Mr. Pout and Ms. Pretty on the set of Foodshala. Image Credit: Supplied picture

It was nine in the morning on April 23. It’s one day I won’t forget in a hurry. I had just entered the office after a week of holidaying with family in India. I was fresh, ready to face the world and completely energised. “You are going to be participating in the second season of Foodshala, the cookery reality show that was all the rage in the Middle East last year,” announced Karen, my editor. Karen’s wicked sense of humour is legendary around the office, so I waited for her to guffaw and say, “I’m sorry, that was a bad joke”, but no such luck. Before I knew it, I was seeking ways to go Awol for the next few weeks.

In my 12 years with Friday, I was sure I had perfected the art of flying below the radar. I was happy to come to work and return home in the evening to a life of domestic bliss. 
My husband might not agree with the bliss part, but I’ll save that story for another day.

Karen clearly wanted to rock my boat and I didn’t even see it coming. 
I am a fighter and I don’t give up easily. I knew I had to find a way to get out of this. “Handling cookery pages in Friday is one thing, Karen, but cooking in front of a camera is a completely different kettle of fish. You know very well that I’m no expert. And don’t you think you are risking the credibility of the magazine by nominating a basic 
cook like me?” I asked her.

There was a momentary silence. I thought I smelt victory. “Well, Anand is participating with you,” Karen replied. Poof, just like that the whiff of victory became the stench of defeat. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Anand. His unruffled, positive-at-all-times attitude has always been an inspiration. And he is an accomplished cook as well. But the fact that Karen saw through my excuses had me bothered. It was 
clear I had no way out – only down.

Overcome by madness

Irish author Samuel Beckett, 
known for his dark humour, once said, “We are all born mad. Some remain so.” I am part of that ‘some’.

Struck by a ‘recklessness virus’, 
I convinced Anand that the best option would be to prepare a dessert. “Have you made this before?’’ he asked. I shook my head.

“Has anyone ever made it before?’’ he asked.

“No,’’ I said. “We will be the very first ones.’’

“Yipee,’’ he said. “Let’s go for it.’’

Samuel Beckett must have had Anand in mind as well.

We decided to name our dessert shahi jamun. Since we had a fortnight to perfect it, I was confident that this saga was going to have a fairy-tale ending.

For those who have not been able to imagine the dish by now, let me explain. It is a marriage between shahi tukra and gulab jamun, which are two classic Indian desserts. The former is fried slices of bread soaked in sweet thickened milk and the latter are golden brown dumplings made of khoya (solidified milk) and refined flour, which are then dunked in sugar syrup. Our recipe was pretty simple: stuff moist pieces of bread with sweetened khoya and chopped pistachios; shape them into bite-sized balls; deep-fry them to perfection and dunk them in sweet thickened milk. How can anything go wrong with something so simple? Well, as some wise guy once said, “If something can go wrong, it will”. And it did. But I’ll come to that later.

In hindsight, I think that if we had tried it a couple of times before the show, our shahi jamun would’ve had the desired fairy-tale ending, but no – we did not practise.

As our D-Day approached, we were too nervous to give our recipe a try. It’s better if we don’t know whether it’ll work or not, we told ourselves. We just decided to wing it. Russian roulette, here we come!

But on the eve of the shoot, our false bravado evaporated. In search of moral support, I approached some friends and colleagues looking for a few kind words or for pity – I was becoming an emotional wreck. Instead, all I got were comments that ranged from, “Are you mad?” to “Remember, it just has to look good,” to “Should we buy you a mask? It’ll come in handy when dealing with public attention (read: humiliation) later on, you know”. My fragile self-esteem was now in tatters.

On May 13, I was trembling as Anand and I walked into the Meliá Dubai hotel in Bur Dubai, for the shoot. I turned to look at Anand, hoping to find solace in his unruffled, calm persona, but what did I see? A wide smile and sparkling eyes that were saying, “Somebody stop me”. The never-before-seen Jim Carrey facet of his personality had taken over and he was ready to give it to the viewers. There was clearly no going back.

“Do you think we’re mad?’’ I asked him. His reply was, “No, we are going to be stars!’’

I ignored that and walked over to the set. The very sight of half a dozen cameras, lights and a very professional crew who I was sure could clearly see my agony, sent my stress levels through the roof. And the icing on this horrible cake was Anand’s new personality, which 
was becoming worrisome.

Before anybody could even greet us and make us feel comfortable I was running to the ladies’. I tried faking a few smiles in the mirror, then gave up and went to the set only to find a make-up artist 
waiting to have a go at me.

I closed my eyes and felt a flurry of brushes dancing over my face. Moments later I was told that I was all primped up to face the cameras. Then, to my horror, the make-up artist turned to Anand to give him the same treatment, and what do I see? The man was actually enjoying the fact that a make-up artist was applying face powder and lipgloss on him! Lipgloss!

