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Juggling Motherhood, Kashmir’s 1st MasterChef Contestant Overcame Failure to Create History

Juggling Motherhood, Kashmir’s 1st MasterChef Contestant Overcame Failure to Create History

Her love for cooking took her to MasterChef India, where she’s sharing authentic Kashmiri cuisine with the world.

Dr Rukhsaar Sayeed cooked for the first time when she was 12. Hailing from Tangmarg in Kashmir, she was visiting her father in Saudi during her winter vacations. Bored, she whipped up a caramel custard, which her family loved. This was the beginning of the now-34-year-old’s culinary journey and her dream of being a chef.

When Rukhsaar was growing up in the 90s, she did not have proper guidance to achieve her goal of becoming a chef. Without internet access, information or career counselling, she didn’t know which path to pursue. So she took up food technology, a newly introduced course at her university.

To her surprise, food technology was a completely different ball game — it did not involve cooking at all! However, she fell in love with the ‘new world’ she was introduced to and went on to pursue a BTech, MTech and PhD in it.

She enjoyed learning biochemistry, preservation, processing, and research of food products.

After completing her education, the food technologist would have been able to choose a job of her liking, but here’s where her other dream kicks in — to be her boss. And she was willing to put in the work and wait for her chance in the sun.

This chance presented itself even before the entrepreneur completed her PhD, and led to the launch of her food venture ‘Khalis Foods’. Today, Rukhsaar has managed to convert her passion into a thriving career and is also among the top eight finalists of MasterChef India.

A mission to provide unadulterated food

The birth of Rukhsaar’s venture stemmed from her need to provide healthy food for her children. While pursuing her doctorate, she also juggled the responsibility of making homemade food for her firstborn, her daughter, who was three at the time.

She started looking for some healthy food to serve as snacks. “I went to the market in search of some unadulterated food. All I saw was frozen and packaged food, which was highly processed with many preservatives and harmful additives,” Rukhsaar tells The Professional Times.

Failing to find anything appealing, she thought of working on something without preservatives, for busy mothers. After completing her PhD, she started researching how to make healthy frozen snacks without additives and started experimenting at home.

“Take the frozen chicken nuggets available in the market. They are all loaded with additives and meat fillers. I worked on how to preserve food in a natural way and studied how to increase the shelf life. My degree helped in recipe formulation and standardisation,” she says, adding that it took her almost eight months to study and work on the shelf life.

She experimented with chicken strips, nuggets, popcorn, and kalari cheese samosas, which became a big hit. She also served her snacks at an exhibition at the Sheri Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC).

Buoyed by the response, she decided to convert her experiments at home into a full-fledged venture. On 3 August, 2019, she launched ‘Khalis Foods’ — an online, frozen food venture from Pampore.

But life had other plans. Just three days later, the Indian government revoked Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. This move led to the suspension of internet and mobile services, halting Rukhsaar’s venture before it could even begin.

“We were cut off from the rest of the world and didn’t have any mobile network. As my business was online, I couldn’t connect to my customers. We were even asked to evacuate the SKICC exhibition. All my frozen food turned bad as we didn’t have access to freezers. I lost about Rs 70,000,” she shares.

Not one to be bogged down, she restarted Khalis Foods in November 2020. However, January 2021 brought on yet another COVID lockdown, causing her to shut down again.

Again, Rukshaar proved her resilience and didn’t let this affect her vision to provide healthy, unadulterated food to children.

“Pursuing a dream is never easy. It comes with its own set of challenges, especially in Kashmir. My passion to set up my own venture and provide unadulterated, safe and healthy snacking options for my people is all that keeps me going. If I fail again and have to start from scratch, I will do it all again in a heartbeat. I look forward to producing quality products no matter what challenges come my way,” says the entrepreneur.

What kept her going?

“Never losing hope. There will come a day when you will be successful in whatever you want,” she remarks.

Once again, like a proverbial phoenix, Rukhsaar rose in September 2021, and there has been no looking back. Working out of the annexe of her house, in a 10 by 10 square feet room, the mother of two currently sells frozen products like chicken popcorn, crispy chicken strips, breaded chicken nuggets, kalari cheese samosas for children, and chicken keema samosas, Turkish adana kebabs, and chicken spring rolls for adults.

Focused on quality, she makes only one batch per week to ensure freshness. “We freeze the batch in our blast freezer. After it’s frozen, we pack it. It’s all handmade and no machinery is used in the process,” she adds.

She employs six people and gets about 600 to 700 orders per month, she informs. While her initial focus was just on online sales, the demand led her to sell her products in departmental stores in Srinagar too.

But this focus on keeping food clean leads to a problem of storage as it has a short shelf life. “We have an overwhelming demand for our products, but we are unable to expand currently as we don’t have access to cold chains, refrigerated vans, etc. My focus is on quality and I will not compromise on that,” she adds.

She hopes to expand out of her small room and open a culinary school in Kashmir one day.

Taking Kashmiri cuisine to the World

Even though Khalis Foods is thriving, Rukhsaar jumped at the chance to audition for MasterChef India.

“When people talk about Kashmiri cuisine, they talk about wazwan and rogan josh. Through MasterChef India, I want the country to know how we prepare homemade food in Kashmir. We use so many local indigenous ingredients to make our food and there is a science behind every ingredient used. The world must know Kashmiri ‘ghar ka khana’,” she says.

Rukhsaar is one of the top eight finalists in MasterChef India-Hindi and one of the first Kashmiri women on the show. She’s been ‘wow’ing the judges with her dishes, where she uses traditional Kashmiri ingredients in creative, restaurant-quality dishes.

“I got a chance to be a chef thanks to MasterChef. I think I’ve done it all now,” laughs the 34-year-old.

Being one of the few Kashmiri women chefs, Rukhsaar is a beacon of inspiration for young girls in the valley. She urges youngsters to follow their passion.

“My career is in sync with my passion, which is one of the best things. I want to tell youngsters to look at ways to transform their passion into a career. Have faith in yourself,” she says.

On being asked about her ‘aha moment’ or the day she felt ‘she made it’, despite achieving so much, Rukhsaar says, “I think that day is yet to come”, which speaks volumes about her goals.

“I am in a good place and very grateful for everything I’ve received so far. But I still have a lot to do. I can’t say that I’ve achieved everything I’ve truly ever wanted yet,” she adds.

As we wait to see the heights that this fiery woman reaches, you can follow her here to place orders, or just be a bystander to witness her incredible journey.

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