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Vikas Khanna: On the Himalayan food trail

Last updated on: March 20, 2014 20:02 IST

Vikas Khanna: On the Himalayan food trail

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Arthur J Pais

Vikas Khanna's latest book Return to the Rivers is not just a collection of recipes, but a collage of memories and stories he gathered on a journey across the mighty mountains, finds Rediff.com's Arthur J Pais.

"I am still a small city boy," says Vikas Khanna, the celebrated chef who has made Junoon in New York City a Michelin star restaurant.

"I did not grow up in Delhi or Mumbai and never mind how many years I have lived in New York and the high-end restaurant I run, I am deeply drawn to the simplicity of life in rural India, particularly the Himalayas."

He can tell you how easily he can sit on the floor at a rural home in the Himalayas and eat with his fingers.

Like a monk who cannot refuse what is given to him, Khanna has appreciated dishes made with yak meat, and nourished himself on butter and milk tea.

His lastest book, Return to the Rivers is the culmination of many journeys he has made across not only the Indian Himalayas, but also in Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Western China, and Pakistan.

The recipes include among others, Eggplant Fritters with Ginger, Spinach and Cheese Momos, Chile-Scallion Buckwheat Noodles, Nepalese Black Lentils and Rice, Burmese Fish Noodle Soup, Pressed Rice with Yogurt and Almonds, and Tibetan Scallion Pancakes.

Khanna, who launched his catering company at the age of 17 in Amritsar, is also a documentary filmmaker. He has explored the festivals and food cultures in the Indian subcontinent in the series Holy Kitchens.

He is currently working on a documentary on the Dalai Lama and Buddhism.

During his graduation from the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal, Karnataka, he trained under renowned Indian chefs.

He has studied at the Culinary Institute of America, taking courses at Cornell University and New York University and the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, Paris.

Khanna has authored several books, including The Spice Story of India, Modern Indian Cooking and Flavors First.

In between his writing and documentary filmmaking, he continues to host MasterChef India.

Your interest in the Himalayan region started when you were quite young.

That is correct. I was about 14 when I went on a pilgrimage to Vaishnodevi in Jammu and Kashmir with my grandfather. I remember the journey vividly for many reasons.

I had been born with a clubfoot and because of the deformity I did not play with other school kids in Amritsar. Instead, I spent an enormous time with my grandmother from whom I got this passion for cooking.

My mother Bindu Khanna took me to many doctors and disregarded the suggestions that she need not worry about my physical condition.

She would bundle me at the back of her moped and take me from doctor to doctor.

I used to be mortally terrified of the moped ride, but who could resist the faith of a mother determined to make her son better?

It was at that time I had told myself that when my feet disorder was corrected, I would go on a pilgrimage to Vaishnodevi.

When I was about 14, the special wooden shoes I was wearing were removed and I could walk around, even though some physical challenges remained.

My grandfather was around 74 when we made this visit to Vaishnodevi.

He had started wondering a few years before this journey if he could make another pilgrimage, but no one in the family could make the trip with him.

I had told him when I was seven and still being treated for my physical deformity that I would go with him.

The climb over a very rough terrain of nearly eight miles is not for the faint hearted, and certainly not a boy who had still some problem walking.

But there was no turning back. And what kept me going on was the expression of patience on my grandfather’s face and the encouraging look he gave me.

Many times, he would be ahead of me, but he would wait patiently for me to make up the distance.

In those years, I had slowly begun to appreciate what these rivers that originated in the Himalayas meant to people in so many countries in the region and how they had shaped civilisations over centuries.

I wanted to explore more and more of the Himalayan region, particularly its food and the traditions.

I began to cherish what I learned from my grandfather. Along with my mother and grandmother, he has remained the most influential person in my life. I call him the pillar of my childhood.

How have the three influenced you?

From my grandmother, I not only learned to cook, but also to appreciate the importance of food.

A story I often recall is about a man who came to rob my grandmother, and she knew what he was planning.

She had been cooking and she insisted he ate his dinner and once the dinner was over, she said something like, ‘I have done what I had to, and now you can do what you have to do.’

The man felt ashamed and walked away, but not before thanking her and apologising for his intent.

From my mother, I learned the importance of persistence. Despite a failure here and there, I have persisted while maintaining my integrity, vision and passion.

I also learned the importance of patience from my mother and I keep that thought in mind while training chefs and others in the kitchen.

This could be a very temperamental and egotistical place. But if you remember that teamwork really matters, and people are entitled to mistakes, and if you remember the generosity of people who have befriended you and helped you, then working with a group of people becomes an enjoyable journey.

And from my grandfather, I learned the importance of a free spirit, the importance of a pilgrimage not just in the physical sense but also as a time for introspection.

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Image: Vikas Khanna


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Arthur J Pais

This book is the culmination of many journeys. When did it begin seriously?

