My day cooking with a MasterChef winner
The 2017 champion was known for her bold, unique flavours on the show. Lauren Taylor tries Saliha's culinary course
Last year Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed saw off 63 other contestants in gruelling culinary challenges to lift the MasterChef trophy, making John Torode cry actual tears. Viewers loved her Indo-Persian fusion style, interesting flavour combinations - often mixing sweet, spicy and savoury - and upbeat personality. Now Saliha balances life as a hospital gastroenterology doctor, being a mum-of-one and a new career in food.
Ahead of being out her first cookbook, Khazana, set to published this September, the chef has been teaching cookery courses at the Seasoned Cookery School, in Derbyshire, as part of their series of MasterChef Cookery Experience Days. The idea is, a small group of budding chefs cook a series of recipes designed by a MasterChef winner or finalist, who share their skills, and offer plenty of one-on-one help.
In Saliha's course I'm cooking two dishes: aubergine curry with stuffed paratha bread, and a lamb biryani. The family-run cookery school, set in the grounds of Catton Hall Estate, and the inviting, spacious kitchen is enough to make even the most basic of home cooks want to get chopping, frying and baking.
So I whip my very own MasterChef apron over my head (every cook gets one included in the price of the course), and with Saliha's recipe in hand and the ingredients measured out on my workstation, I imagine this is how any contestant feels on day one, you know, without being broadcast to millions.
We gather around Saliha as she throws the basis of a curry together. A generous helping of onion (sliced not diced), curry leaves, ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin, chilli powder, and a lot of olive oil - far more than I'd ever thought would go into a curry. "You need more than you think," she explains. This, I learn, is one of the most important lessons of the day - you need a lot of oil for 'bhuna'. Although also a popular dish, it's first and foremost an Indian cooking process where spices are gently fried to release flavour. After adding tomatoes and a splash of water, Saliha says to reduce the mixture down and "look for the oil rising to the surface at the side of the pan," i.e. the bhuna.
"Spices can seem intimidating and exotic, and until someone tells you how to use them and how they should taste, you never really know," she tells me. "Those techniques; making sure they don't burn, making sure that certain spices are toasted before using them, making sure chilli powders have certain strengths, those are all things that can really improve the quality of the food you produce in the end."
After I've got the hang of the bhuna, the smooth aubergine curry (more like a delicious dip) is a surprisingly simple dish to make, and can be used as the basis of any spicy curry. The aubergine curry needs a vessel, so we rustle up a dough for parathas, to be stuffed with a mixture of potato, green chilli, coriander toasted cumin seeds, lemon, fenugreek and, the magic ingredient, 'anardana' or pomegranate powder.
The dough needs to be thoroughly kneaded, and the filling in my first attempt explodes out the side as I try to roll it to a size and shape that resembles Saliha's perfect paratha. "Don't worry, this can be rescued," she says, smiling kindly as she reshapes it and throws it into the pan with some ghee, before walking me through a second, much more successful attempt.
My finished dish is far from perfect but it's very satisfying tucking into something totally out of my cooking comfort zone for lunch with a glass of wine and my fellow amateur (master) chefs. "That's the most important part of food - doing something you find fulfilling and relaxing," Saliha says.
The lamb biryani takes longer to prepare but would be perfect for a family weekend dinner. Saliha's recipe turns boiled lamb and layers of saffron-infused rice into something delicious. And by now, we're Indian cooking pros, so it's practically a doddle. Next, a rite of passage for any MasterChef contestant - the dreaded palate test. On the show, John Torode and Gregg Wallace present amateur chefs with a tray of produce, or a cooked dish, and ask them to identify each individual ingredient. I've always laughed when they couldn't identify a mushroom, but when Saliha presents us with a beautiful looking bowl of food, I can barely identify whether it's a starter or dessert (turns out it's neither).
Whatever it is, it's delicious. Cubes of what I think are potato but could be yams with chickpeas, pomegranate, probably yoghurt, some kind of herb, and a sauce that's unusual but definitely familiar, topped with something crunchy. It's official, I'd fail miserably at the actual TV palate test.
Thankfully we're not named and shamed for missing any (or most, in my case) of the ingredients. The dish is chaat, a savoury Indian street food snack, and I mumble agreements as other people reel off flavours that hadn't crossed my mind ... tamarind? Sure.
We should find a similar recipe in Saliha's Indo-Persian cookbook later in the year that she says she's put her "heart and soul into", as well as some dishes you might recognise from her time on MasterChef.
"The book is full of really sumptuous, rich, colourful dishes, and food that's got loads of stories and historical anecdotes behind it as well. It's really steeped in heritage, which I love."
Upcoming MasterChef Cookery courses at Seasoned Cookery School (seasonedcourses.com) include sessions with 2014 finalist Jack Lucas, 2015 finalist Emma Spitzer and 2011 finalist Sara Danesin Medio, and cost £195.