Nambie Jessica Marak from West Khasi Hills has put Meghalaya on the culinary map of India by cooking up a storm at MasterChef India Season 8. The 35-year-old assistant professor at Madras Christian College became the first from the state to reach the top 12 category of the national cooking competition where she presented delicacies from the northeastern state.
Marak, who hails from Upper Rangsa village in West Khasi Hills’ Mawshynrut subdivision, started experimenting with cooking as a student in Chennai. “It all started with my longing for home food in Chennai where I ate only dosas and biryani. So, I started exploring YouTube for cuisines from my home state. I was surprised to find out that all videos were in the vernacular language and without subtitles,” recollected Marak, who started her YouTube channel, Eat Your Kappa, to bridge the language gap.
Marak’s recipes on the social media channel, which she stopped after starting a family”, would have flavours from Meghalaya as well as other parts of the North East. The channel was noticed and appreciated. Last year, when MasterChef India started auditioning in Kolkata for the ongoing season, Marak gave it a shot, and the journey since has been nerve-wracking and fun-filled at the same time.
“It was a dream come true for me to present various cuisines from Meghalaya which are quite unknown to the rest of the country,” said the young chef contestant.
Congratulating her for the feat, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma recently wrote on X, formerly Twitter, “At the Tri Hills Ensemble, we awarded culinary genius & #MasterChefIndia Semi-finalist, #TribalChef Nambie Jessica Marak. We are so proud to see her take center stage with her culinarily masterpieces, presenting fusions of tribal cuisine. We wish her the very best.”
On the MasterChef platform, Marak used indigenous ingredients and impressed the three in-house judges as well as the guest chef and three Michelin-starred Marco Pierre White. Her ‘Whispering Hills Medley’ had a burst of flavours from Meghalaya that tickled the judges’ taste buds. A confident Marak gave up her safety pin to “cook for Marco White, the legend” on the fourteenth episode of the season. Her fusion dish of Kiwi Rasam with Oyster Mushroom stick left the judges amazed.
“Though every challenge at the competition was hard as all the guests came up with tough recipes, the episode where Marco White came was the toughest because I gave up my pin,. I had to do that,“ Marak said and narrated how she had to change her plan midway after the calamari got overcooked.
Working in a professional kitchen with experienced chefs was not only challenging but a learning process for Marak and each time she gave her best.
Among the Garo indigenous dishes which Marak, an alumnus of St Anthony’s College in Shillong, prepared at the competition was Galda Na.thok, which was a fish preparation. “The response was amazing. I was really tense about how the dish would be appreciated. It was loved by all,” said Marak, adding that she was waiting for the right moment to prepare kappa, a Garo delicacy.
“However, my fear is that not many will like the taste of baking soda in the preparation. So, I just hope that if I get the chance to prepare a kappa at MasterChef, then I get an alkalising agent in the pantry,” she added.
As Marak grew up in a border village in the Khasi Hills, her recipes also have an influence of Khasi-style cooking. When asked about her plans, Marak said she wants to open a restaurant.
For now, the mother of a five-year-old child is engaging herself in cooking and philanthropy. She adopted a dilapidated school in her village that she renamed Sunbeam Foundation. The school has 65 students, all of whom are from economically backward families.
Marak through her channel and her performance at the competition has not only introduced the mainland of India to the delicacies of tribal Meghalaya but also made the unique and unknown dishes from different states of the North East familiar on a national platform. If she wins the title, she will be the first from the state and second from the region to hold the title. Nayanjyoti Saikia of Assam won the title in the last season.