CT Exclusive: Santa Sarmah On Life After MasterChef, Losing MIL While On Show, Putting Assamese Cuisine On World Map & More

MasterChef India 2023 first runner-up Santa Sarmah gets candid in a heartfelt interview with Curly Tales.

by Sanjana Shenoy
CT Exclusive: Santa Sarmah On Life After MasterChef, Losing MIL While On Show, Putting Assamese Cuisine On World Map & More

“Har ek din maine win kiya hai. Aap soch nahin sakte ho maine kaise learning ki apni”

“I have won every single day. You can’t imagine how I’ve taught myself (cooking),” says Chef Santa Sarmah, the first runner-up of MasterChef India 2023. Hailing from Amlighat, a small village in Assam, Santa transitioned from a self-taught chef to becoming the first runner-up of India’s biggest cooking reality show while having a single-handed focus on putting Assamese cuisine on the world map.

Chef Santa Sarmah Talks To Curly Tales

Recently, Chef Santa Sarmah held a pop-up at b Café at Shangri-La Bengaluru. She showcased Assam’s rich culinary tapestry through her signatures like Aloo Pitika, Masor Tenga, Bamboo Fish and Til Pitha.

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Santa Sarmah with Sanjana Shenoy (Sub-Editor) Picture Credits: Sanjana Shenoy

As I, Sanjana Shenoy, the Sub-Editor of Curly Tales, tucked into the homemade meal cooked with nuance, perfumed with mustard oil, emanating flavours of bamboo, banana leaf, and Kaji Nemu among other indigenous herbs, I got talking with Chef Santa about her incredibly inspiring journey.

* This is an English translation of the original interview conducted in Hindi.*

How has life been for you since becoming the 1st runner-up on MasterChef India 2023? Are you in touch with the judges and other contestants?

My life has changed after MasterChef. Earlier, a 24-hour in my life would entail cooking and managing the household, which people still don’t consider a job. I also had a small food business which I operated from home. 

Now, I’m busy conducting pop-ups and events. And it gives me immense happiness to visit hotels like this( points at Shangri-La’s lavish banquet) and showcase my regional cuisines, especially Assamese cuisine. People recognise me and approach me for photos, and I enjoy it. 

I’m living my dream now. Yes, it is difficult to live up to the expectations of people, especially after becoming the first runner-up of MasterChef India 2023. But I want people to experience my food in its most authentic form. 

When it comes to fellow contestants and judges, I am in touch with them. I have a very “goody goody” friend of mine here (in Bengaluru)—Deepa (Chauhan). There is Dyuti(Banerjee) and Suvarna (Bagul)…I have a good bond with all of them. 

I remember Chef Vikas Khanna sharing my reel on Instagram. It was a big achievement for me. He thanked me for showcasing a different side to Assamese cuisine. I message Chef Garima (Arora) sometimes. She has even invited me to Thailand. But I’m unable to travel due to my present work commitments. 

What do you think makes Assamese food stand apart from other cuisines?

We celebrate our ingredients, that set us apart from other cuisines. I don’t mean to say that it’s wrong to use masala. But use as much masala as needed to ensure the ingredient shines. Assamese cuisine has an ingredient-first approach. We use fresh locally sourced produce with distinctive cooking techniques like fermenting, steaming and roasting/ That’s what makes this cuisine so unique. 

I’ve noticed there are many misconceptions about Assamese cuisine where people believe this cuisine just revolves around steamed, flavourless food made of pork. And of course, you would know that there have been murmurs about Assamese people eating dogs.

But this is absolutely not the case. We need to respect each other’s food and culture. So, Assamese food is ghar ka khaana (homemade food). It is food for the soul.

You credit your family as your biggest support. Your mother-in-law was admitted when you were on the show. What was her impact on your journey to MasterChef?

You know, my mother-in-law was so large-hearted that nothing bothered her. People may think that since I hail from a village, I might be conservative and surrounded by conservative people. 

But my mother-in-law would encourage me to wear shorts when I went for outings with my husband. She’d tell me I look great in shorts. (Laughs wholeheartedly)

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Santa Sarmah with her Mother-in-law Jashoda Devi Picture Credits: Santa Sarmah

Since my mother-in-law suffered from arthritis and varicose veins, I was unable to eat many dishes prepared by her. We daughters-in-law wouldn’t let her strain herself. So, we managed the house. 

I’ve inculcated a high level of patience thanks to my mother-in-law. I used to be very impatient as a person and the smallest things would quickly anger me. She taught me patience and ways to keep the family united. 

