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India is a sleeping giant when it comes to food, we need to awaken it, says chef Vineet Bhatia

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Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia, who was in Delhi for the World Food India event, talks with Ivinder Gill about his journey as a chef, the overuse of spices in Indian food, and why khichdi is so central to Indian cuisine. Edited excerpts:

What exactly are you here, at World Food India, for? Are you here as an Indian chef who has made it big abroad, or a custodian of Indian culinary heritage?

I want to look around and see what (all) there is. The offerings look quite good and sumptuous at the moment. I am looking forward to that, also looking forward to interactions with other chefs in Delhi. It is great to have a conclave where we can meet with various suppliers, try out different restaurants, meet a lot of people. We have a common goal, to take Indian food to the top of the podium. They always say India is a sleeping giant, and things like these are very crucial to awaken it.

Although we have done well overseas, you still want to come back to your motherland and experience things. When the call came to get involved in this, there was no way I would have said no. I am here just for a day, but I have come to make sure that I support this event. You don’t get many chances to serve your nation. That is what you want, to showcase the passion of the food, the land, to its people there. That is key, for me at least.

Moving apart from this event, you did not have any interest in cooking when you were younger, but now you are a Michelin-starred chef. Would you say that cooking and then being in the restaurant business is sort of serendipity for you?

It is. From a family of doctors and engineers, when I entered the hotel industry, it was a big no in the family, but I was a very stubborn child. I was always the shortest boy in the class and I would get bullied, but I think I found my freedom in the kitchen. I could do exactly what I wanted to do. That’s why when you look at Indian food the way I do it, it’s different from everybody else. In some ways, it’s groundbreaking, but that purely came out of a necessity to survive more than anything else. It was not to chase any accolade or fame, it was purely done so that I stood apart and I could showcase the Indian food that I felt was correct. Because the way we eat at home is very different from the way we eat in restaurants, and I wanted to get the flavours of the home into the restaurant. So I took out the heavy greases and the fat and the fried food and the heaviness, because that is not the way my mom or other women cook at home. And that is what I remembered as a child growing up. Good, simple, wholesome food. Soul food, and that for me is Indian khana. It’s snowballed into something very extravagant and beautiful and very artistic and designer-style, but that was not the way I perceived it to be ever. It happened out of necessity or default. But I’m happy to be there. At the right time probably.

What according to you is modern Indian food: global techniques applied to Indian ingredients, or Indian methods applied to a whole range of ingredients?

I’ve been living in London since 1993 so my tastebuds are slightly modified, purely because I have been using ingredients that are local to me there. For example, when I first went to the UK, a guest asked for a Goan pomfret curry and I said I can’t make it. It will never be the same because I will never get a fresh pomfret. So I take products that are local around me and give them the Indian touch. You respect the local businesses and support the local farmers. You keep it as low on carbon footprint as you can. It is very easy for me to pick up the phone and get a pomfret flown in from India, but the quality won’t be up to the mark and I can’t serve it to my guest. It’s not correct. So what you get in Goa, you can’t replicate in London or New York. Nahi ho sakta.

When you talk of the cooking style, it’s the same everywhere. The French smoke, the Chinese smoke, we also smoke. We smoke with charcoal. They poach, we poach; they grill, we grill. But we have the tandoor, which they don’t have. So we have an advantage. We went to Latin America a few years back, to Venezuela, and for the first time, I saw black potatoes and black corn. So you do makki ki roti and saag, but the makki is black in colour. So when you look at the dish, it’s different. When you do the dose wale aloo, they are purple or black in colour, but with the traditional masalas. Just the local product is utilised. People think it’s fusion, but it’s not. The world over, the good restaurants have the same ethos. Quality products, cook locally, added with your own influences. The cooking styles are almost the same everywhere. The Chinese stir fry, we also stir fry. We call it kadhai, but it’s a wok for them.

You left for London after only five years of work experience in India, so where does your inspiration for Indian food come from, since you were never really into food earlier? How much justice do you think you can do in replicating authentic Indian flavours?

I was born into an Indian home. And Indian homes are all about khana and mehmaan nawazi. That comes to you naturally. So you’re born with the flavours and the spices. Although I was never inclined to go into the kitchen, when I did enter a kitchen, by default, I fell in love with it. But even in the short time I spent in India, I worked for months without a day off. I used to do triple shifts, so I think what I learnt in those five years, somebody would have taken 20 years to learn. Because I had a question mark on my face all the time. I was very inquisitive, I still am. I question things. I asked and I couldn’t get the answers. And when you can’t get the answers, you try and find the solutions yourself.

