Forget the "dark horse" idiom when discussing Marida Mohammed's performance on the competitive reality cooking show MasterChef Canada. The Trinidad-born, Toronto-based chef considered herself the hot pepper of the competition–bringing the heat and spicing things up all the way to the finals. Although she lost the title and $100,000 prize money to Canadian chemical engineer Eric Chong, Mohammed feels the show presented an opportunity to showcase just how versatile Caribbean food can be.
On Thursday, during a two-week holiday in T&T, she sat down with the Sunday Guardian in Price Plaza, Chaguanas, to discuss the competition and plans for her culinary career. Mohammed was born in Cocoyea Village, San Fernando, and attended ASJA Girls' College for two years before she and her family migrated to Canada in 1995 when she was 13 years old. After graduating from high school, she worked a series of odd jobs before becoming a personal fitness trainer which made sense given her interest in nutrition and diet.
While she has never had any formal culinary training, she said she learnt a lot from her mother about creating something quick and tasty out of nothing. "I went into the competition feeling confident in my cooking because if it's one thing that I know how to do, it's to whip up a meal with just two or three ingredients. We grew up here with not a lot of money, my mom was a stay-at-home mom with six children and always having to come up with a meal even when there was nothing in the fridge."
Early on in the competition, she showed off her skills by winning the first "mystery box challenge" which called on contestants to make a meal out of a box of random ingredients which included peanut butter, pork loins, congo pepper and noodles. Mohammed was the only contestant adventurous enough to use the pepper in her meal which was a Thai-inspired dish of pepper pork with a peanut butter dressing and noodle stir-fry. She managed to impress the judges and win herself immunity from the next elimination round. Another challenge required the amateur chefs to make a meal using different cuts of beef which ranged from premium steak to cow brains and tongue. "They gave me the cow's kidneys so I naturally curried it up with some dhal and rice. When in doubt, curry. That was my rule."
Asked which she thought was her standout meal of the show, Mohammed said it was a toss-up between her razor clam dish and the finale meal. For the first, she used the white, black and red Himalayan sea salt to create a T&T flag on the plate which served as the backdrop to her salsa clam dish. For the final episode which aired at the end of April, the two contestants had to prepare a full course meal and they were given an hour to prepare each dish.
In this challenge, there were no limitations to the ingredients and for her appetizer, she made a callaloo soup with coconut lime creme fraiche with sliced pumpkin, crispy pig tail and breadfruit chips. Her main dish was a "Canadian-Caribbean fusion" of black cod wrapped in a bhagi leaf with pigeon peas puree and cucumber chutney.
The final episode also brought a sweet surprise for her when her family came on set to wish her luck. Among them was her three-year-old daughter Myla and her twin sister Narida who was also one of the top 50 contestants in the competition but got knocked out during one of the elimination rounds. She said, "We auditioned for the show together and it was our intention to make it until the end. When Narida was cut from the show, they made a very dramatic story of it saying, 'One twin makes it...the other doesn't' and they showed me crying. It was bittersweet but I knew I had to make it to the end for both of us."
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Mohammed was being away from her daughter for 42 days while filming the show. She made up her mind that if she was leaving her behind for that period, she would make it to the end and win the $100,000 which she and Narida planned use to open up their own restaurant called Twice The Spice.While there was no prize money for the runner-up, the sisters haven't given up on the idea of establishing a fine dining Caribbean restaurant in Canada and they even hope to have their own cooking programme one day. For the moment, they're doing cooking demonstrations and private catering. Next month, they will launch their own pepper sauce at the Hot and Spicy Food Festival in Toronto. More than anything, Mohammed said the MasterChef experience taught her how much Trinidadians take the versatility of our food for granted.
"In Canada, people go wild for the simple little economical meals that people in Trinidad make every day. Things like eddoes, cassava and breadfruit are now becoming trendy in Canada. Really we just want to bring refined Caribbean fusion cooking to North America and show how we make healthy, flavourful meals out of the simplest ingredients." She tries to come back to Trinidad at least once a year for some "culinary exploration" but said that she stays far from multinational food chains, adding that it's usually the "run-down hole-in-the-wall restaurants" that have the best food.