My Favourite Dish: Santosh Shah
Our columnist, Tony Naylor talks to Santosh Shah about his favourite dish, chicken momos with Nepalese tomato chutney
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.
Finalist on MasterChef: The Professionals, Nepalese chef Santosh Shah reflects on his success and shares the recipe for a classic dish from his homeland. See the chicken momos recipe.
Santosh Shah was welcomed as a national hero when he recently returned home from the UK. A throng of chefs and fans greeted him with garlands of flowers at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport, where TV and tourism officials awaited his arrival, too. The reason for the adulation? Santosh had captured their affections, just as he did with the British audiences, when he reached the final of 2020's MasterChef: The Professionals by showcasing the dishes of his homeland. "We don't have a chef culture like here," says Santosh. "Nobody's done what I've done for Nepalese food."
This is a remarkable turnaround for a kid who, aged 15, left rural Nepal to work as a kitchen porter in Gujarat. Tireless hard work and dedicated study, however, quickly propelled Santosh through the ranks at various Indian five-star hotels."Within seven years," he says, "I was an executive chef with more than 80 people working under me."
It was well-paid work, but, by 2010, Santosh was in London. He pushed himself further by working at Brasserie Blanc, which helped expand his knowledge of French cooking before he eventually landed a head chef role at Vivek Singh's Cinnamon Collection restaurants. "I had a passion for cooking," Santosh says simply, looking back on his extraordinary journey.
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"I was born in Karjanha, a village in Nepal's south-eastern lowlands. I was the youngest of seven, but when my father passed away – I was five, it was a big shock – my brothers and sisters had all settled down and moved far from the village, so it was just me and Mother.
"We had a little land that we gave to another farmer, and whatever grew there was half his, half ours. From that, we survived. At eight, I started selling things to earn money to buy household goods like salt and oil, and, later, sold bread in our village market. Then, aged 14 or 15, I got work on a canal (I was tall and skinny!), which was good money.
"Dhal, rice and roti were staple foods, sometimes eaten three times a day. We made breakfast with what was left from the night before, had dhal and rice at lunch (my mother brought me homemade curry and we'd eat together by the canal), and, in the evening, reheat leftovers and cook something to go with that.
"The house was one big room in which Mother cooked on a wood-fired stove made of clay and bricks. Karjanha didn't get electricity until 2009, and the first time I saw gas was in India. As a kid, I was always with Mother: learning about herbs or how you control the fire. It's not like we were busy on iPads or iPhones.
"We had a backyard where Mother grew coriander, onions, garlic and eggplants [aubergines] – vegetables we didn't have money to buy. If she needed chillies while cooking, it'd be, 'go, go, go get the chillies'.
"She was a very good cook. I remember her colocasia leaf curry – I cooked it on MasterChef, but as a terrine. This was big, wild colocasia, to which she'd apply gram flour, ginger, mango powder, lemon and salt, and fold the leaves like handkerchiefs and skewer them, dropping them into what was essentially a fish curry without the fish. We called it 'vegetarian fish'. Although, in monsoon season, there are so many fish in the rivers and rice fields, they're very cheap. If you have the skills, you can just grab a fish!
"Mashed potato is also very common in Nepal, and Bengal and Bihar, too. When the fire gets low, you pop potatoes into the hot ashes, then skin and mash them with turmeric, red onion, green chilli, ginger. That can be served with meat or as a vegetable dish.
"Nepal is small, but has many regions with their own foods, clothes, languages, and weather. Himalayan people rarely come to Tarai, where I'm from, and we never go to the Himalayan side – or, if you have to, you go to the capital, Kathmandu. That's why I got so popular on MasterChef – because I combined foods from the different regions.
"My recipe, momos, is not something I ate as a child. My side of Nepal doesn't have that Tibetan-inspired momos culture. But, when I first went to Kathmandu, I tried them and they were so tasty. From that time on, I was eating momos."
For another idea, see our pork momos recipe.