The Masterchef Mystery Box Challenge

My obsession with the Masterchef show started when I was sitting in my sister-in-law’s house in Singapore one afternoon and her family was doing nothing but catching episode after episode of Masterchef Australia.

Once I had started watching it, there was no turning back. Where have I been? Why hadn’t I discovered this show earlier?! It’s fabulous! Anyone who loves food or loves cooking and has a competitive streak in them would love this show. It’s one of the best reality shows I’ve ever watched and trust me, I’ve watched many since I became a housewife. =p

My favourite segment of the Masterchef show is the Mystery Box Challenge, hands down. To be given a box of secret 5 or 6 ingredients to whip up a fabulous dish in 30 mins is something I sweat over just watching. I would marvel at the creativity of the contestants and always crack my own head on what I would do if I was ever in one of those challenges.

That’s why when I was informed by the organisers of the Good Food & Wine Show, Johannesburg that there would be a Masterchef Live Experience, I signed up for it immediately. I thought it would be heaps of fun to experience such a challenge myself!

And then I started to sweat.

How in the world would I be able to dish up something in 30 mins? I’m pretty fluent in Asian style cooking, but this is an ang moh country. If they gave me western ingredients, I would be so screwed.

By the time it was close to the competition, I started stressing myself up over it. I realised that there would be (1) no recipes to follow, (2) no cookbooks or notes to look at, (3) possibly no Asian ingredients or condiments to use and (4) I would have to put a complete dish up for judging in 30 mins. Without slicing off my fingers. Oh gosh, what have I done to myself?

The good part was I was at the show on Friday, which was the day before my competition on Saturday. I had participated in a Masterclass with Callum Hann and I got to see and cook in the kitchen I would be competing in. Whiew! Advantage #1.

I also saw that there was a pantry. And noted that this competition wasn’t going to be like the real Masterchef stuff on TV. Instead of just getting flour, butter, oil, salt and sugar, I would have access to a pretty impressive pantry of ingredients along with whatever was going to be in the Mystery Box. I spotted soy sauce, fish sauce and sesame oil. For some reason, knowing that I would have Asian ingredients to work with made me A LOT calmer. Advantage #2.

And while we were at the show on Friday, my friend and I also watched the Mystery Box Challenge for the day. The intention was to see what the competition would be like so that I can prep myself for the experience. The ingredients turned out to be not too hard at all! No brains or kidneys stuff. Whiew again! Advantage #3.

So, on the day itself, there were 4 contestants including myself.

The rest of the contestants were super cool. The irony was I had several advantages already and I was still nervous. That was definitely the competitive streak in me running wild. It didn’t calm my nerves at all to bump into a bunch of friends at the show, and they turned up at the competition to support me be my cheerleading squad. So much pressure! Haha..

Once the host briefed everyone on the rules, the box was lifted and my heart sank when I saw the mystery ingredients. The ingredients were exactly the same as the ones in the Mystery Box the day before! DUH!

The Mystery Box ingredients were ostrich steaks, cucumber, spinach, yogurt, wasabi paste and dark chocolate.

I was so disappointed. This has just turned Advantage #3 to a MAJOR ADVANTAGE for me. It was honestly weak organisation. Why couldn’t the organisers put in different ingredients? How hard would it have been to switch some ingredients? I had already brainstormed dish ideas with those ingredients when I was watching the competition the day before. And I was honestly NOT expecting them to give the same Mystery Box to the contestants the next day, so I didn’t prep myself up for it and certainly didn’t think I would be cooking ostrich. We have cooked ostrich at home before but the hubby had always done the grilling. It was the first time I would be cooking this meat by myself.

I was stoned out for a few seconds and the host had to shake me out of my dreamy state and get me to start cooking. I almost sliced off my hand in the initial rush to grab a chopping board and knife!

Once I had calmed down, I got going with the food preparation and ideas started forming in my head. I knew at the back of my mind that if I got some sort of a protein in the box, I would serve it with an Asian style noodles or rice. The night before, I had done some revision on cooking curries and making satay sauce from scratch. Yes, I am really competitive like that.

The only problem was 30 mins was really.. REALLY short. I never really felt how pressurising it was for the contestants on the Masterchef show to cook a creative dish in 30 mins until now. Whatever fancy ideas I had in my head went out of the roof as soon as I started prepping my vegetables. I started off thinking I would pan fry the ostrich steak and then slice it up and serve it on top of a bed of Asian noodles with veggies, with a clear beef broth and a perfect soft boiled egg that would ooze yolk out when the judges cut into it. There would be a dollop of wasabi sauce on top to finish the dish.

I rushed to the pantry and grabbed all the ingredients I needed excitedly. I tried very hard to look calm and NOT trip over myself. Falling flat on my face with broken bottles of fish sauce and sesame oil around me will not be the best way to remember this competition by. Haha..

