Food lovers have a very distinct demeanour that sets them apart as they exude an irrevocable passion for their love of food. Amina Elshafei, won the hearts of many with her culinary expertise and quickly became one of the most loved contestants of the immensely popular Masterchef Australia. With her visit to Pakistan we had the chance to meet the bubbly Amina who with her infectious smile radiates positive energy as soon as she walks in the room.
Being an avid watcher of Season 4, it was obvious that Amina stood out from the rest – not because she wore a hijab, but because of her talent for cooking wholesome hearty meals and her interesting heritage that had all three judges excited to put her through the auditions. Hailing from New South Wales and of Egyptian-Korean parentage, Amina was born in Saudi Arabia and moved to Australia in the late 1980s. As a child, family life was centred on food and weekend trips to the produce markets. Her South Korean mum cooked through the week and Egyptian father at the weekends, and both brought old family recipes and techniques to the table.
“I’ve always had a passion for cooking. I was very opportune with my multicultural background that exposed me to different varieties of food and styles of cooking within the family. My passion instigates from my very own family who have always supported my l have for food. “My dad is one of those male cooks who throw everything in and it tastes good. I got the best of both worlds coming from different cultures and my family is open to trying new things,” she says of the family palette.
She confesses that she has always thought that she wanted to pursue the line of food but had to be very serious with studies too, courtesy of her parents. “My teenage years were very focused with studies and my degrees as it was very important to my parents that I did well in my studies. I am a nurse by profession, and I love every bit of it. I’ve never stopped loving my nursing responsibilities’, says a laughing Amina.
With regard to her visit in different countries and her performance on the show itself, she confessed that she is very proud of her ethnicity and background and was happy with the positive affect it had.
“Initially, I wanted to stay away from the whole cultural identity business about me being a Muslim girl. I went to Masterchef because of my passion for cooking; the whole purpose for me to go on the show was to cook for the people I love. However, the outcome of it was incredible; whether it was the positive attitude and exposure about being a Muslim girl in a Western country – I’m really glad that happened. But I guess the important thing was to acknowledge the facts that you can live with other people you don’t know and that you can have a wonderful relationship with them.”
Amina proved to be a big hit with viewers and especially so with Muslims. Her progress in every episode was followed with fervour and excitement. Her elimination, of course, wasn’t received with the same enthusiasm. “Masterchef opened new doors for me. During the course of the show my culinary prowess was honed and I got the chance to experiment and cook under pressure. After Masterchef, Audra (another Masterchef Contestant) and I have been doing a lot of cooking shows in different countries. We do a lot of pop up restaurants and catering jobs too. We lived in a food bubble, all we did was cook, live and breathe food, which was great. It was stressful but the exposure really opened up a lot of roads for me. And of course, meeting all the great chefs during the show was a wonderful opportunity for me as well”, says an amused Amina.
Proud to have displayed her passion for cooking through so many wonderful dishes, there’s one in particular that Amina considers her crowning achievement. And given the level of praise it garnered from the judges, they would surely agree. “I loved making my maamouls (stuffed biscuits). To me, they’re my absolute favourite. There’s so much history behind those biscuits and I was proud as punch to show the Australian audience my favourite bikkies!”
Her visit to Pakistan has been a pleasant experience for many. She ended up judging a food competition in Lahore College and a cooking activity with Chef Anjum Javed at the Pearl Continental Hotel. Such a cultural exchange with Australia is surely one of its kinds for Pakistan as Amina truly represents the best of both worlds. Cooking Lahori Karahi with the chef she said, “Coming to Pakistan has been a wonderful experience for me. The people here are so welcoming and accommodative. I love the food palette here. Pakistani cuisine has a very interesting history to it which brings enriched flavours from so many places to one food palette. It has bags of flavour and spices that are unique to this country alone.”
Reflecting on growing up in Australia, she explains that it has given her the opportunity to learn about food from other cultures and to bring out the food that she has been raised on. ‘We’re very lucky in Sydney because we have access to traditional ingredients and halal meat.’
For her, the concept of being Australian is to be aware of multiculturalism and the variety of Australian food is also an element of multiculturalism. She adds, ‘Multiculturalism has really uplifted my identity.’
It was a delight to watch Amina talking so passionately about her plans and brimming with excitement for her new projects that are still in the pipeline. Since her MasterChef success, Amina has worked with world-famous Turkish chef Somer Sivrioglu. She has a cookbook in the pipeline that she hopes to be ready by next year. ‘If you can achieve a passion in life, take it with both hands. If you’re Muslim, embrace who you are and don’t be afraid. Cook with passion and lots of love. If you haven’t cooked before, don’t make it difficult for yourself. Have fun cooking!’
Amina’s parts amicably with the advice ‘a smile goes a long way’.