‘Cooking In The South Asian Community As A Woman Is Taken For Granted’ — MasterChef’s Minoli De Silva Wants To Change That
The Channel 10 reality program boasts a culturally diverse cast every year, and in 2021 De Silva was one of three South Asian women on the show, alongside Kishwar Chowdhury and Depinder Chhibber.
De Silva was born in Peradeniya, Sri Lanka before moving to Australia with her family when she was six. She says the South Asian community usually views cooking as a traditional domestic duty for women to perform rather than a career choice. Coming from a Fijian Indian background, I've noticed this as well.
"One of the things I've noticed is that generally around the world, not just in Australia, but around the world and especially in South Asian countries, women are the cooks of the household," she tells Refinery29 Australia.
"I feel like growing up, cooking is something that I took for granted. It wasn't something that I thought I could make a career out of."
Since making it to the top 10 on MasterChef last year, De Silva has officially swapped her chemical engineering career to work in food, and is about to open her own restaurant later this year.
Cultural expectations within the community are often that women choose a career path that is traditionally viewed as academic and successful, such as becoming a doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer. Creative fields are more often discouraged and reasons vary from salaries and social stigmas to simply a lack of familiarity with those industries.
"My mum, when I initially went on MasterChef last season, was a little bit nervous at the thought of me potentially giving up my engineering career," the 35-year-old explains.
"Coming from a South Asian family, you would see this in the community, where there's a lot of migrant families coming to Australia and they just want the best for their kids. So when you end up in food where things might not be so certain, there was a bit of fear in my mum and dad."
Kishwar Chowdhury, who was born in Australia to a Bangladeshi father and Indian mother, agrees with De Silva that there's a still widely held view in the South Asian community that the woman of the house belongs in the kitchen, and that's as far as her interest in food usually goes.
"It’s really unfortunate that we’re fighting this stereotype in 2022," she says, explaining her experience was a bit different though.
"I grew up in a household where both my mum and dad were great cooks and took a lot of pride in the meals they prepared. My siblings and I cooked from a very young age, as do both my son and daughter. It happens to be something I love to spend time doing."
Chowdhury placed third on MasterChef last year, winning the judges over with mouthwatering Bengali dishes such as panta bhaat and goat rezala. She had most recently been a stay-at-home mum after studying commerce, graphic design and running her own printing company.
"So post Masterchef, when I would get asked questions centred around going from being 'a mum to being a finalist' or my 'message to women at home', I had to separate the expectation that 'being at home' or being 'female' or being a 'mum' doesn’t equate to naturally being good at or wanting to spend time in the kitchen," she explains.
Like Chowdhury says, she loves cooking food beyond the family home, and going onto MasterChef was an opportunity to put Bengali cuisine on viewers' radars because it's not as well-known across Australia.
"Leading up to applying for Masterchef, a thought itching away inside me was whether I would be able to pass down to my children the way of life my parents had spent a lifetime teaching me," she says. "A huge part of that is being able to open up and share my culture, to normalise our food, our way of life and help my kids to take pride in the biryani in their lunch boxes."
Like De Silva, her success is a testament to the fact that more South Asian Australian women are enjoying flourishing careers in food. Last year she trained under Michelin star chef Masahiko Yomoda, released her own menus in conjunction with Italian Indian chef Adam D’Sylva at his Melbourne restaurant, Tonka, and is actively working with the United Nations World Food Programme and Asylum Seekers Resource Centre in Melbourne.
Co-star Depinder Chhibber's post-MasterChef portfolio is just as impressive. Born in New Delhi, India before moving to Newcastle at the age of 11, Chhibber's passion for cooking and baking in particular drew from watching her grandmother cook. Since appearing on the show she has worked for judge Andy Allen, done a TedX talk, and has been creating her own cooking videos and recipes to make Indian cuisine more accessible.
Her appearance on MasterChef particularly touched Indian communities, with Chhibber previously saying she would receive messages from people in India who said watching her on the cooking show gave them a positive outlet and hope while they endured gruelling lockdowns during the pandemic.
Chowdhury believes in order to see change within the industry, more women need to be given the opportunity to "rise through ranks heading professional kitchens". And, when it comes to increasing the number of chefs, who are South Asian women in particular, it's the examples of her and her peers, De Silva and Chhibber, that are helping change the community mentality.
"South Asians, like many first-generation migrant communities, generally steer away from studying the arts, including culinary arts, as career choices," she says, echoing DeSilva's earlier comments. "This changes with consequent generations and with the increasing accessibility to turn your passion into your main career. I think we’re going to see a lot more talented South Asian women take up this space, which is very exciting."
DeSilva, who returns to MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites this year, strives to be a role model for other brown women who want to get into the food business.
"I really want to encourage younger women and young girls in the South Asian community because cooking in the South Asian community as a woman, I think it's just taken for granted," she says. "I want to see more cooks like me doing what I'm doing and taking that risk because I just know how complex the South Asian flavours are.
"I would love to see different flavours and different stories being told within the food industry and women giving it a go — hopefully the Kishwars, the Depinders, the Minolis championing this," she laughs.
De Silva also takes her message further, knowing well that her platform can inspire women with diverse aspirations.
"Whether it be not just in food, but in anything," she emphasises, "I want South Asian women to know, and all women to know, that you can do what you want.
"You don't have to stick to the mould of the migrants' mentality."
MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites airs Sunday to Thursday at 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10Play.