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'Arre wah!," he kept saying between mouthfuls'

January 25, 2024 10:36 IST
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Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a legendary foodie.

He loved to eat. It could be something very desi and earthy, like jalebis, chaat, gulab jamuns, Bengali sweets, parathas from Chandi Chowk, fare at streetside joints, or delicately gourmet like tandoori salmon and pepper prawns. His list of favourite dishes was neverending.

The late prime minister liked his food spicy and often went off to find the extra mirch himself surprising hosts in their kitchens. He was an expert cook, warming fellow partymen's hearts by turning out a mean plate of pakodas or a special non-vegetarian dish.

IMAGE: Atal Bihari Vajpayee shares a toast with his Japanese counterpart Junichiro Koizumi in 2001. Photograph: Itsuo Inouye/pool/Reuters

His nieces, who lived in Gwalior, told in 1998, "When he is visiting us, Chachaji relishes raw salads, dahi vadas, besan til and mungare laddoos."

Through food he related to people, who were bowled over by his simplicity and approachability.

Chef Satish Arora, of the Taj group of hotels, shared a special gourmet interlude with him, 2000 onwards, when he was Vajpayee's chef during his travels. In Sweets and Bitters: Tales from a Chef's Life, he recalls to Chandrima Pal, what it meant to cook for 'Vajpayeeji'.

IMAGE: As Chef Satish Arora soon found out, Vajpayeeji did not stand on ceremony and had a friendliness that was legendary. Photograph: Twitter

Serving your country's prime minister is a matter of pride and honour, and I would happily say, is one of the biggest achievements of my five-decade-long career. Besides catering for Mrs Indira Gandhi, I also had the privilege of travelling with Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was prime minister of India.

I had the honour of interacting with another prime minister of India, Shri Narasimha Rao, when he travelled to London and stayed at the St James Hotel, a Taj property, and I was responsible for fulfilling all his food and beverage requirements. I also met and interacted with Shri Rajiv Gandhi in Bombay, though he was not the prime minister at that time.

I will always remember my interaction with Vajpayeeji with the deepest reverence. He was a very simple man, a very hands-on prime minister who knew how to appreciate even the smallest things. I was thrilled, when in 2000, I was told by our then managing director Mr Krishna Kumar that I had to travel with Vajpayeeji to New York, where he was to attend a meeting of the United Nations.

My first task was to find out about the prime minister's food likes and dislikes... I planned a menu down to the last detail.

Before service commenced, I was introduced to our honourable prime minister and I can never forget his smile -- so warm, so genuine, more precious than any grandly-worded compliment.

In New York, Shri Vajpayee was put up at the famous Waldorf Astoria, where we had been given a room as well. We were told that the prime minister was expecting a steady stream of visitors and dignitaries for the three days and nights we were staying there. We had to be ready with refreshments and meals at all times. The focus was on tea and accompaniments. We hit the ground running.

Some of the dishes I prepared were Masala Grilled Fish, Achari Aloo, Dhingri Matar, Chicken Saagwala, Kerala fish curry and different types of dal. I also made kheer and malpua for our prime minister because, even while entertaining dignitaries from all over the world, we wanted to retain a real, authentic taste of India.

Photograph: WP/RCS/Reuters

IMAGE: Chef Satish Arora was assigned the task of taking care of Prime Minister Vajpayee's culinary needs on his trip to New York and Washington, DC to see US President Bill Clinton in 2000. Photograph: WP/RCS/Reuters

In order to bring in some variety, I made mozzarella and soya masala dosas, and cheese and broccoli uttapams. I created some snacks like Malabari paratha wraps stuffed with arbi-mushroom masala, cheese-chilly avocado toast, chicken-palak pakoda, chakri aloo -- which is paneer-stuffed tandoori aloo -- dhokla pizza, cheese-baked khandvi, Bombay bread pakoda stuffed with masala aloo and mini croissants with chicken tikka masala.

