promptly stopped and gestured to meet us through the archway. To our absolute surprise we turned around to see statue after statue of larger than life Buddha faces, each a slightly different face; the stone mottled and mossy, worn through time but alive just the same. This line of statues stand along the causeway crossing the Southgate to Angkor Thom and lead you to the archway where Buddha’s smiling face peers down on you. This is just the beginning; as you walk through the temple ruins you see smiling faces everywhere, four faces facing north, south, east and west are carved on the sides of 54 standing towers. What remains today are 200 of them, peering down at curious travellers with our selfie sticks and guidebooks. As an experience for us as tourists it was one of our most treasured afternoons, walking through narrow stairwells, a soft breeze whispering through the trees and the smiles of the Gods etched into eternity.

Though it’s easy to get temple fatigue when you’re travelling, the temples of Angkor and Siem Reap are all so distinctive you can feel their individual characters and energy and with that we had one more temple we couldn’t wait to see. It’s easily recognisable in snapshots and postcards and is one of the most well preserved temples in Angkor. When you walk through Ta Prohm, pale green leafy trees stand on either side of the dusty walkway and you are in the heart of the jungle where a civilisation once boomed. The connection between the two is evident everywhere you look. There are root systems pulsating through the ground, banyan trees alive and growing through the temple walls and it’s as though the stone and jungle are one, forever intertwined where one would die without the other. That’s the beauty of a living jungle with doorways leading to undiscovered passages and stories carved into the walls still waiting to be told, some so well hidden you have to wonder what else is waiting within the lush jungle walls of the temple city. 

 

The happy expat

I used to think that the term expat was some sort of official title given to people who moved abroad with an embassy or government posting. It took me a while to realise when I first moved overseas that I had joined this particular circle, a foreign network of sorts, no more or less official than when the “other gal” moved to London to study in college. I think because I went in with so much familiarity, I didn’t stop to think about a framework for survival that at some point in time anyone living overseas needs. When you arrive in a new country it may feel like one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. But like many expats we know, they’ll tell you the hardest part is actually leaving. If you have the chance to go, take it. Your passport and your heart will never be the same!

Make friends quickly

A bit like the trick to making it at High School, it helps to connect and make friends as quickly as you can. When you meet others in the same situation there’s a familiarity that borders on relief. You’ll be there to offer support, give advice, share local tips and simply be there for each other. And that’s why we need our expat friends so much and build friendships that I’m told can be measured in dog years for the intensity and weight that they carry; because who else is going to get it, who else is going to understand the level of anguish it can cause you to plan 3 things in a day and know that none of them will be accomplished for another month, or to understand that out of body feeling of being in two places at once and belonging somewhere in between.

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Know how to say hi

It almost goes without saying that it helps to speak a little of the local language but it’s easier said than done. It can be really tricky to master another language, especially if you’ve had little exposure to it before. I remember once asking for a pomegranate juice in Hindi and the kind lady making it for me asked me again and again if I was sure. Of course! Just a tall glass of fresh crimson juice please. It took me about 15 minutes to work out why she was laughing and refused to make it for me; apparently there’s nothing refreshing about garlic, no matter how you try and juice it. Not only will it help you get around, but learning a few conversational words will help you gain acceptance and inclusion.

Dive in the deep end

One of the reasons most expats take up the challenge to resettle in another country is because we’re drawn in by the curiosity of a foreign culture. It’s probably the most exciting aspect of the journey and a treasure completely uncovered if you don’t dive in the deep end. Through significant festivities and celebrations, or the way the culture marries, raises children or simply welcomes in a new year can be wonderful and enriching ways to peel back the layers of a countries’ cultural heritage.

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Know that some days suck

There’s no denying it, some days you’ll be caught in a quagmire of challenges where you’ll feel you’re drowning, cultural nuances you don’t understand, language barriers, struggles in getting things done with the ease you’re used to because nothing is the same, nothing is familiar and on some days simply nothing makes sense. But suck it up anyway, because the sooner you can accept the difficulties, the sooner they’ll pass. I still want to make one of those memes that says “what my friends & family back home think I do as an expat” vs “what I really do as an expat” because despite what might look like one long holiday it’s in equal measure a process of huge adjustment to resettle, rethink and regroup.

Pop the expat bubble

Once you find yourself a member of this expat tribe, it’s very easy to get drawn into a cycle of coffee mornings, shopping expeditions, weekends away and as you get accustomed to life in a new country these are wonderfully helpful and important rituals. You can float along from one brunch to another and it’s all lovely…but don’t be afraid to pop the bubble at some point. It’s the difference between living an extensive 5 star holiday and feeling the grit of life between your toes, both are necessary, both are fun and doing a little of each will keep you grounded.

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Live like a local

Like renting in the area before you buy, researching and visiting your expat country of choice before you call the Removalists might seem like quite an effort, but one well worth it. When you’re there, as much as you can, try and immerse yourself in the local way of life. Going to a developing country and staying in luxury hotels is really going in with rose coloured glasses. Taste the local cuisine, check out the schools and healthcare services, understand the religious undertones and If you can see yourself living, functioning and soaking up the local vibe then you may have found your next home. 

Take little, live a lot

It’s tempting when you move that you’ll take your household with you, I’d recommend at least having some of your sentimental pieces with you, it does help to feel that you’re recreating a home. But if you don’t have to, let it go! The lighter and more minimalist you can travel the more of a fresh start you’ll create and you’ll have plenty of space to pick up local pieces that will be with you always. I remember once someone saying that it’s wonderful to have a house full of pieces you’ve collected from your travels. Of course this depends where you go, but I’ve seen plenty of expats from across Asia choosing, copying or even designing fabulous and eclectic furniture pieces. Back home, these pieces are unique, these are the treasures from your journey and have wonderful stories to tell, just as you will.

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 “I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” Bill Bryson

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