Mastering Spices

Jackie Pinto | June 19, 2023 | Life

Meet MasterChef winner and restaurateur Sashi Cheliah who recently introduced Peranakan cuisine through The Pandan Club, in Chennai and takes it to diners across the country by way of curated, pop-up experiences.

It was May 7, 2018, when the Adelaide Women’s Prison in suburban Northfield spontaneously imploded in a celebratory storm as their popular prison guard Sashikumar Cheliah won
Masterchef Australia Season 10.

Since then, it’s been a roller coaster ride for the Singapore born; Adelaide-based, self-taught chef who traces his roots back to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. He recently launched the first of its kind Peranakan restaurant in Chennai, The Pandan Club, along with his co-founder Manoj Padmanaban,’ Known for his larger-than-life Big Bandha culinary experiences, Padmanaban is described as a free-spirited generalist and the duo were in Bangalore at Inazia, the Sheraton Grand, Whitefield to showcase the highlights of Peranakan cuisine. Chelian shared snippets of his unique journey- from law enforcement officer to MasterChef to restaurateur.

Why Peranakan cuisine

Peranakans are people from China who adopted Malay food and culture.  The cuisine has familiar, yet bold flavors combined with Chinese fermentation techniques, so it is really quite special. Even people with jaded palates will be intrigued by our menu.  We use uncommon ingredients like buah kelauk which is fermented black nut, candle nut from the Macadamia family, gula melaka a type of palm sugar, calamansi a citrus fruit and fermented soya bean paste. Our Pandan Club signature cocktails are known for their flavors of lemongrass, pandan leaves and blue pea flowers.

Earliest food memories

Watching my extended family cook together. We all lived on one floor of an apartment building so we were in and out of each other’s homes , sharing meals and cooking together. I also loved watching my mother make her special lamb biryani, using a combination of traditional spices, lemongrass and pandan leaves.  I grew up in Bukit Timah and the  Hillview Hawker Centre there had delicious Mee Goreng, Carrot Cake and Wonton Noodles.

Cooking was essential because

When I moved to Australia I missed my local Singaporean food so much that I started cooking those dishes myself.

Sashi Cheliah with co-founder Manoj Padmanaban at The Pandan Club

Biggest challenge was

We had launched our restaurant Gaja By Sashi in Adelaide only four months before the pandemic. It was a very stressful period as we had invested everything we had in it and had to shut down soon after we opened. But we learned how to streamline our processes, cut back on non-essentials and manage with very limited help. We also launched Gaja Express, a delivery only service in Adelaide.
“Now I use fresh local produce instead of expensive imported ingredients and find ways to best maximize flavors and reduce wastage. Running a restaurant is a totally different challenge from a business perspective for me.”

Must-have ingredients

Peranakans use a lot of ingredients familiar to South Indians like chilly, banana leaves and coconut. I personally use turmeric, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, cumin and chilli! I also like grilling and barbecuing- I met my wife at a friend’s barbecue party and I clearly impressed her with my skills behind the grill! So my special meat marinades and dry rubs are quite the hit!

Winning dish

Chicken rendang with coconut rice, pineapple achar and roti jala (netted crepes).

Comfort food
Sambhar  with  warm rice vegetables and meat on the side. Keerai Curry- a Tamil dish of mashed spinach and lentils. Char Kway Teow noodles. I also like to try every version of biryani there is.

Guilty pleasure

Definitely sweets! For example Mysore Pak that melts in your mouth, Motichoor Ladoo and dark, rich wheat halwa.

Chefs to look up to

Gordan Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Sanjeev Kapoor

Most diners like

Story and drama in their food.

An easy, go- to recipe that generally impresses your guests:

Laksa that iconic Malaysian spicy coconut noodle soup, often served in Singaporean hawker centers for breakfast. It is an incredibly rich, fragrant, complex broth and is best served up with noodles and all the essential classic toppings.


Mixed vegetables 100 gms

Coconut milk 400 ml

Cooked chicken or prawns 100 gms 

Sugar ½ tsp

Salt 1 tsp

Fried tofu 50 gms

Oil 50 ml

For the Laksa paste grind together:

Shallots 100 gms

2 red chillies 

2 garlic cloves 

1 lemon grass stalk (white section)

Balachan ( Shrimp paste) optional 1tsp


Spring onions

Chopped boiled eggs

Method: Blend the paste ingredients together.

Cook the paste over medium heat for 10 minutes till the oil separates. Add the coconut milk and simmer gently. Once the Laksa comes to a boil, add the meat, salt, sugar and fried tofu. 

Garnish and serve with your choice of noodles. 

Bon Apetit. 


Words by Jackie Pinto.

Photographs courtesy of The Pandan Club.

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