And that is why, when you look at the kind of cuisine I do, it is very difficult to say how authentic it is and how it is not. But when it comes to authenticity, the Indian food we eat is anyway not authentic. Aapke kebabs, biryani, samosa all come from Arab lands. They changed over time. So what I remember is eating food which had very good swaad. And as a chef, you try and replicate those things into your khana. And as you grow, you mature, your palate changes, you travel internationally and pick up things around you. You take what you learn and put it on a plate. That is what makes my food a lot different from everyone else’s. When you eat my food with your eyes closed, it’s India on your palate, but if you look at it, it looks European. But dil Hindustani hai poora.

Do you believe that in Indian cooking, you need to use less spices and hero the core ingredient more, as is the norm in the West? Do you agree that we have an overload of spices that kills the original taste?

I control my spices, adding just enough to give flavour. When you’re buying a great-quality fish, lobster or lamb, for example, it’s got its own flavours. When you make aloo gobhi at home, 95% of the times it is going to be overcooked. It might taste nice, but the nutrition is gone, the minerals are gone. It’s all garam masala, dhaniya and adrak. There is no flavour of the gobhi. What we see overseas, when we buy good-quality cauliflower, it tastes like cauliflower. So then jeera, saunf, lahsun and adrak take second stage. The gobhi takes the centrestage. Same thing goes for a lobster. A lobster is a star dish. It can have curry patta and lahsun and adrak, lal mirchi ka paste, enough to give it the kick of India, but the flavour of the lobster has to come through. In India, they are used to heavy spices. So when we cook in Mumbai, the food is a lot more powerful and punchy than what I cook in London or Geneva.

The worst thing we Indians do is, we take garam masala and put it in everything. Everything tastes the same. That is not correct. Garam masala is like a perfume, it’s a cooked spice for quick boom. Now I have seen Indian chefs putting garam masala in the first stage with the hot oil, which is just like going out to a party, but you put perfume before you shower. You shower, you put your make-up on, you put lipstick on, then you put a perfume and go. Same thing with garam masala.

This khichdi thing has become quite a hot topic of discussion. Even you have khichdi on your menu, black olive or broccoli… Plenty (laughs).

Do you think the khichdi, as it is being shown here, deserves to be the brand ambassador of Indian food?

I would say yes. There are many things that are central to Indian food. Laddoos and barfis, but khichdi is something you make on every occasion. It could be when someone is unwell, it could be when someone is celebrating. There are different types of khichdis. Right from the north to the south, there is khichdi being made. Who does not know about khichdi in India? In some shape and form, you come across khichdi all over India.

I don’t think there is anything wrong in making it the brand ambassador. You’re celebrating Indian khana. You can’t say samosa is an Indian brand, because it is not. It’s not really Indian. Is kebab Indian? Is biryani Indian? Not really. So what is Indian? India is a land that has been invaded by so many people that it has become a khichdi.

The khichdi I do in London is just rice, slightly overcooked and with different flavours. It could be black olive or sundried tomatoes. Could be spinach with broccoli, with yogurt, with anything; it’s a medium. And that medium works as a soul for me to build up my dish.

So it could accompany a lobster, or a crab or a piece of paneer or a piece of tofu or a tandoori cauliflower, for example, with a little sauce and garnish. I mean, a spoonful of khichdi will give you such a satisfying feeling, which probably a dal would give. So I think the dal is a close contestant, but then dal also goes into khichdi.

So over dal, you would pick khichdi?

I would, because, for me, khichdi is a complete meal. And also comfort food. As you grow, your tastebuds mature and you yearn for simple things in life. I remember doing a khichdi way back in 1993-94 purely by mistake. The cook was making a saffron pulao, and he got the ratio wrong. He put more water. I’m not going to throw away kesar pulao, which is expensive. So we made it into a khichdi and we started adding things in it. And the first thing I remember adding was butter chicken. And it was fantastic. Every restaurant of mine has a khichdi in some shape or form. One of our classic dishes is the wild mushroom khichdi and we add Kashmiri morels in it and serve it with a makhani ice cream. It’s butter chicken with no chicken and just a makhani sauce in an ice cream form.

Agar sahi bane, you don’t need to be sick or in hospital to have it. It is celebrity food for me. It works. It satisfies. I mean there are purists who say khichdi is a poor man’s khana. No, no, no. You can make khichdi and cover it with gold leaf and pineapple and chilgoze and pista on top, and it becomes royal cuisine.

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