Growing up in South Africa, Kamini Pather was always surrounded by food. The fifth generation South African is of South Indian origin – her forefathers came to the country as indentured labourers, staying after their contracts ended.
As a result of her ethnic makeup, her childhood memories were redolent of the spices and flavours of her forefathers’ homeland. She remembers each meal being infused with little touches that made it all the more memorable, like oats with cinnamon, apple pie with extra spices and the family’s homemade spice masala.
“I learnt to cook by eating. I was always sitting on the kitchen counter when my mum or grandmother cooked, so I would have one finger in the pot to taste what was being made,” she says in an email interview.
As she grew older, Kamini’s interest in food blossomed from watching on the side lines to actively cooking and immersing herself in food. As a student, she discovered the joys of food shows, which led to her devouring every single gastronomy-tinged show she could find and eventually whipping up her own culinary concoctions.
“That’s when I started to experiment in the kitchen with breakfast foods. I began with eggs – testing it out with milk, with cream, fried, poached – all sorts really. From then on, I spent my meagre student budget on food magazines instead of fashion mags and spent all my time Googling recipes,” she says.
By 2013, Kamini had evolved into a food blogger and radio host and her confidence too had grown, so she decided to enter the second season of MasterChef South Africa, where she eventually emerged victorious. That win dramatically changed her life, helping pave the way for her to become a television host, which had been a long-held dream.
“Winning MasterChef SA gave me a platform to be able to turn my passion into a pay cheque. I have wanted to host a food television show for as long as I can remember and this win allowed me to do that,” she says.
Which is how the television series Girl Eat World came about. The show documents Kamini’s travels to 10 different cities – Bangkok, Lima, Johannesburg, Sydney, Philadelphia, Berlin, Dubai, Milan, Copenhagen and Tokyo where she connects with food bloggers who show her around each city, taking her through famed eating spots and hole-in-the-wall finds and bringing her face-to-face with some iconic figures in their hometowns.
Kamini says she had a large hand in choosing the cities and bloggers involved, which is what gives Girl Eat World an edge over other food shows.
“These 10 cities appealed to me because each blogger and I had chemistry. We were making TV and so there needed to be an amount of control over the content. I spent months trawling the Internet for blogs that I was naturally drawn to. I Skyped and communicated with many bloggers and the ones that were chosen were the ones I felt the best connections with. That’s the element that sets this show apart from other food travel shows,” she says.
Kamini also believes that food bloggers play a powerful role in promoting and disseminating information about food, a fact which became clearer to her while making the show.
“When travelling, food bloggers are a wonderful resource for being able to have an experience that is a little off-the-tourist-track. You get a view of how regular people eat their way through their city,” she says.
There were many moments on the show that stood out for Kamini, and all of them revolved around food.
She talks about the soy-caramelised pig’s tongue with edamame beans that she ate at Pinbone in Sydney, the emmenthal and bacon spätzle she devoured in Berlin; and the sea buckthorn berry (a Vitamin C rich berry that has a zingy, tart flavour) that she ate in Copenhagen – all of which have deeply influenced and enriched her gastronomic knowledge base.
Still, Kamini says there are more places she would love to visit (to eat more food, of course) if the opportunity presented itself.
“I would love to visit more of South America and definitely more of Asia. The food and food culture in both regions are incredibly honest, which translates on screen. It isn’t about starched table cloths, it’s about eating in dimly-lit street corners and bustling markets – that is where you get a view of the people of that city. That’s where the delicious part of television is made,” she says.
While making the show, Kamini also discovered that being a television host isn’t just about looking pretty and eating good food. She had to be constantly on her toes, ready to endure anything and willing to put her best face forward, regardless of how she felt internally or physically.
“It was one of the most exciting but unglamorous experiences of my life. We travelled across nine countries in nine weeks, which is a hectic schedule. Within that, irrespective of whether I was tired or sick, the show had to go on, so I had to always be camera-ready,” she says.
Although she has travelled the world and eaten some of the best things on the planet, Kamini says she still feels tethered to her roots and finds ways to infuse South Indian flavours into the dishes she cooks herself.
“These days, as I discover more about my history and my link to India, those flavours have been included in my cooking. I have been using hints of Indian spices in dishes and techniques that are from all over the world. I made a garam masala risotto with pan-fried prawns and crispy briyani onions recently. It combined the warm, earthy spices of the masala with the creaminess of risotto. It was sublime!”
“Cardamon or elachi is my favourite spice. It is used in sweet and savoury cooking and I have used elachi in shortbread, creme patisserie-filled choux pastry and panna cotta with much success,” she says.
This year, Kamini will be dipping her toes in a brand new endeavour: her own range of kitchenware called Kitchen Culture by Kamini. There will be three non-stick pans and a wok in the range that will hit major stores in South Africa in May 2017. Kamini says the whole idea behind her cookware is to inspire more young people to spend time cooking with gadgets that actually help make their lives easier.
Ultimately though, Kamini says her relationship with food is simple – it is the tool that helps her connect with and understand the rest of the world.
“Food is personal and allows me to share a part of myself with the people who dine with me. That’s the reason I travel and I eat – I want to understand other people, where they have been and how they have lived, through what they eat,” she says.
The complete season of Girl Eat World airs every day at 12.30pm on LiTV (Astro Channel 728) from April 10 to 20.