The Varli Food Festival Cook-Off 2012 – Round 1, Black Pepper Shrimp

Evening kick-off with Vikas Khanna, Padma Lakshmi, Varli Singh and Sanjeev Kapoor

About 3 weeks ago, I was approached by Anil Bhatia, owner of Heritage India to participate at an Indian food cook-off. The event was to be hosted by the Varli Food Festival, a prestigious food festival and the brain child of Ricky and Varli Singh. The event was kicked off with none other than the gorgeous Padma Lakshmi of Top Chef and industry notables were flown in from all over the world. It was an opportunity not to be missed and there was no way that I would say NO. Yet for some reason, I wished for an ‘out’. I was going to be subject to what contestants on Chopped experience in front of a live audience of 700 people. All things uncomfortable came to the forefront for me: cooking on air, cooking within an aggressive time frame, being given challenging ingredients and of course doing all this in front of several hundred people. Furthermore, the event MC’s were well known Iron Chef contestants – Maneet Chauhan and Jehangir Mehta whilst the judges were food television personalities and James Beard award winners – Sanjeev Kapoor, Kunal Kapur, Prasad Chirnomula, Rajesh Bhardwaj.

Whilst this added to the excitement of the event, it also added bowling balls to my stomach. I had to somehow keep it together and execute in the presence of very skilled and globally renowned chefs. I tried not to over think the process and turned to spirituality in my time of need. If I was calm, anything was possible.

Luckily, Varli had made sure that the contestants had all met each other in advance. They were all awesome and with a great sense of humor. They also diffused the panic that I brought to the table. Thankfully, the experience was starting to look and feel a whole lot better.

Fast forward to April 6th, Hilton Hotel, Melville NY: So here I was, ready to compete. Since I was restricted with just how much homework I could do for this cook off, the only thing I had control over was my personal presentation. So, off I went to buy a dress and get my hair and make-up done. Of course, my husband couldn’t quite grasp the relevance of this, but a ‘girls gotta do what a girls gotta do’.

I walked in to the grand ball room where the cook off would later take place and there it was – 700 chairs for the audience, 8 serious cooking stations for 8 contestants, a pantry and a podium set up with mikes and note pads for the judges. In 1 hour, it was Show Time.

Gettting ready to MC the cook-off

For some reason, I felt ready. I wanted to do this. My family and friends came to support me and it made me feel ‘high’. It was the first round and MC, Jehangir Mehta, announced our first round key ingredient ‘shrimps’. I knew exactly what I would do with them because in the past couple of months, I was replicating a black pepper shrimp dish I ate at North End Grill at home. We were given 30 minutes to prepare this, and part of the way through, they announced they were giving us less time. I was on top of my game, but then that curve ball threw me off. What got plated were a herb crusted butterflied-shrimp with a salsa creole and a mouthful of salt. The dish was easy and yet I messed up. I was convinced that I would be axed and started to gather my knives. All of us contestants left the room to give the judges their moment to reconvene.

The announcement was made, and somehow, I made it to the final round. Round 2 was the main course dish and the secret ingredient was chicken. With the resources available to me, I decided to make kung pao chicken with steamed rice. We were given sous-chefs for 5 minutes to help us and mine was awesome. My nerves prevented me from recognizing that this wasn’t a random audience member but rather a most celebrated chef from India; Harpal Singh Sokhi. He helped completely set me up with all my mis-en-place and I was ready to bang this dish out. Then came the final curve ball. We had to incorporate shelf stable mango pickle. This pickle is savory, heavily aromatic and tart (not to be confused with mango chutney), and had no business being in Kung Pao chicken or steamed rice. I had to think fast. Either I could break down and quit or just keep moving. I ran to the pantry and saw my avatar ‘eggs’. I would add a Korean spin to my rice by serving them with an egg on top – those eggs would be fried on ‘Mango Pickle’. This would not only add a creative edge to my plate, but the pickle would emulate the experience of Kimchi. I was done! For me this was the win. Stepping up to the challenge and plating four dishes on time with a clean station. Wherever I may have ranked at that point, I realized that I could do it – I could be in front of 700 people and perform with a number of curve balls and cameras. It wasn’t easy and pulled out all my insecurities, but, I faced them.

Everyone did an awesome job. It was a tough call for the judges but they came to their final decision. I was announced champion and Neeru Kumria, runner up. Varli was generous with their prizes which include trips to the Caribbean, my participation in the Varli 2013 festival in Dubai, a tandoor and a year’s supply of rice and flour.

The experience left me on cloud 9 for the rest of the weekend. It also taught me to look at a skimp pantry as an opportunity to create and combine without self-imposed restriction.

Challenge Round 1

Pan seared black pepper shrimp



  • 1 lb shrimps, deveined and butterflied
  • Cooking oil
  • 2 tsp black crushed pepper seeds, chunkily ground
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 2 tsp crushed cilantro seeds


  • ½ cup onion, julienne
  • 2 tomatoes, julienne
  • Handful of fresh dill sprigs
  • Dressing: 1 part lemon, zest of 1 lemon, 3 parts olive oil whisked together, Salt to taste



1)      Heat the pan with 3 tbsp oil

2)      Coat the shrimp in the dry rub of black pepper, coriander seeds, salt

3)      Add shrimp to hot oil for about 3 minutes until they turn orange, promptly remove and drain on paper towels


1)      Dress the onions, tomatoes and dill sprigs in lemon vinaigrette (reserving a little drizzle for the shrimp)


1)      Stack the salad in the center of the plate

2)      Place shrimp around the salad and drizzle shrimp with a little dressing

Saira Malhotra is a classically trained French chef and graduate from the French Culinary Institute. A British born Punjabi, Saira has grown up around food with her family pizza business where she helped spreading tomato sauce and smuggling cheese for her own little stash. Having studied in France and Italy and living in the Big Apple for the past 12 years, Saira has brought her European, Asian and American influences together via the palate and communicated through her food blog:

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