Food for the gods
Ever wondered why the 'prasad' one receives in a temple is tastier than a dish cooked by any of the world's best chefs? Well, a book by one of these chefs will tell you why. In Sacred Foods of India-to be released this Diwali - six-time Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna will take you on a "food pilgrimage".
An extension of his Holy Kitchens documentary series, Khanna's 35th book is also his third doctoral thesis."Mostly we speak of haldi, namak, mirch, dhaniya-those things I agree are fantastic but I feel there is a much bigger dialogue a chef can bring to the table," said Khanna. "Without reducing it to a commercial venture, I want to say that I wish to bring the heritage of India to the world at a reasonable international price and quality."
Khanna, who had just approved the final design of the book after 96 hours of non-stop cooking and shooting of the last few of the 108 dishes in the book, had stolen a few minutes to speak about his latest creation to Mail Today before heading out to a remote village in eastern India to research his next project.
On Friday, he celebrated the first anniversary of India's first culinary museum he created at his alma mater, the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal. Built like a giant Harappan era pot, the 25,000 square feet museum houses nearly 10,000 utensils from all over India and the world.
These include copper pots, juicers, mixers, ladles, silverware, flasks and spice chests. At the entrance is an 8.5 feet sharing platter made of brass. "I had seen several such museums in the United States and felt India also required a place that could hold a living collection of utensils, equipment that depict its culture, heritage and hospitality.
"My most favourite artifact in the collection is a 21-piece picnic set comprising burners, plates, rolling boards, kadhais and pots," said Khanna, who has documented most of these in a book called Patra. Sacred Foods of India, says Khanna, is his way of upping Utsav, his 16-kg tome on Indian festivals, which he has presented to several international leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the British Queen, former US president Barack Obama, the Pope and the Dalai Lama.
Apart from the 24-carat gilding and rare walnut wood used in it-to give it a "handcrafted" look-Khanna said its value has increased because of its publishers. "It's being published by Vedic Cosmos who have created only two other books - the most expensive Bhagwad Gita and The Yoga Sutras
For the first time they've done a book on content from different holy places -temples, gurudwaras, synagogues and dargahs. It's high time we create something which represents that India.
Holy Kitchens started from the gurudwaras but I learnt that despite being a symbol of Sikhism, they are an extension of Hinduism," added Khanna, whose first feature film The Last Color premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.
"I found synagogues too have this concept of serving bread. But these rituals nurtured in India have a different kind of outlook towards generosity of food. So from a small thread that started from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, we figured each of these kitchens is a bead or a little pearl in that thread." Khanna went to some of the most unheard of places to pick up the 'prasad'.
"It will tell people it's not the regular food we cook or a restaurant or a household cooks and it fit right into what most of my works lead to: the beauty of diversity we thrived on in our kitchens. This is my little tribute to that," he said.
What was most challenging was to recreate the recipes as the temples wouldn't share them.
"Most of these are done in a very sacred mode. We had to 'deconstruct' the dish to recreate it. I know we can't exactly replicate the dishes but I want to also say that even if you can't travel to these places you can have a little taste of them in our very humble version."
Moreover, the taste can never be the same because the 'prasad' has more than the ingredients it's cooked with.
"It's a bit of the camphor and the agarbati and the flowers used for prayers. It is absorbing all the flavours and scents from around it, from the utensils it is cooked and stored in. This is just my humble attempt to document the reverence of these recipes."