They say never trust a skinny chef. However, for MasterChef 2012 champion Shelina Permalloo, 31, losing weight became a priority after she caught sight of herself on the set of a photoshoot back in the summer of 2013.
“I was surrounded by lots of beautiful – I mean, stunning – women and I looked in the mirror and thought, gosh, I feel awful,” she says, on the phone from her Southampton home. “Then the photos came through and, though I was loving my career, I didn’t look happy or feel it either. I didn’t feel like me anymore.”
After this epiphany, over the course of a year, former charity project manager Permalloo lost around three stone, and shrank from a size 18 to a size 12. She wasn’t doing the 5:2, the Skinny Bitch or French Women Don’t Get Fat, but instead sticking to a lighter adaptation of the style of Mauritian cuisine that had won her the MasterChef title, as well as walking for 5km four times a week.
“I feel like I eat better now than I’ve ever done before. I used to skip meals and pick but now I probably have about five small meals a day,” she says.
Strategically launched this month – a time of extreme gastronomic repentance – she’s sharing her new style of eating with The Sunshine Diet, her second cookbook in a two book deal with publishers Ebury (the first was Sunshine on a Plate, released in June 2013).
“It was my idea to do the book,“ she says. “I wanted to make my classic food lighter, and along with that came my own weight loss journey.”
Illustrated by photos of the recently divorced Permalloo looking glossy and glowing, with cheekbones like freshly polished pippins, alongside her family, including her mum (“I love that picture, me and mum always mooch around and talk recipes”), the book features dishes that have an emphasis on flavour, not fat.
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Not that she ever had an over-reliance on butter or cream, as Permalloo has “something similar to Crohn’s disease,” so avoids gluten and dairy products. Instead, she explains that she prefers to use coconut or almond milk, or go dairy-free.
Recipes in The Sunshine Diet include Caribbean allspice salad with pumpkin and black beans, Thai pork cups, and sea bream with chermoula. Everything is typical of Mauritius’ fusion-style cuisine, which draws on influences from Africa, Portugal, India, France and China.
Permalloo visits this popular honeymoon island, where her parents were born, around three times a year. “Every time I feel re-inspired,” she says.
In fact, I can practically hear her salivating when she describes the pickled octopus and “chilli sweet fruits – sour fruits like unripe mango and guava mixed with a solution of chilli, sugar, salt and vinegar – that you get on the beach, served in little plastic bags from the back of what looks like an ice-cream van.” She’s created a version of this recipe for the book, which she calls Mauritian soured fruit.
Her recipes are so vibrant that you can understand why MasterChef presenter Gregg Wallace described Permalloo’s food as “sunshine on a plate” (and unwittingly coined the names for both of her books), although, her cooking has evolved since her BBC2 television appearances.
“What I’ve realised is that I’m really inspired by the world, rather than the classics,” she says. “I use spices and flavour more efficiently and play up what I’m good at.”
So, did she watch the seventh and most recent series of MasterChef: The Professionals, which aired at the end of last year?
“I haven’t had time in the evenings, so I’ve got a mammoth catch up to do,” she says. “It’s a different vibe without Michel Roux Jr though. Marcus (Wareing) is pretty scary, isn’t he?”
In a way, it seems that the winners of amateur MasterChef are often more impressive than those who take the title in the programme’s professional incarnation. They certainly seem to be more experimental.
“I can only talk about what happened to me, but I had really bad low self confidence and never believed in myself,” says Permalloo. “With a professional chef, they can have arrogance – that’s the wrong word – confidence, in themselves. With amateurs it’s always trial and error and with that can come moments of genius.”
Now that her second book is in the shops, Permalloo, who also cooks for private diners, runs cookery classes and works alongside various brands, hopes to channel her own particular brand of genius by focusing on her primary ambition.
“I want to open a restaurant next year – it’s my key dream,” says this cook, who is only the third female winner (after author and owner of the Wahaca Mexican chain, Thomasina Miers, and 2013 victor Natalie Coleman) since MasterChef relaunched in 2005. “In terms of where it’s going to be situated, that’s still pending, but I’ve worked really hard on getting the plans together.”
Maybe it’s time we trusted a skinny chef.
BEEF WITH LEMONGRASS AND SICHUAN PEPPER
An alternative and exciting way to enjoy your steak, mixed with fragrant lemongrass and vermicelli noodles, this dish is perfect for feeding the family during the week but looks good enough to serve to friends too.
(340 calories per serving, 10g of fat, no sugar)
150g dried rice vermicelli noodles
1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and chopped
1 lemongrass stalk, trimmed and finely chopped
1 long red chilli, finely chopped
500g lean sirloin steak (trimmed of fat), thinly sliced
1 tbsp Sichuan pepper
2 tbsp fish sauce
4 spring onions, coarsely chopped
handful each of freshly chopped or torn basil, coriander and mint leaves
juice of 1 lime
1 Place the noodles in a heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water and leave to soak for around 5 minutes (or according to packet instructions) until tender, then drain and cool.
2 Heat the oil in a wok over a high heat, add the garlic, ginger, lemongrass and chilli and stir-fry for 30 seconds.
3 Add the beef and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry for a few minutes, or until the beef is browned all over – you don’t want to overcook it.
4 Add the fish sauce, toss in the noodles, spring onions and herbs, then remove from the heat. Turn out on to a big platter, squeeze over the lime juice and serve.
FROZEN WATERMELON WITH MINTED SUGAR
This is so easy to put together, and it’s great to make with kids. The hardest part is slicing the watermelon and skewering the pieces to place in the freezer.
(124 calories per serving, no fat, sugar 28g)
1 medium watermelon, peeled and sliced into small wedges
120g unrefined golden caster sugar
large handful of mint leaves
wooden ice lolly sticks (or reusable ice lolly bases)
1 Push a wooden lolly stick (or a reusable ice lolly base) into the base of each wedge of watermelon. Place on a tray and freeze overnight.
2 Using a pestle and mortar, bash the sugar and mint leaves together until you turn the sugar a brilliant green colour.
3 Remove the frozen watermelon wedges from the freezer and lay on a large serving platter. Sprinkle over the minted sugar and serve
• The Sunshine Diet: Get Some Sunshine into Your Life, Lose Weight and Feel Amazing by Shelina Permalloo is out now, Ebury Illustrated, £14.99.
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