Santosh Shah, the Nepali who was runner-up in the MasterChef Professional 2020 in Britain last week, made it a point throughout the globally televised contest to highlight the country of his birth.
The dishes he prepared were pan-Nepali, and his momo, yomari, kodo, chhyang, kulfi had innovative fusion elements. His mango dessert, for example, was frozen in a balloon in liquid nitrogen. His lunch preparation for the finals was presented in a tiffin box, and he spoke emotionally about how his mother back home in Saptari brought him lunch while he dug an irrigation canal.
But it was in the finals, when Shah donned a “Nepali hat”, that he got entangled in the fault lines in Nepal about ethnic identity, exclusion and the debate about the symbols of a unitary state.
The भादगाऊँलेटोपी set off a vigorous argument in Nepal’s cybersphere about whether the cap really represented Nepal’s nationhood. While most commentators were proud of this self-made Nepali who elevated himself to the international stage through sheer determination, hard work and talent, others felt he should have promoted his Madhesi identity more.
The cap caper was not the first criticism that Shah had to face in Nepal’s hyper-sensitive social media. Even the fact that his dish in the semi-final round involved octopus prepared Nepali style evoked some disapproval.
“There were negative comments on social media on how my spiced chargrilled octopus dish isn’t our food,” Shah admitted to Nepali Times. “But we need to understand that this is a global competition for a global audience.”
It was for the same reason that Shah got permission from the BBC to don a ढाकाटोपी in the studio kitchen to highlight his country’s significance in the global map. Shah tweeted: ‘This is called a dream come true. Dhaka topi in master chef. Thank you BBC to allowed me to wear my national hat in MasterChef professional 2020.’