All my ideas died a quick death as soon as I started cooking. I had to manage 3 pans/pots on the stove at one time. And julienne capsicums. And slice mushrooms. And season ostrich steaks. And make a wasabi sauce. And toast pine nuts. And pan fry an ostrich steak for the first time on my own to a perfect medium rare. And watch the pasta cooking.. which by the way does NOT cook in 8 mins like what it states on the package because Joburg is on a high altitude!

Screenshot of the TV screen, showing what a mess I was creating.


Some where along those “well thought out” steps, I realised that I had forgotten to get the beef stock going. And I had forgotten to boil the egg. In addition, I also realised I was given only a 500ml bottle of water and I had used it to cook the noodles, so I had no more water to cook the egg in. There were also not enough saucepans or space on the stove top to cook a broth and an egg now. Sigh.

Of course this was also the point where, just like the real Masterchef shows on TV, the hosts and judges would do the most irritating thing of coming to you with the camera crew and asking you what dish you were cooking. Trust me, it’s highly irritating and distracting. There I was, feeling like a mess, and still having to smile for the camera when I answered the questions. Of course, I said I was cooking “something Asian”. Haha..

I finally decided to go back to what I said I would have cooked the day before, when I had first saw those ingredients. I did an Asian stir-fried noodles to go with the ostrich steaks. I also cooked my ostrich steaks in the spice-rubbed way Callum Hann had demonstrated in his cooking class the day before. That’s because the organisers had left those leftover bottles of cumin and paprika on the bench and I didn’t have to run to the pantry to get them.

If you’re ever going to take part in something like this, know that being a true fan of the real Masterchef show helps a great deal. I wasn’t proud of all the advantages I had in the competition, but I was proud that I executed my ideas well.

Top row, left to right –

“CONCENTRATE.” Stay focused.

“Be mentally prepared.” In a Masterchef competition, they leave EVERYTHING unopened. It’s a nightmare ripping off wrappers with nervous trembling fingers. At one point, I freaked out because the bottle of sesame oil needed a bottle opener and there wasn’t one on the bench!

Bottom row, left to right –

“Amateur cooks always forget to taste their food.” Best tip I picked up from the real TV show. I must have looked like the most greedy contestant in that competition. I was constantly tasting and eating.

“Season your food well.” My wrists hurt from all that salt and pepper cracking I had to do!

I didn’t think I would be able to complete the meal in 30 mins, but I did! My bench did look like a tornado had just hit it though. Haha..

So the final dish that I had presented for judging was spice-rubbed ostrich with a wasabi sauce, served with Asian noodles and a cucumber relish. I thought of the cucumber relish at the last minute and it was a beautiful finish to the dish.

The judge for the competition was Masterchef South Africa’s runner up, Sue Ann Allen. She’s a gorgeous girl with a big smile and she gave me big compliments for my dish.

So it turned out that I did win the competition. The prize was a R100 (~SGD15) supermarket voucher. And I got to keep my Masterchef apron and bring home some spices.

I wasn’t entirely proud of the win because I had so many advantages beforehand. What I did feel proud of was my execution. I had cooked the ostrich to a perfect medium rare. My noodles were al dente. Everything was well seasoned. I had put in thought on giving the dish balance in creamy and crunchy textures. And my plating skills were a lot better than what I did the day before at the Masterclass.

It was all in all a great fun experience. Would I do it again? Absolutely NOT. In those 30 mins, I think I fell out of love with cooking for a moment. Why people would sign up for competitions like Masterchef and subject themselves to so much pressure day after day is beyond me. I needed a few hits of vodka shots to get back into the chilling mood after that competition. Haha..

Thanks for all the support everyone gave me on and off line!




  1. Wow, well done Karen! Looks yummy!

  2. Congratz, Karen!! That was no easy feat! Having an advantage or 3 is one thing; capitalizing on it is another! Cheers!:o)

  3. U r great! Did Singaporean proud! :)

  4. Karen, what a thrill to read about your experience! I felt as if I was there watching you cook & cheering you on. Well done!! Hope you had your hands on the vodka!

  5. Brave girl. Well done.

  6. im watchin US and Aussie seasons…now i add south africa..looking for torrent..hopefully for seeders..
    good luck Karen, you can do it. Aja!

  7. You never cease to amaze me! Although I must say that if I had known about it beforehand, I would have definitely put my bets on you for winning. You’re a great cook and very focused, and yes, competitive. Doing what you did is possibly the LAST thing I would ever dream of doing. I’d be totally flustered. Although I do often whip up dinners in 30 minutes, haha, but no pressure there, especially when the hubby is travelling. If I knew I only had 30 minutes plus all those TV cameras on me, I’d probably want to die…

  8. Love ur blog & have been popping by to check out ur post. Your dish sure looked very delicious, and congratulation on winning the cooking competition.

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