Blending Cultures, Traditions, families and Flavors
By Heather Weller
Long before Shari Mukherjee made a name for herself as a self-taught chef finalist on Fox Network’s “MasterChef,” she was a newlywed. A newlywed that could not cook. In fact, about 10 years ago, Mukherjee’s husband jokingly nominated her to be a contestant on the show “Worst Cooks in America”—a show designed to turn terrible cooks into competent ones in a matter of weeks.
Mukherjee and her husband Piyush met about 11½ years ago. She was raised Catholic, and her husband was raised Bengali Hindu. Culturally, cooking was a paramount aspect of many Hindu traditions and celebrations. Mukherjee was determined to prove to her in-laws that she could learn to cook and would, indeed, take care of their son. She began finding simple recipes on the internet and learned to make curry. After about five years, Mukherjee learned to perfect the blending of spices and flavors to create delicious, authentic Indian dishes. It wasn’t an easy process, and she admits that many mistakes were made. However, a quote from Julia Child kept Shari focused and determined: “If you’re not ready to make mistakes, you’re not ready to cook.”
After discovering her love for cooking, Mukherjee embraced mistakes and was certainly ready to celebrate her cooking successes in multiple arenas of her life. Remarkably, it was a fish curry dish that won Mukherjee an apron as a contestant on “MasterChef,” hosted by Chef Gordon Ramsay. It’s also fish-based dishes that earn her high marks at her family dinner table.
SHARE THE BEST AND LEAVE THE REST
At the beginning of their relationship, Mukherjee and her husband were both very open minded as they shared one another’s cultural traditions and celebrations. After having children, they made the decision to find a good balance and celebrate the aspects of both Christian and Hindu holidays that were most important to them as a couple and as a family. In fact, it was a woman who helped deliver the couple’s two children that not only shared a similar cultural background, but also gave Mukherjee the best direction. “Take what you consider good from each, and leave the rest,” the woman advised.
Many continue to question how blended cultural beliefs can work with their young family. When asked how they will raise their children, Mukherjee’s response is that they will raise them to align with the way that they live. They will take their favorite aspects of each cultural tradition and invite their children to celebrate the unique experience each offers. Doing so has already allowed their children to experience and appreciate the foods, traditions and family fun that Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Krishna Janmashtami and other celebrations throughout the year have to offer.
Festivals in India are quite different from celebrations Mukherjee had grown accustomed to celebrating in the United States. Although the Bengali cultural festivities are not always large and elaborate, there are monthly celebrations filled with family, unity and community. With the abundance of celebrations, Mukherjee has noticed that families seem to foster strong connections.
“We celebrate holidays for what they are,” Mukherjee says. “Although there may be some cultural blending of food for many celebrations, we have chosen not to ‘Indianize’ American holidays or ‘Americanize’ Indian holidays.” The Mukherjee family celebrates Thanksgiving and Christmas with the traditions one may expect.
With a smile, Mukherjee says the best part of each cultural celebration is the food. Would one expect anything else from this busy chef?
THREE-FOOT HELPERS: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
The busy holiday season can be a struggle with young children in the mix. As a stay-at-home mom, Mukherjee understands the challenge of keeping her sons entertained while she prepares meals. Her best advice to other parents is to simply embrace it. “I’m not perfect by any means, but I’ll bring them in the kitchen, give them some little cutting boards and let them ‘help.’ Or, if I’m keeping it real, I’ll put on ‘Paw Patrol,’” Mukherjee says.
The blending of cultures, traditions, families and flavors have allowed the Mukherjee family to experience a true buffet of blessings.
POP ON OVER
As Mukherjee discovered, one must be ready to fail to be ready to cook. But with some helpful instruction and practice, anyone can develop the skills to create flavorful meals.
If you’re interested in an evening gaining cooking skills sure to impress during festivities this season, pop-up cooking classes are available with Mukherjee at Figue in Rochester. The classes are offered through “Eatwith,” a MasterChef partner. Each class provides up to three hours of demonstration. In addition to delicious sampling opportunities, attendees will receive detailed recipes, instructions on where to find specialty spices and ingredients, direction on the use of cooking tools and tips from a skilled chef. Various food experiences will be offered. Early sign-up is recommended as the classes fill quickly.
Pop-up cooking classes make an excellent ladies night out, date night or gift for someone as you celebrate your next festival or holiday.
Mukherjee has discovered that cooking gives her a sense of accomplishment, value and confidence. She has gone from “being afraid to roast a chicken” to becoming a recognized chef, teacher, esteemed daughter-in-law, wife and mother.
Mukherjee believes that confidence is crucial for women and says, “It’s important to believe you can do it. When you believe it, it can happen.” Mukherjee believes she can do it, so she does.
Shari shares some fun Autumn recipes.
ROASTING A PUMPKIN
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Grab a sheet-pan, some parchment paper and a roll of tin foil. Begin by chopping the pie pumpkin (NOT a carving pumpkin) in half and scooping the seeds/membranes out.
Put parchment paper on the baking sheet. Lay the pumpkin–cut side down–on the parchment paper.
Cover the pumpkins/baking sheet with tin foil. Pop this in the oven and set a timer for 1 1/2 hours. Forget about it.
Once your timer goes off, remove the pan from the oven. Lift off the tin foil.
Flip the pumpkins cut-side up, using a fork. Scoop out the cooked pumpkin flesh. I scooped the puree into a mini-food processor along with 1 tbsp diced butter, 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg, 1 tsp. salt, 8 torn sage leaves and about 1/2 cup veg. stock.
The resulting puree was really tasty, and I can imagine eating it by itself as a side dish on Thanksgiving.
Serves 4-6 generously
Ingredients for Risotto:
Heather Weller is a. Realtor® with Keller Williams Premier Realty.