Nambie Jessica Marak might hail from a remote village in Meghalaya’s West Khasi Hills, but her knowledge of Northeastern food and indigenous ingredients has floored some of the biggest chefs to grace MasterChef India Season 8. In conversation with Slurrp, Nambie opened up about her experience so far.
Donning tribal-origin earrings that people across the nation have commented on and carrying with her the knowledge of Northeastern cuisines, Nambie Jessica Marak has swept fans of MasterChef India off their feet during the currently on-air Season 8 of the show. Her very first introduction to the judges was with a completely original dish called Whispering Hills Medley, which featured ingredients straight from her home—red rice, black rice, Sohiong berries, etc. Yes, it impressed the judges—chefs Vikas Khanna, Ranveer Brar and Pooja Dhingra—but it wasn’t the last dish to do so.
In the few weeks that followed, Nambie presented dishes like Puh Saw, a traditional red rice steamed cake from Meghalaya. But more than that, she innovated like very few chefs, forget home chefs, can. She impressed Chef Suvir Saran with a Breakfast Dosa Platter that transformed fermented beans from the Northeast into a South Indian Podi. She floored Chef Kunal Kapur with an incredibly refined dish centred around perfectly steamed fish. And she even managed to woo global icon Chef Marco Pierre White’s taste buds with her one-of-a-kind Kiwi Rasam.
Nambie’s journey on the MasterChef India Season 8 kitchen, where she has now become the first contestant to enter Finals Week, has been full of ups and downs—but her spirit and her need to showcase Meghalaya’s indigenous foods has driven her constantly. In conversation with Slurrp, Nambie opened up about her experience so far.
Video Credit: YouTube/Eat Your Kappa
What has your journey from Meghalaya to MasterChef been like? Tell us about how it all started.
I am from a very remote village in Meghalaya called Upper Rangsa, which is in the West Khasi Hills district of the state. Geographically, you can’t even find it on Google Maps. How my journey started is with following MasterChef globally. I’ve always imagined myself participating in MasterChef and wondered if I’ll be able to compete on such a platform and perform under pressure. And I’ve always wanted to do this to represent the rich culinary heritage I come from. I wanted to show the cuisines of East India to the rest of the world. So when I got to know about the auditions happening in Kolkata, I went for it. It worked out well! Then I travelled to Mumbai, the judges loved my food and I got selected to the Top 12!
Apart from Meghalaya’s food, you knowledge of South Indian cuisines is also vast. How did that come about?
I went to Chennai to do my Master’s and I met my husband there. He is Tamil. We got married and I stayed in Chennai for over eight years, so obviously my cooking also has a huge South Indian influence. I love the fact that I can merge Meghalaya’s cuisine with that of Tamil Nadu and bring it to the plate. I really enjoy having South Indian Dosas with curries from my hometown, like the dried fish ones. I’ve always experimented with these flavours at home in Meghalaya, so I thought I should also bring these recipes to the MasterChef Kitchen. My mother-in-law is an amazing cook and the South Indian culture is such that they love their food, their breakfasts and elaborate meals.
Tell us about your home and background in Meghalaya?
I come from a matrilineal society, and the daughter of the house is supposed to take care of the family and the familial home. When I was working in Chennai, my mother had a fall and there was nobody to take care of everything. So I moved to my village with my one-year-old daughter and a year later my husband followed. We both are in this remote village of Upper Rangsa now and we run a farm and adopted a school last year. My husband and I are the only educated people in the village and we wanted to give back, so we adopted the school. We have 85 children now. And I also run a little pickling business through my Instagram.
How have you been putting Meghalaya’s cuisine on the MasterChef India plate?
I think everything that I’ve been cooking up in the MasterChef kitchen is based on ideas from home. I have a YouTube channel, which is dedicated to documenting Northeastern food, and I’m very familiar with South Indian food too. So, I have a very wide knowledge base and because I do a lot of fusion cooking every day at home, I have a good idea of how the flavour combinations will work. I feel like having that knowledge about two such vast cuisines, it really works in my mind and now I’m so glad that I can execute it on the plate. Like the Kiwi Rasam I made during the challenge set by Marco Pierre White—we grow kiwis in the Northeast and I love Rasam, so the fusion made sense in my mind. I made it for the first time and it really worked! I think you just have to understand the flavour profiles of ingredients and what makes a dish a classic. That makes fusion easier.
Video Credit: YouTube/Eat Your Kappa
What is the pressure of cooking in the MasterChef India kitchen like?
Having these culinary legends and role models in the MasterChef India kitchen, it’s a huge honour and yes, it does add to the pressure. When Marco Pierre White entered the kitchen, I simply went crazy. It’s very nerve-wracking to cook in front of these legends, and also to think of an idea that they will love. My method is to look at what is available in the pantry or the Mystery Box and visualise a dish that only I can make. When Kunal Kapur came, I picked the Grouper fish and the steamer and it worked out fine. But yes, the pressure is always there and that can affect the cook at any point. Your mind can stop functioning and things can go wrong. At the end, it’s all about being clear about what’s going to end up on your plate as the final dish.
How have the MasterChef India judges helped you along your journey?
The judges are so supportive and their knowledge is so vast. Every dish matters to them! You can name an unknown dish from Northeast India and they would know it. They are that good! Chef Vikas Khanna, he’s a Michelin-starred chef and yet he’s so humble. There are certain times when we are working in the MasterChef India kitchen when we share stories about our home and our food, and he emotionally connects to it so well. Chef Ranveer Brar has such a huge knowledge base that his tips always come in handy. When you are in a tough spot in the kitchen, he always comes over and helps us. He keeps telling us to be clear in our head about what we want to cook. Chef Pooja Dhingra is such an inspiration as a woman and an entrepreneur. What she does is so unique and she started along with us, it’s a new journey for her as well, so we feel connected on a different level.