MasterChef judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace aren’t known for getting emotional on screen (unless the latter is enthusing about a buttery biscuit base).
But 2012 contestant Shelina Permalloo’s Mauritian-inspired cooking left the firm but fair pair all a-flutter.
First, there was Torode, who welled up after tasting Permalloo’s exotic deep-fried soft shell crab.
“He had tears in his eyes; I think he said he’d come home,” former charity worker Permalloo recalls. “It was one of those turnaround moments, when I realised you shouldn’t fake what it is that you love, and if you love what you cook, other people love it too.”
Then there was former greengrocer Wallace, who described Permalloo’s cooking as “sunshine on a plate”.
“When I discovered he loved mangoes nearly as much as me, I shoved mangoes in everything,” she says, smiling.
Born in Southampton to Mauritian parents, Permalloo has been busy with two cookbooks, restaurant work and foodie roadshows since her MasterChef triumph.
Her latest project is the Love Your Freezer campaign with Sainsbury’s, which aims to inspire families to get the most from their freezers.
“Frozen food doesn’t have to be the breadcrumbed, heavy things that people typically think of. It can be light, fresh, and perfect for winter as well,” says Permalloo.
“I think freezers have had a bad rep for a long time, and the most important thing about using your freezer is making the most of it - making things colourful, fresh and full of flavour.”
The 31-year-old does admit to having found a few random ingredients in the “abyss of the freezer” from time to time - including an exploded bag of frozen thyme.
“It happens to the best of us!” she says. “Organising your freezer’s really important, labelling it properly and cycling it the way you would with your fridge.”
Much of Permalloo’s cuisine is inspired by her mother, Sheila, who she recently enjoyed a trip to Mauritius with. So who’s the better cook these days? “My mum’s food is what I crave whenever I’ve been away or I’m feeling low, or I’ve got a cold. Technically, I’ve got more skills than her, but she’s definitely the better cook,” Permalloo says with a laugh.
“Mum loves my food, she’s really supportive. She’s all about taste and smell - an old school cook, no measurements, just feeling as she goes along. I think that’s the best way to cook.” Permalloo is also proud aunt to four nephews, who range in age from one to nine.
“All the kids love getting involved in food, they get really excited. If they can be involved in the process, they want to eat it,” she says.