When I participated in MasterChef India, the happiest person out there was my mother-in-law. The things I couldn’t share with my husband, I shared with my Mummy. I used to tell her I wanted to create my own identity. 

When we filmed the backstory for MasterChef India at my home, I could sense an innate sadness in her. Perhaps, she had a premonition about her end.

Four months later (after shooting the show) when I returned, I saw her in a wheelchair. And during the finale, Mummy was admitted to the ICU. On the day of the finale, I told my husband, that it didn’t matter whether I won the show or not. Despite coming from humble beginnings without any support, I have been able to present traditional delicacies from my hometown (Amlighat), so, I’m already a winner. 

I promised myself that I would give my best in the finale despite my mother-in-law being grievously ill. 

But I will always have one regret in life— that I couldn’t take care of my mother-in-law during the last few days of her life. On the day I returned home after bagging the MasterChef India 2023 first runner-up trophy, there were no celebrations at my place. 

The environment you’d expect to walk into as a winner…that wasn’t the case at my home. Instead, I witnessed my mother-in-law’s mortal remains. And we performed her last rites. (Her eyes well up but she forces a smile.)

(“I’m sure her blessings will always be there with you and she is very proud of you,” I console her.)

You mentioned that “versatility” and “perseverance” are the two qualities that make one a good chef. How did you inculcate these qualities? When did you realise their importance? 

My “never give up attitude” is something that I haven’t inculcated just for MasterChef. I’ve always had this attitude to life. 

Of course, I have feared lots of things. I have faced body shaming, lack of confidence among many other issues.

My Nani (maternal grandmother) taught me to be versatile and inculcate “never give up” attitude. 

She Nani taught me to cook at the age of 8. Perhaps, grit is in my genes thanks to my father and Naani.

I believe that once I go on a platform like MasterChef India, I cannot say, “I won’t cook this or I won’t cook that”. 

I don’t eat pork or beef. But I respect food. Even if I don’t eat, someone else eats it. And if I need to cook something I don’t eat, I am mentally prepared for it. 

You know, my Nani has never touched, cooked or even eaten onion, garlic and non-vegetarian food. She hails from a Brahmin family. 

Yet, when my mother was hospitalised for 3 months and was advised by her doctors to consume non-vegetarian food to regain her strength, my Nani wrapped plastic bags around her hands and prepared Fish Kadhi and Chicken Soup for my mother. Her priority was to keep her daughter alive. 

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Santa Sarmah with her Nani Radha Sharma Picture Credits: Santa Sarmah

This incident taught me the importance of versatility. I learnt, that it’s okay if you don’t eat everything but you must be prepared to cook everything.

A year ago you mentioned on your YouTube channel about wanting to write a book that documents Assamese recipes and your time on MasterChef India. What is the plan for that? (We are looking forward to it.) 

It’s funny you asked me this question, as my husband asks me this at least 3-4 times a day. (Bursts laughing)

(“Then, I’m asking you this on behalf of your husband today,” I laugh.)

If there is one thing I get extremely lazy about — it’s writing. You can make me talk for 24 hours, I don’t have any problem. I have plans to pen down not only the recipes of dishes I’ve prepared on MasterChef India but also the thoughts, stories and experiences that went into curating them. 

This book is getting delayed as I’m very busy conducting pop-ups and other events while managing my home. But this will happen soon. (Smiles determinately)

Also Read: CT Interview: Chef Gary Mehigan Finds Butter Chicken Overrated, Wants Himalayan Biking Trip And

You had mentioned a very beautiful thing that anger and negativity must be kept away from cooking and eating. Please tell us more about this. 

Food is something that people work to eat. They don’t eat to work. Food is a basic need. So, if you don’t even cook food in peace or eat food in peace, then what’s the point of living?

In our Assamese culture, if Bhokot (priests) visit someone’s home to conduct rituals they prepare the prasad (offering to deities) and meal themselves. They don’t allow devotees or anyone else to participate in the ceremonious cooking. The priests wrap gamcha (red-white embroidered cotton cloth) around their mouths while cooking.  

When I was young, I asked them the reason behind covering their mouths while cooking. 

The Bhokots explained to me that it was to prevent negative words (galat shabd) and spit from contaminating the food. If negative words are spoken when cooking, it will have an impact on the overall energy of the dish.

Their words touched me. I believe that your thoughts are reflected in your food.

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Santa Sarmah with her family Picture Credits: Santa Sarmah

You’ll notice…For many chefs working in restaurants, cooking isn’t a passion for them. It’s a profession. There may be times when they(chefs may cook in a bad mood as they are reprimanded by their superiors or are facing difficulties at home. 