Bumbling ball of nerves

Somebody walked over to clip a microphone to my collar, while the very suave Gaurav Tandon, managing director of the video production firm K Kompany, and the confident Kritika Rawat, the show’s producer, came by to tell us novices that our next half hour was going to be as difficult as we – no, sorry I – had expected. “Pretend that there is no camera; keep talking while preparing your dish. Keep it casual, cool,” they tried to reassure me. Yeah right, it’s easy for these pros to say. After all, both of them ruled the airwaves on various FM channels for years before starting this production house.

I told myself, “We – sorry I – shall overcome,” and at the count of three, we began working on our dessert, shahi jamun.

Thirty excruciating minutes later, we had a dish that looked better than I expected, except for one jamun, which failed to hold its shape. Don’t ask me why as I have no recollection of that moment. I’m convinced that I am suffering from stress-related amnesia.

I’m not sure I’ll watch my episode when it airs, but if you’re watching Foodshala and you come across a tall, bald man with a thick moustache and a plump woman in thick glasses trying to cook, you know the story. You will have plenty of opportunities to laugh at the misery of one fumbling TV debutante and another, who was trying to ensure that his attempt at achieving fame was not ruined by the woman beside him.

Big lights, big dreams

The man was enjoying every bit of the limelight and was later seen charming the organisers, hoping they would offer him an exclusive spot next season. In fact, he has already started working on his pout and I’ve noticed him eyeing my lipgloss.

In retrospect, I can’t decide on the highlight of what was – by far – the most head-spinning experience of my life. Was it seeing Anand with a hint of shimmer on his cheeks and gloss on his lips? Or the fact that we went through this agonising experience without losing our composure?

I don’t have a career in front of the TV camera. So aspiring telly chefs of Dubai, chill, I will not be offering you guys any competition. But as I said earlier, I can’t say the same for Anand. He is one talent waiting to be spotted.

Here are recipes prepared by 
Chefs Sanjeev Kapoor and 
Akshay Nayyar, two judges 
on Foodshala, and by Shreekutty – a participant. These recipes will be demonstrated on the June 1 episode of Foodshala.

Mango pachadi (serves 4)

Prep time: 15 mins
Cooking time: 15 mins

1 cup coconut, grated
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 green chilli
2 mangoes
1 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp jaggery, grated
1 cup yogurt, whisked salt
2 tbsp coconut oil
3 dried red chillies
1 tsp mustard seeds pinch fenugreek powder handful curry leaves

Mix together coconut, cumin seeds and green chillies with a little water
to make a thick, smooth paste.
2. Cube mangos and reserve stones. In a deep pan, cook mango, stones, turmeric powder, salt and water until mangoes become mushy.
3. Add jaggery and stir until it melts. On a low heat, add yogurt and mix well. Add coconut paste and mix again. Season to taste.
4. Heat coconut oil in a small pan. Add red chillies, mustard seeds, fenugreek powder and curry leaves. Pour over mango curry and cover pan with a lid. Do not open until ready to serve.
5. Serve with steamed rice and crispy elephant yam chips.
Recipe prepared by Shreekutty, a contestant on Foodshala

Saag gosht (serves 2)

Prep time: 15 mins
Cooking time: 45 mins

3 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp garlic, chopped
2 tsp besan (chickpea flour)
1/2 cup spinach purée
1/2 cup mustard leaves purée
1/2 tsp green chillies, chopped
2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves, crushed 200g boneless mutton
1 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp cream salt spinach, julienned, deep-fried until crispy

1. In a pan, heat ghee then add cumin seeds and garlic. Sauté until garlic begins to brown. Add besan and sauté.
2. Add puréed greens, green chillies, spice powders and dried fenugreek. Mix well.
3. Add mutton and mix well. Cover and simmer until tender.
4. B efore serving, add butter and cream. Garnish with crispy spinach and serve hot.
Recipe prepared by Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, a judge on Foodshala

Stone-grilled mutton picattas with rice omelette (serves 4)

Prep time: 10 minutes, plus 2 days refrigeration
Cooking time: 30 mins

For picattas:

1kg mutton leg, deboned, cut into chunks
30g raw papaya paste
10g garlic paste
10g ginger paste
200g fried onion paste
1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp malt vinegar
2 tsp mustard oil pinch stone flower powder
100g Greek yogurt or hung yogurt
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp besan (chickpea flour) salt

For rice omelette:
oil spray
2 eggs, whisked
3 tbsp cooked rice
green chillies, chopped, according to taste
1 tbsp coriander, chopped salt and pepper

To prepare mutton, Mix together picatta ingredients and cover. Refrigerate for two days.
2. To preheat stone grill, place a slab of granite on a hot plate and heat until sizzling hot. Spray with oil and place meat on top. Cook until mutton begins to char, then turn over and finish cooking.
3. To prepare omelette, heat a non-stick pan and spray with oil. Add eggs and tilt the pan around so pan is coated evenly.
4. When eggs are firm at the bottom but slightly runny on top, sprinkle rice, green chillies and coriander over. Cook for a few more minutes and carefully fold over. Slide off the pan on to a plate. Serve immediately.
Recipe prepared by Chef Akshay NHayyar, a judge on Foodshala