KATHMANDU, DEC 5: Aloo ko achar, poleko machhaa, til tamatar chatni, aapko kulfi and what not! Santosh Sah, 35, is in the semifinal of the BBC MasterChef, a competitive cooking show. He is introducing Nepali recipes to the world.
He spent five years researching different food, including two years exploring Nepali cuisine from the hill, mountain and the terai. Talking to Republica, he said a decade is not enough to explore the rich food cultures in the country. "And I regret that it dawned on me just two years ago!'
Born in Siraha district, the robust and pleasant-looking man’s life is full of struggles. After his father died while he was still very young, he began to sell bread and other stuff to make money. Higher education became a far-fetched dream; poverty began to take a toll on the family's happiness. He then headed to Gujarat in India in search of a job. At 15, he was a dishwasher at a roadside hotel in the city and made Rs 900 per month.
"Even Rs 900 a month was a big amount. I was so relieved. And when I would look at the chefs, clad in neat white dresses, I would be excited, and wanted to become one," he reminisced.
That was where he developed this love for cooking. Some of the people he met guided him further. Saroj Das from Gujarat is someone he's highly indebted to.
"He was already a pioneer in the field. It was due to him that I got a job as an assistant chef at some hotel. There I learned the details of cooking," Sah said.
His life’s turning point came when Sah got an opportunity to enroll at an institute for a diploma course in catering services. Simultaneously, he started polishing his English and Hindi language skills. "Within seven years, I was at a different level. I was already an executive chef at a five-star hotel and 60 staff members were working under me."
He was getting paid Rs 40,000 per month. In 2009, he left India and went to Montenegro for international exposure in cooking. However, he got back to Gujarat and organized a huge food festival.
"After I organized the food festival, the news spread far and wide. And I got a call from a Gujarati man based in London. That was another turning point in my life," Sah narrates.
Sah has been working in London and it has been rewarding. He cherishes moments with several celebrity chefs among other memories.
Understandably enough, the competition in the BBC MasterChef is highly stressful. But Sah has all the confidence – the themes he chooses during every episode reflect the beauty and essence of Nepali soil and the products. And this organic taste is hard to ignore.
"I spent nearly 20 years preparing Indian cuisines. I did not try to understand the richness of our own food varieties. But now I'm overwhelmed and it's humbling to present our taste before the world," he noted. "I have already tried at least over 200 recipes of our food."
Elated by his performance, one of the judges of the show and a celebrity English chef Marcus Wearing had recently said to Sah – "You did bring Nepal into the kitchen today. Color and vibrancy, you can smell it."
According to Sah, he is busy practicing for the semi-final and the date of the final competition is not yet known.