Mumbai taught me to keep it simple, says chef Vikas Khanna

Jul 23, 2013, 10:55 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna must love Mumbai a lot. After all, he's dedicated an entire book, Savour Mumbai, to salute the aromatic potpourri of flavours and cultures that represent this vibrant city

It’s tough to pin down chef Vikas Khanna in between shoots for the new season of a popular TV cooking challenge show for kids. The endearing personality, earthy Punjabi accent and boy-next-door charm add to the persona of one of the most popular faces from India's fat-growing culinary landscape, across television, print and the web. But the chef-entrepreneur, as we found out when we finally spoke with him, wears his success lightly.

“It took us 3.5 years to complete my most challenging book, ever! The problem wasn’t the research but to simplify it and ensure the essence and soul was intact,” he admits, first up. He reveals about the risk factor — “you can’t complete such titles in a quick trip. I was aware that one could get limited if the focus of an entire cookbook is on a city. More so, no NRI chef till now has made the return crossover!”

Discover Mumbai
“Bahut saari discoveries…!” was his instant response when asked about the learning curve with this book. “I learnt that kokum can be served as a refreshing welcome drink in restaurants; I’ll serve it instead of lemonade in the US. Also, chilli ice cream can be such a fun way to enjoy sweet and spice. As we get older, we try to make things complex. But Mumbai taught me to keep it simple,” he philosophises. By now, the chef hits a nostalgic note: “In small towns and cities, like Amritsar where I grew up, Mumbai is an extended illusion. My bua (father’s sister) lived in Mumbai and would regale us with dishes from Mumbai’s many cuisines, Parsi and Christian Portuguese-influenced food in particular. We were simple folk; chicken was cooked once a month, if there was an occasion. Our menu was restricted to dal, gobhi, bhindi, aloo and mutter. So, this was all very fascinating. Coconut wasn’t available in those days, to prepare a Goan Fish Curry, so my bua did a variant, which I realised later, was the Vindaloo!

His lightning-quick mind means we are back in the present. Chef Khanna was clear to leave out international cuisine, as it would destroy the book, “…after all, within a 5-km radius, it’s possible to find every possible Indian cuisine,” he says with a conviction of a well-travelled culinary expert.

Go Indian
“The book had to represent the demographics of Indian democracy. Every Indian who grows up in the country is attached to the city in some way. I wanted to translate this in my book.” He has words of advice of the Gen Next too: “I feel that the younger generation must understand the soul of India’s glorious legacy. While I am proud that our chefs are doing well, globally, I love it even more when our riches are showcased. It’s high time we appreciate our own food. Only then, will the story be complete.” 

Kaju Kothimbir Vadi (Makes 24)

»1 cup gram flour (besan)
»30 cashew nuts
»1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
»1 teaspoon red chilli powder
»2 green chillies, finely chopped
»1 tablespoon tamarind pulp
»2 tablespoons finely chopped
»fresh coriander
»4 tablespoons oil, plus for shallow-frying

»In a mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients except oil. Add 1 1/2 cups water and mix well to make a very thick batter.
»Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a frying pan over low heat. Add the prepared batter and cook, stirring continuously, for 15 to 18 minutes till the mixture comes together to make a thick doughy batter. Remove from heat.
»Grease a small tray and spread the mixture evenly
1-inch thick. Set aside to cool and set. Cut into 2-inch squares.
»Heat the oil in a frying pan and shallow-fry the squares till golden and crisp.
»Remove and drain on absorbent paper.
»Serve hot with coriander and mint chutney or ketchup.

Bombil Recheado (Serves 4)

»8 Bombay ducks or 4 mackerels
»1 teaspoon cumin seeds
»1 teaspoon coriander seeds
»1 teaspoon black peppercorns
»1/2 teaspoon cloves
»1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
»1/2 teaspoon sea salt
»8 dried red chillies
»3 cloves garlic
»1 small red onion, roughly chopped
»2 teaspoons tamarind pulp
»1-inch piece ginger, roughly chopped
» 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
»Juice of 1 lime

»Trim the Bombay ducks or clean and gut the mackerel. Remove the head and score the fish, making 3 slashes on each side.
»In a grinder, combine the cumin, coriander seeds, pepper, cloves, turmeric, sea salt and dried chillies and grind to a fine powder.
»Add the garlic, onion, tamarind, ginger and vinegar and grind to a smooth paste.
»Apply the paste generously over the fish, stuffing it into the slashes. Set aside to marinate for 1 hour.
»Heat a barbecue or grill and cook the fish for 5 minutes on each side, or till tender and crisp. Serve hot, sprinkled with lime juice.
Recipes: Extracted with permission from Westland Ltd 

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