Slurrp Exclusive: Indian MasterChef Finalist Oindrila Bala On Desserts, Cookbooks And Bengali Food
- Jasmine Kaur
Updated : June 04, 2022 06:06 IST
Chef Oindrila Bala, one of the top three finalists and the first runners-up in MasterChef India’s Season 6, gives us a sneak-peek into her nostalgic food memory, first baking attempts and more.
Had we met Chef Oindrila Bala a few years ago, we would have found her drowned in a pile of books and files, making cases at her corporate job as a tax consultant in Delhi. Now you are most likely to find her in her kitchen, drowned in flour, butter and sugar, this time. The culinary journey that started at a tender age of four while she watched her mother cook led her to take the plunge after 11 years of toil in the corporate sector. The kitaabi keeda, as she calls herself, Chef Oindrila tells us that she loved reading about food in her leisure time during her MasterChef days and the habit has lingered on. Dropping in some hints about her to-be-written cookbook, she shares with us her innate passion for food and her love for her nani’s special childhood recipe.
The bong who doesn’t like fish or desserts took out some time to join us for an interactive tête-à-tête and give us insights into her culinary journey ahead. Excerpts from the chat.
Q1. A tax consultant turned chef. How and what made you take such a massive leap?
I have always wanted to cook, you know. I thought that I am going to be a chef someday but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I remember I was sixteen years old and I had my class 10 board exams. I had a chemistry exam and it was the UK equivalent of the board exams here. I thought that there was no way I was going to pass this exam because I was always in the kitchen, cooking. I had convinced my dad that I’m not a promising student so open me a pizzeria or the like. Surprisingly, he had agreed at that time but later on, I stood third in the country and all the plans flew out of my dad’s head. He thought that my girl seems promising that is why she has stood third and that’s when my culinary dreams took a backseat. It was limited to only weekends. I told my dad I wanted to cook but cooking wasn’t so glamourized 20 years back as it is today. Today, you’ve got so many influencers, back then Chef Sanjeev Kapoor was the only big name and he is the God even today. My entire family was very well educated and my dad told me that the women in our house our lawyers, teachers and a lot of things but not cooks. So I completed my CA and other qualifications and worked as a tax consultant for 11 years in Delhi post which I shifted back to Kolkata. It was on my 30th birthday that the realization struck me that I’m feeling empty and I should pursue my passion i.e. cooking.
Q2. Our sources tell us that you’ve been cooking since you were 4 years old. What inspired you to be inclined towards food at such a tender age?
I really believe this that I was put on this planet to cook. I recall the time when we were in Coimbatore and my father retired from his job. My mother had bought steel bartans (utensils) with names engraved on it. That’s when I expressed the desire to have my own bartans too and was given miniature ones with my name on it. Then my brother or father built me a small oven from tea boxes and a spirit lamp was set as fire. The earliest memory I have of cooking would be that of strawberry jams and was also the stepping stone because I started cooking with fire.
Q3. Do you have any professional degree in the field of culinary arts?
No, I don’t have any professional degree but I really wanted to go to the American Institute of Culinary Arts. However, CA happened and I couldn’t pursue that.
Q4. We remember your love for baking from your MasterChef days. What was your first attempt at baking like?
I know everyone used to call me the Dessert queen of MasterChef and I baked a lot during my journey on the show. The reason for this was that I played a little strategically and had watched the previous seasons so I knew what worked well and would have more chances of winning. However, I still recall my first attempt at baking was when I was eight years old and had made a heart-shaped cake and covered it with a very bright green furry butter cream using the grass nozzle. That image is etched in my memory and I clearly remember it was such a bright green cake.
Q5. Your stint in MasterChef made you reach the finale. Any 3 key takeaways from your journey?
Okay so my three takeaways would be, one, that you shouldn’t be blunt all the time, especially when you are in the public eye. Secondly, you can’t give in to bullying. Life will throw really hard challenges at you, sometimes in terms of people and sometimes otherwise so you just have to be focused on what you are doing. I did not indulge in the drama that was surrounding me all the time during the show and just focused on my food and left the rest to God. Thirdly, if you really want something, the universe conspires to make that happen. The Rhonda Byrne book, Secrets is all about how you visualize things and how you feel it. I made MasterChef happen for me because I had so much belief in it and so much faith in it.
Q6. Tell us all about The Sweet Spot, your patisserie. We’re curious!
The Sweet Spot was something that I started in 2016 while I was working in PWC. I remember coming back home 10 o’clock at night and this was like a twelve-hour day and then I would start baking. My best friend, Abhishek would come and start baking with me. My assistant too started at around 9 o’clock before I came back. I used to do fondants, very intricate works like figure modeling and what not. That is how it started, that is the genesis of The Sweet Spot. Today, we do a lot of gourmet desserts and fancy wedding cakes as well as savouries like tarts, quiches and puffs. Hopefully, I would have several outlets across the country very soon.
Q7. Apart from sweet meats and baked items, what are you 3 most favourite cuisines and why?
Honestly, like I mentioned before, desserts were a practical decision during MasterChef. In fact, I’m not a sweet meat person and instead, I’m more of a fried food person. My first favourite cuisine has to be Indian, given the diversity within our country, one could never get bored since you can eat North Indian one day, South Indian the other and Bengali on the following day. I absolutely love Chinese food, specially Indo-Chinese. I’m a little confused between Italian and French for the third. I love pastas as much as I love croissants so I can’t really choose one.