I also made different flavours of chicken tikka, like kesar, chutney, Thai marination, peri-peri and malai. I served the chicken tikka with coconut mayonnaise chutney. As a sweet snack, I prepared a suji halwa gulab jamun tart.

As I had been appointed as the prime minister's personal chef when he was travelling, I had the honour of catering to him on several occasions. One such trip was to the Taj Kumarakom Resort and Spa, Vajpayee ji had taken to relax after his knee treatment.

IMAGE: In a bright pink saapha ready to host his guests at an iftari. Photograph: KK/DL/Reuters

One day, I had organised a chaat party in the lawn in front of the cottage where he was staying. I made gol gappe, dahi batata puri, samosa chaat with chana, aloo, imli ki chutney, the works.

I began to prepare the gol gappas for Vajpayeeji when he stopped me. "It is more fun when one does it himself," he said and began to crack open the puris with his thumb, and fill them with masala and chutney.

I was stunned and remember telling myself how lucky I was to be able to serve a prime minister who was so grounded, so rooted, that he did not hesitate to throw protocol out of the window and use his hands to enjoy something I had made for him.

Eventually, he spotted the Samosa Chaat and asked me what it was. Once I explained the dish to him, he was like a child, asking me questions about how best to savour it. He readily went with my suggestion of breaking down the samosa into small chunks to let the chutneys cover every morsel, and dug into a plate of spicy Samosa Chaat with great relish.

"Arre wah!," he kept saying between mouthfuls. What an experience it was!

The next day, he went on a boat trip around the Vembanad Lake, and I was seated next to him. There were no photographers on the boat, but I asked one of the staff to click my photo so that I could keep it as a memento.

I would always remember him as someone who spoke less, but observed everything. Whenever I served him food, he would ask me very precise questions about the ingredients and the cooking technique. His was curious and creative.

Let me share another beautiful memory from Kumarakom. I was preparing aloo tikkis for the prime minister and his family, when he saw me and said very quietly, "If you fry this on a tawa, it will be crispier." I immediately proceeded to fry the tikkis on a tawa, prepared a special chutney to go with them, and when I saw him use his fingers to enjoy the perfectly browned and crisp tikkis, dipping them generously in the chutney, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude -- could anyone ever get such an opportunity?

When we were in Kumarakom, Vajpayeeji asked me about the local cuisine and use of coconut milk. I prepared some dishes from Kerala with coconut milk in moderation -- just the way he liked it.

IMAGE: Sweets were Atal Bihari Vajpayee's weakness. Seen here with colleagues L K Advani and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters

After this, he had attended the SAARC Colombo summit, which I have fabulous memories of accompanying him to. I was responsible for preparing the food for seven other dignitaries from different countries too.

I remember creating a special lobster curry which was well appreciated by then Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf. After the summit, Prime Minister Vajpayee had a brief interaction with the press on the flight. He spoke about his meeting and also thanked me and my colleagues for dishing out authentic and flavourful food.

Of all the heads of States I have had the honour of serving, I would certainly rate my days as Shri Vajpayeeji's personal chef as among the most inspiring. It was a great learning to be so close to such a wise, sensitive and humble person, and I was lucky to have spent a considerable amount of time with him, travelling with him to various destinations.

In my career of over 50 years, I remember every meal I served to our former prime minister. I have the memory of an elephant, you can say. More than the facts of what I cooked, what has stayed with me over these years is how much value every meal added to my life.

When he passed away in 2018, I watched the State funeral on television and was transported to the days when I cooked for him. I remembered his warm smile, his quiet dignity, his down-to-earth nature and love for the finer things in life -- soulful food, poetry, nature and fulfilling conversations. It took very little to impress him, but he gave back much, much more in his appreciation.

Excerpted from Sweets and Bitters: Tales from a Chef's Life by Satish Arora and Chandrima Pal, with the kind permission of the publishers, Bloomsbury India.

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