On a mission to change the ‘ugly status’ of Indian food in Australia

By Indira Laisram
Manpreet Sekhon @ Elchi // Pic supplied

Manpreet Sekhon, affectionately titled Geelong’s “Curry Queen”, has always dreamt of opening a restaurant. So when she moved to Australia, she realised her dream with Eastern Spice in Geelong. She would open two more in the course of her 20-odd year career as a chef.

By her own telling, Sekhon “always wanted to change the ugly status of Indian cuisine in Australia and bring to it a philosophy of progression to make my cuisine equally great among the others.”

Having grown up in India where she developed a love for cooking right from a young age and where her “skills soared” from her exposure to halwais or local caterers, she is firmly grounded in decades of cooking.

Today, Sekhon is proud owner of Masti in Fitzroy and Elchi in Melbourne’s CBD, and continues to push the boundaries of Indian cuisine in Australia. In conversation with Manpreet Sekhon.

Manpreet Sekhon @ Elchi // Pic supplied
Firstly, tell us about your journey from India to Australia?

It was always my dream to open up my restaurant and when we moved to Geelong, Australia, my dream came true. I always wanted to change the ugly status of Indian cuisine in Australia and bring to it a philosophy of progression to make my cuisine equally great among the others.

How did you become a chef?

My earliest cooking memories started even before I held a knife. I was interested in cooking from the young age of nine and that ride on the rickshaw with mum to the Sunday market was one of the moments. We would get fresh produce and create a menu that we would cook together and this became one of my fondest memories of childhood. My love of food began in a very traditional way— with my mother’s cooking. I was always caught stealing food from the pots while dishes were cooking. I would dip pieces of bread into simmering curries and this simple act created such fond memories of food.

Elchi’s Samosa, Tamarind and Herb Chutney // Pic supplied

I grew up cooking with my mother, eating home cooked food with conversations around the dinner table and discussions of menus and dishes to be cooked and served at celebrations and festivities. I gained knowledge through precious exposure to talented home cooks and fantastic halwais (domestic catering and street chefs). My skills soared from their instruction where I not only made mistakes and got all of the necessary cuts and burns but also became the chef, and the person I am today. I still use this traditional and in-depth knowledge in my cooking style today.

Was there anything that you thought you wanted to do before you started cooking?

I knew from a young age that I would wear a chef’s hat as a grown up. However the year 1999 marked a new millennium; I got married and moved to Ludhiana, Punjab. Being married to a foodie family, my act of love and affection comes from the food I make for my loved ones. My husband and my father-in-law were always very supportive and recognised raw talent in me. They encouraged me to pursue my career as a chef.

Crisp Whole Amritsari Fish // Pic supplied

After finishing hospitality degree, I started as a kitchen management trainee and soon found myself working as “Chef de Cuisine” alongside talented chefs at the five-stars Hotels in the northern state of Punjab, India. My fantastic dishes won the praise of Jiggs Kalra, Czar of Indian Cuisine and Master Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, a world-renowned Indian chef and entrepreneur.

I still remember Jiggs Kalra, Czar of Indian Cuisine; words that ‘Manpreet, you will go far in life.’

Manpreet Sekhon @ Elchi // Pic supplied
Since the time you have been in Australia, how has Indian food evolved?

Australians have become adventurous with their culinary choices, being well travelled and having had the chance to savour myriad cuisines. Indian cuisine too has been taking on modern flavours and ‘modern Indian’ cuisine is the new buzzword with food connoisseurs.”

The Indian cuisine is almost as diverse as the entire European cuisine, because of the four different main regional styles: the North Indian cuisine (the regions Benaras, Kashmir, Mughlai, Punjab and Rajasthan), the South Indian cuisine (regions Andhra, Kannada, Kerala and Tamil), East Indian cuisine (regions Assamese and Bengali) and Western India cuisine (regions Gujarat, Maharashtrian and Malwani).

What new ingredient or ingredients are inspiring you right now?

My boldness in marrying various ingredients with spices, together with a blend of traditional and modern dishes on the menu, has given pure Indian cooking its uniqueness.’

Elchi’s Gunpowder Gobhi, Crispy Cauliflower, Spicy Lentil Dust // Pic supplied
There is a lot of Indo-Chinese on the menu these days? What do you think of this trend?

The cuisine is an Indian interpretation of Chinese food, which combines the deep-fried, spicy flavors Indians love with a Chinese twist, through ingredients like soy sauce and vinegar. However, Indo-Chinese has always been very popular throughout India. Vegetarian dishes are plentiful, again owing to the Indian influence. This fusion of Asian flavours is becoming more and more popular.

What is your favourite thing about being a chef?

I just want people to come in and enjoy delicious food. I’m always asking ‘how can we make this ingredient taste delicious?’ I have learnt so much about my own style and, in particular, my own heritage which is making our dishes so much more colourful and unique. I’m hoping to change Australian people’s perception on Indian cuisine.

Elchi interiors // Pic supplied
You realised your dreams of owning your own restaurant with Eastern Spice and then Masti Fitzroy in the midst of the pandemic. Now there is Elchi. What is the secret to your success and how did you develop your entrepreneurial skills?

Last year was tough for the food and beverage industry like most restaurants across the country. But I cannot sit idle at home, which is why I continued to work on to bring new ideas and flavours to the culinary world. I’ve always been inquisitive and enjoy learning new stuff.

Be it a recession or growth period—the demand for good food will never go down. I think it’s just persistence and hard work. You just have to keep going every single day. If you are working on something that you are super passionate about—nobody can take that away from you.

I hope to constantly make dining at my restaurants an experience that will leave a happy imprint.

Onwards and upwards!

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