I Can Cook For 100 People All By Myself: MasterChef India Runner-Up Santa Sarmah

She admits to come from a 'simple background' with little exposure back in the day but this absolutely confident chef can cook up a storm and make her way into your heart with her Assamese flavours.

Published On May 24, 2024 | Updated On May 24, 2024


A self-taught chef, Santa’s journey into the world of commercial kitchens may have begun with her luck at MasterChef India but her story runs deep. It wasn’t love that brought her to the kitchen because rarely will you find an eight-year-old proclaiming that they want to be a chef and not change their minds about a dozen times till they’re in the teens. For Santa, it was semi-compulsion and quite likely, her fate. 

After being in the top 3 of MasterChef India, Santa told herself that she would do whatever she could to make Assamese and Gorkha food known – Santa is a Nepali Gorkha by birth but generations of her family have been settled in Assam – and help to give them their own identities. “People need to understand that the northeast of India, each State has its own cuisine. We have similarities when it comes to resources and some techniques but they aren’t the same,” she says as she takes me through what she has on the menu for the day. 

Santa is in Bengaluru for a few days to showcase her culinary expertise at Shangri-La Bengaluru. 


As I dipped my fingertips into a delightful ‘begun pora’ (burnt brinjal), and began my meal, she told us about her journey from a little home in Tejzpur to being a champion of Assamese food and of course being the first runner-up at MasterChef India 2023. 

Losing her mother at a young age, Santa simply had to learn how to cook, picking up little lessons from her grandmother and then her step mother. However, she says she remembers her mother making everything from scratch and was a really good cook. “I know everyone will say their mother is/was a good cook but mine really was. She even made biscuits at home. We had no ovens back in the day and she’d use the heat from sand to make biscuits and other things. Even cake icing – she would beat the icing by hand because we never had a beater,” she says. 

By then I’d moved onto the ‘pora aamer chutney’ (roasted raw mango chutney) and ‘maach bhaja’ (fried fish) and couldn’t stop eating them, and as she went on to talk about how there’s a slight possibility that her mother’s skills were transferred to her – “maybe it’s a DNA thing” – but even then, she never really expected to become a professional, I was blessing her quietly for bringing her food to us. 

Now here’s the twist to Santa’s story, which is definitely not as flavourful as the ‘Magic Rice Salad’ I was picking with my hands. Magic Rice, which has its own GI-tag and all, is Assam’s pride and joy. Also called Chokuwa, you can eat it either cooked or uncooked (has to be soaked for a fair bit though) and make it into a salad of sorts. It’s so subtle that your heart melts at first bite. 

Right, back to her story, no sooner had she finished her graduation, her father married her off. It was the right thing to do, as far as he was concerned. But it was at her in-law’s place that Santa fine-tuned her cooking and learned much more than she had earlier. “We were 12 daughters-in-law! And we cooked everything at home, even when we would have a feast. For me, it’s not a big deal to cook for 100 people,” she says.

Santa did her Master’s after she was married and even though she was fairly adamant on getting her degree, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. “My husband noticed it, that I was not really being able to find my footing anywhere. I did want to earn but I had such little confidence. In fact, I was a zero-confidence girl. But when he asked me to think about what I really liked, I realised how every time I’d cook, I’d just feel a lot better, and so I cooked more,” she says with a laugh. 

And her opportunity to cook arrived when MasterChef India was looking for contestants in the northeast. She signed up with hope of making it but didn’t. “It did not deter me. Of course, I was upset but I was sure I was going to try again. I practised and practised and applied the following year. And it was a tough journey but I made it!” she adds. 

Santa’s tryst with the culinary competition gave her a brilliant boost. For one, she was sure this is what she wanted to do so she went back home and did a few popups in Guwahati and also began to promote Assamese food and culture on her social media. This is the chef’s fourth popup – her last one was in Delhi – and it does not look like she’s stopping anytime soon. 

We surely hope not because the mutton curry with raw papaya was so delicious that I wanted to bring some back for later. 

Photo: Priyadarshini Nandy; Shangri-La Bengaluru