“I cook the food I love to eat and by taste and flavour rather than by the book. It is the generosity of food I love to cook for.”
Amina Elshafei was the first muslim contestant of the famous MasterChef Autralia reality TV show back in 2012. She is also a paediatric nurse and one of the frontliners in Australia during Covid-19 pandemic!
Even though she did not win the competition, she became one of the most famous faces of the competition. She reached a celebrity status and wrote her own cookbook. She was invited to participate in the competition again in 2020. At that time she just delivered a baby, busy as a frontliner during covid, but loves cooking so much she agreed to join the competition.
In her own words, Amina Elshafei was never supposed to be a TV star.
“I am a plus-size girl. I do not feel glamorous enough to be on TV. I’m a tall girl with a hijab and stick out like a sore thumb,” she says.
Yet a star was exactly what she became after appearing on MasterChef Australia in 2012 as its first Muslim contestant. Despite any reservations she might have had about how she would be perceived, Elshafei, who was knocked out of the final 11, went on to become one of the show’s most popular and memorable contestants in its five-year history.
In Australia, she is still regularly stopped on the street by people who recognise her two years after she was on the show. Melbourne’s Herald Sun described her as “perhaps the most generously supportive, calm and optimistic contestant, always pitching in on team challenges”. Venusbuzz.com called her “Australia’s breath of fresh air” and The Australian Women’s Weekly said she was “everyone’s best friend”.
“It has been humbling,” says Elshafei. “It was at the back of my mind (how I would be perceived) but I hoped people would see who I am.”
The nurse says she was not intimidated when she went on the programme as the first contestant in a hijab and decided to let her food do the talking. Her brand of cooking is a reflection of her unique background. Born in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to her Egyptian father Mohamed, and Korean mother Injoung, she and her sister Eman, were brought up in Australia on food from both cultures.
The family table was as likely to be laid with kimchi as it was with tagines and stews – sometimes at the same time. “My parents and grandmothers are my inspiration,” she says. “I cook the food I love to eat and by taste and flavour rather than by the book. It is the generosity of food I love to cook for.”
Elshafei, who began cooking as a teenager and once blew up a microwave while attempting to bake a cake, carried on cooking as a hobby, whipping up dishes for her friends in her spare time. Egged on by her sister, she applied to MasterChef Australia with comical pictures of herself carrying a watermelon and with vine leaves stuck between her teeth, expecting her application to end up in the bin. But after three rounds of auditions, in which she made stuffed grape leaves and a kofta tagine with fattoush, she was among the 24 contestants selected from 7,500 applicants in her city alone.
“I was stunned to be called back,” she says. There were more challenges to come: Elshafei had to cope with the stresses of living in a shared house with the other contestants for six months without phone or internet access, with only a few hours to see her family once a month.
“We walked into each episode unaware of what was going to happen,” says Elshafei. “As the show became more serious and harder, we became rocks for each other in the house.”
She bonded with Audra Morrice, a fellow contestant with Chinese and Indian parents who had also adapted her style of cooking from her parents’ mixed heritage.
Elshafei proved that being a Muslim girl does not stop you from competing with the best. Although she did not win the competition, her personality won the hearts of millions, until today.
Written by En Nazril, KLC Parent