And if you eat this food, it will definitely have a negative impact on your health. You may suffer from acidity or have a stomach ache. This happens because our thoughts enter our food.

Main believe karti hoon ki aap jo sochte ho, woh aapke khaane mein dikhayi deta hai. 

So, we need to eat mindfully and peacefully, as much as possible.

Kyunki zindagi toh ek hi baar milti hai, na? ( Because, we get only one life, right?)

What can we expect from you in the future? What’s next?

I don’t plan too far ahead in life, I go with the flow. I have a dream to open a restaurant or resort near my village. This way, I can generate employment too. Right now, I’m not financially stable yet to put these plans into action. However, if anyone would like to open a restaurant with my endorsement, I’m open to it. I have only one condition— the food needs to be good. 

What I’m doing right now, pop-up, it isn’t easy. Honestly, it doesn’t pay well. But there’s a lot of hard work that goes into pop-ups. From curating a one-week menu to sourcing local ingredients, it isn’t easy but I want to do this. I enjoy doing this. 

Now, I wish to go to the West. After introducing people across India to Assamese cuisine, I wish to put this cuisine on the world map. Through this interview, I hope I get offers from across the world to host pop-ups.

Also Read: CTExclusive: Chef Sashi Cheliah Talks Food To Us; Shares Fav Dish And Veggie He Finds Overrated 

Rapid Fire Time With Santa Sarmah

1. Restaurants in Assam you’d recommend tourists 

Heritage Khorikaa

Cafe Hurum  

Hotel Rishiraj

Paradise Restaurant

For sweets…

Durga Mishti Bhandar


2. A dish to introduce people to Assamese cuisine

Aloo Pitika (Mashed Potatoes)

It’s mild like Aloo Bhorto and helps one get acquainted with Assamese cuisine.

3. Your favourite comfort food

Dal Bhat, Aloo Pitika and Poita Bhat

4. Your favourite dessert

Moong Dal Halwa, Gulab Jamun, Ras Malai 

I love all sweets. 

5. A kitchen spice you cannot do without

Black Pepper 

6. A dish you find overrated

Butter Chicken (“People might kill me for this,” laughs coyly while covering her face.)

It’s my favourite, I made Butter Chicken Sushi during my MasterChef India auditions. But I feel it has become too mainstream. 

7. A dish you find underrated

Poita Bhat

I prepared this dish during the MasterChef India 2023 finale. People slammed me for making a simple dish when the stakes were so high. But I don’t care what people talk about me behind my back. I know the nutritional value of this dish and the focus it needs to get. 

8. A dish from Bengaluru that has a special place in your heart

Mysore Pak 

9. Your favourite judge from MasterChef India

Please don’t do this to me! (Almost folding her hands and laughing shyly)

All three of them have supported me a lot both on and off camera. 

On the day I came to know about my Mummy’s (mother-in-law) illness that episode went very dull for me. Despite baking cakes numerous times, on that day, I just couldn’t bake a good cake. It was just alright, so I survived that elimination round. Chef Vikas, Garima and Ranveer consoled me off-camera. 

As Chef Vikas’s sister also suffered from the same illness, so he became very emotional on seeing me upset. Chef Garima gave me a warm hug. Chef Ranveer told me, “Santa ji, in case you need financial help or contacts of good doctors in Mumbai, just let me know.”

But it was too late by then, my mother-in-law was in her last stage (cancer). 

10. Which contestants do you share a close bond with?

Deepa Ji (Deepa Chauhan)

You need a person in life who just listens to you and doesn’t question you. And you can pour out your frustrations to this person. That’s Deepa Ji for me. I get a motherly feeling from her. 

The other contestants I’m close to are Suvarna (Bagul) and Priyanka ( Biswas)

11. Which dish comes to your mind when I say

– Nayanjyoti Saikia 


-Suvarna Bagul


-Deepa Chauhan 

Rogan Josh 

-Garima Arora

Bamboo Shoot 

-Ranveer Brar

Masor Tenga 

It’s an Assamese fish gravy prepared without any onion, garlic or ginger. And Chef Ranveer prepared it in a very authentic manner, which I admire. 

-Vikas Khanna

Pineapple Pachadi ( He prepared this during a Master class)

-Santa Sarmah

Til Chicken 

10. A one-line advice you have for aspiring chefs

Cook with patience, a clear mind and purity in your heart. Cooking is prestigious because food enters one’s body and soul.

Cook with love and eat with love. (Santa ends with her signature smile)


Cover Image Courtesy: Supplied

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