Q8. Any food dish/recipe that makes you nostalgic? We would love to hear a cute childhood tale!
Now this might sound strange but the one dish that makes me nostalgic is dal. My nani used to make this dal when I was really young and she would fetch water from a nearby pond for the same. It was called the Mushoorir dal and it was really fragrant with the panch phoran. When my nani used to make that dal, it had a super special touch. Now my nani is too old to make it and we can’t even fetch water from the pond anymore so that’s what makes me miss it so much.
Q9. Could you share a detailed recipe of the dish for our readers?
- 2/3 cup masoor dal
- Haldi (Turmeric)
- Salt to taste
- Chopped Ginger
- Sliced Tomatoes
- Mustard Oil
- Bay Leaves
- Panch Phoran
- Boil the masoor dal with 2 cups water and 1/2 tsp of haldi and 1/2 tsp of salt till it is soft and melted.
- In a kadhai, add 2 tbsp of mustard oil, 2 bay leaves 2-3 red chillies, 1 tsp of panch phoran. Cook for a minute to infuse the oil.
- Add 1 sliced onion, 1 tsp chopped ginger, 1 sliced tomato and cook till the onion is golden. Now add in the dal.
- Add in 1/2 tsp sugar, salt to taste and 1 tsp ghee and simmer for 20-30 minutes for all the flavours to infuse.
- It should be a thin dal, so you may need to add in a little more water to adjust consistency.
- Serve hot with rice and a bhaja.
Q10. Bengalis are known to be hard core foodies, if we may say so. Does the cultural background influence your cooking style and how?
Yes, I think it definitely does. I have been born with a love for food. You know the cuisine of Bengal is not just the Bengal khaabar but there are such varying genres of food that the more I discover, the more interested I am. The native place of my parents is Bangladesh and we are known for the spicier food which we have carried on. Then the intermingling of cultures as well as the rule of Mughals brought the Kolkata-special Mughlai cuisine and the origins of Indian-Chinese cuisine also took place here. It is like a hot pot and that is what has helped me adapt to the different kind of cuisines around the globe.
Q11. Can you recall the most difficult/interesting challenge you had to undertake during MasterChef India? Also, did you manage to finally win the task?
All the challenges were super interesting and super difficult. The one I absolutely adore is the semi-finale task where we were cooking for our family members. We didn’t know who we were cooking for but were asked to make eight plates of food. I went to the MasterChef pantry and saw nolen gur right there and I knew in that moment that I had to use it. I asked Chef Vikas if I could make a dessert and he said, “Haan jee le apni zindagi”. I created a nolen gur cheesecake with meringues and the best part was my mother didn’t know who had made it yet she said that “yeh bahut acha hai”. That is the challenge where I got my chef coat which was always a dream of mine. This was the most memorable cookoff for me because it got me my chef coat.
Q12. Is it true that you still prefer cookbooks over recipe videos posted online? Intrigued to know the whys and hows!
While I was growing up, there were no YouTube videos, Instagram reels or IGTVs. There was just Khaana Khazana that used to air every Sunday at around 12 pm by Sanjeev Kapoor. That’s where I learnt how to cook a lot of things, I even learnt how to make fondant. I had a written recipe of the same from Sanjeev Kapoor’s show. There is something beautiful about cookbooks. It is almost like you can touch the food in a book. There is a lot of nostalgia when I look at the cookbooks and I love looking at the beautiful pictures.
Q13. Can we expect the tax consultant turned chef to add a cookbook to her cap any time soon?
I keep on thinking about it, I won’t lie. The idea that I have is so vast and I’m so inexperienced in writing a book. The only thing I know how to write are papers and case laws and submissions. So from that standpoint, I’m a little nervous. But I hope that one day soon I can actually do it.
Q14. Would it be wrong to assume that you would pick fish any day over chicken, mutton or the like? What’s your favourite non-vegetarian meal then?
I don’t like fish which comes as a surprise since I’m a Bengali but it’s true. I only like certain types of fish, specially fish fry, as long as it doesn’t have that smell. My favourite meat is actually mutton because I find it really flavourful. I think I love dal chawal and there was this chicken butterfry which I have grown up with. It was basically a batter made with butter and fried so I love that. Give me any kind of fried meat and I'm happy.
Q15. If given a chance to venture into the television/OTT space right now, what would you want to bring to the table?
One of the dreams that I had before MasterChef happened was that I wanted a job which involved food and travel. I wanted to be a food/travel show host, trying different cuisines and experiencing different cultures because you understand a lot about the culture of a place through its food. I would want someone to make a show on the places which are less-explored in our country, like the food at the mountain-tops in Ladakh or Uttarakhand. Another thing I really like is lost recipes, the history food, how it started etc.
Q16. 5 Pantry essentials?
Cheese, garlic and mixed herbs, I always have them handy. Potatoes and some carbs like pasta are also essentials that I keep.
Q17. If we open your fridge today, what are we to find stocked up always?
I work as a home-baker so you’ll definitely find things like butter, cheese and fresh cream in my fridge. Apart from that, for personal use, you’ll find lots of vegetables like carrots and beans.
Q18. Any upcoming projects/exciting ventures we should look out for?
I am hoping to take out time to work on my book idea. I’m really lazy but I hope get to it and you’ll see a book to my name soon hopefully.