Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna brings to the table tales from desert nations, and their local cuisines
t was his grandmother’s traditional home-cooked recipes that got chef Vikas Khanna curious about Indian food, and her kitchen back home in Amritsar where large family feasts were the norm became part of his foundation.
He recalls his grandmother telling him, “cooking is not always about the recipes but also about the stories, memories, experiments and explorations from the local tradition”. This lesson, picked up early on in life, has been a source of inspiration for much of his food expeditions, his recent book Utsav and also his new assignment for the TV show, Twist of Taste — The Persian Trail.
The all new season of the culinary saga has Khanna exploring the middle eastern countries — Dubai, Oman, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi and Bursa — in a quest to unearth the authentic cooking, uncovering what inspired its creation by laying emphasis on the history and culture of the city. “I truly enjoyed my time in Oman. I never knew how much the locals were influenced by Bollywood! Everywhere I went, I found people who spoke fluent Hindi, and this included our guide whose favourite hero is still Govinda,” Khanna reveals.
In the show, the celebrity chef takes cues from local dishes, and their core ingredients, and returns to his kitchen to give the dish his twist. “We need to keep our mind and eyes open while looking out for interesting recipes and local delicacies. But many a times, there are chefs who don’t share the recipes and just evade the question by saying, ‘it’s a family secret’. This is kind of a put-off,” says Khanna.
While travelling in Tehran, Khanna chanced upon a small eatery that made excellent bread. “It was made on small pebbles by a little guy sitting in one corner and the dough was like water. It was a long three-foot bread and it was really awesome. Though I am used to making Indian bread all the time, when I tried making this, I couldn’t get it the first time. It was only after several attempts that it turned out the way it should,” he says.
In the UAE, he discovered a dish called fooga or machboos (in local language), which he says, “is made quite like the way we make Indian food. It has boiled rice, cardamom, turmeric and other Indian spices.” The entire experience, he adds, “was like being born again with so many new techniques to learn.”
But when it comes to his own liking, this Manhattan celeb is a creature of habit and never ceases to sport his ‘son of Punjab’ manner with his desi food preferences. The chef has been eating a bowl of plain dal for dinner with a little bit of turmeric and salt for years now. Leftover chocolate tarts and burnt roti crumbs are his guilty pleasures. “You end up tasting so much food in the kitchen that you want to eat some something basic at the end of your day.” It’s his comfort food, he says.
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— Nandini Kumar