About six years ago, I was without a job for nearly two years. There was this high profile restaurant I was involved in called Purnima which closed in New York City after a brief run.

I wrote to my mother, who had always encouraged me in my endeavours connected to food, asking her if she could buy me ticket from New York to the Himalayan regions.

She asked me what I would do there. I said I wanted to research a book on the food and culture of the region.

Her first reaction was, 'Are you nuts?' But she also knew I was serious and she bought me the ticket.

You must remember this book has been in the making for several decades, as I have been collecting recipes and memories of my travel in the region for years.

As a chef, I have had training, among other places, in Kathmandu. I have travelled across the region like some of the best travelogue writers do, with a knapsack on my back, even on rugged journeys that took more than 12 hours.

I lived in ordinary homes, and I ate and studied food not only with housewives, but also with monks and men who loved cooking.

Many recipes in this book would be very new to most readers and yet they can all be created in any kitchen in America.

Even the fiddlehead fern dish. In fact, a friend in Connecticut who forages in the spring for ferns reminded me of the variety of natural food Americans can have.

Just spend a few minutes at a large farmers market and you will be amazed at the choice.

Over the years the variety of produce found in specialised markets across America has been increasing and anyone should be able to create in his or home, the food from Sikkim, Bhutan or even Tibet.

You have spent a lot of time at regional festivals.

And for a good reason. Here you get to meet people, share life stories and stories about food, and you learn how to make wholesome food using natural ingredients.

I was in a town called Paro in Bhutan during a festival. Pilgrimage to distant places is a part of the festivals in the region, and preparing special food for these long journeys is a ritual carried out with lot of love and festivities.

I learned that many homes appreciated an extra hand to help them cook the festive dishes, and I volunteered.

In the process, not only did I have a lot of fun, but also learned quite a bit of the festival traditions. I learned to make delightful local dishes.

Did you always find people ready to give away their recipes?

For most part yes, but in Kathmandu, where the local doughnuts are very popular, I asked a busy shop for recipes, but the shop owner wasn't willing to part with them.

I then mentioned how my own doughnuts in New York, made with spices, are very popular. I also mentioned how my sister Radhika, who lives in New York, enjoys my doughnuts. The shopkeeper was intrigued.

We then decided to swap recipes. He was surprised at my use of yeast in my doughnuts. We had broken a barrier, and I have featured his recipe in my book.

In Jammu, I came across a most delicious version of the sugary pancake called Malpua. It was only after many visits to the shop and befriending the owner that I was able to get the recipe, which is also featured in my book.

While putting this book together, so many times I would travel in my mind to Jammu in the rainy season and savour this dish. You can eat it any time, but I feel I enjoy it most on a rainy day.

One of the people you acknowledge deeply in the book is a woman you met only once.

I don't even know her name. But for her this book would not have come out as it is. Much of the material and the pictures in the book were on a laptop, which I had left behind in Lhasa.

I was on a bus to Kathmandu. This woman ran up by the side of a hill and came down to the bus, and stopped it with a desperate gesture.

When I thanked her, she said anyone could have done what she had done.

She refused to take any remuneration. Now, that is something truly priceless.

What is your next project?

I do not write books with just recipes. These books should reflect my own life and my travels, physical and spiritual. I am also interested in exploring the history of our cuisines.

I was in Kerala a few months ago to see how the chilies and other spices there are cultivated.

I want to investigate some of the popular claims. Did we get the chilies from South America through Portugal some 500 years ago or were there other kinds of chilies in our region?

When I was in Bhutan and found out that chilies there were not just condiments, but are also used as a main ingredient in many dishes for centuries, I found it difficult to imagine that they came from Central and South America into the Indian region.

You have said you discovered in your recent travels that we eat everything in India.

During my stay in Kerala, I found how octopus is eaten there. People eat turtles in India.

When I offer something unusual at Junoon, for instance, tandoori octopus, people have asked if it is an authentic Indian dish!

You have had the most delicious dishes in humble homes. And yet if you were to offer the food in your restaurant, it will cost something like $25 per dish.

We are in New York and everything we do at Junoon is classy and is expected to cater to people who like the ambience and the food of very high quality.

We are very proud that we have been elevating Indian food in this city and giving it the kind of status, classy French or Italian restaurants have.

You have been able to travel so much because you are single. Isn't your family, especially your mother, asking you to get married?

Right now, I am married to Junoon (chuckles). I am in my early 40s and my family certainly reminds me that I should get married. Maybe a couple of years from now.

It will be very important to look for a person who has similar interests and who could be at home in a plush home as well as a simple, rustic home anywhere in the world.


Image: Vikas Khanna, right, discusses a recipe with a Buddhist monk.
Photographs: Vikas Khanna

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