Last month, chef Vikas Khanna released the book Barkat, which traces how he mobilised the initiative FEED INDIA to provide groceries and cooked meals to feed millions across the country during the peak of the pandemic. It is touted to be one of the largest food movements in the world in the last two years. The book highlights the chef’s philosophy of food as service and is filled with nostalgic stories from his childhood.
The 50-year-old Khanna was born in Amritsar in the seventies. In 1991, he left for Manipal to train as a chef and graduated four years later. During that time, he had the opportunity to travel and work in top notch restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai, Agra and Kathmandu. In 2000, he left for New York. “Until I was 30, most of my time was spent in Amritsar. As a child interested in food and later as a chef, it was important for me to learn cooking from my grandmother,” he says.
In an interview with Lounge, Khanna fondly recalls his food memories of growing up in Amritsar and how they continue to define his menus.
1. Describe the kitchen of your childhood?
The kitchen of my childhood had a yellow door, and there was one window through which sunlight would stream in. The slant of morning light would fall on the gas range. When food would be cooking, it’d make the oil shimmer. We had customised wooden cabinets—like most people from my era—where lentils would be kept and they absorbed the woody smell. There was a small dark room with pickles, papad, grains, rice and wheat. Then there was the community kitchen or the langar at the Golden Temple, which was like an extension of my home kitchen. I got fortunate because it was that community kitchen which made me understand that food is essential to seva (service). It opened my eyes to the grandeur of cooking, cleaning, sharing and so much more. Those kitchens parallelly contributed to my growth and I still have deep reverence for them.
2. What are the foods that make you nostalgic?
It keeps changing. I haven’t visited India for almost two years because of the pandemic. Right now, few things that are nostalgic for me are the smell of phulka, the aroma of roasting atta and the distinct smell of dough that sticks to your hand while kneading. Some days I just roast atta in low flame and make a halwa. I feel that that smell is very secure; it makes me feel very safe.
3. What are some heirloom kitchenware unique to your family?
I inherited a lot of utensils from family and extended family in India, Europe and America. I am one of the chefs who has been successful in creating a museum to showcase the history, richness and diversity of Indian utensils. It’s interesting that some people trust me and they ship their home utensils to my New York address sometimes. They could be something as simple as a lemon squeezer which belonged to their grandmother. Few weeks ago, I received an antique bottle opener from somebody who is from Ahmedabad, but now lives in New Jersey. When I go to India, these would go into the museum. In Barkaat, I speak liberally about this.
4. Did you eat out?
You know, eating out was uncommon. Even going out for chaats was not regular fare. Only when guests visited, and they weren’t from our city, we would take them out for kulchas, puris, chaats, tikkis or chicken. Within us, as a family, I don’t remember going out. I was born in Lawrence road, and most of the popular street foods were from there. There was Pithi ki puriwala, barbeque chicken, chicken makhani and whole lot of other street foods. If you go to the old city or inner city, there are iconic dhabas selling lassis that should be eaten and not sipped, kulchas…every single one of these food spots has their own technique and that gets passed on through generations. These shops make street foods in Amritsar stand out.
5. What’s your favourite street food?
When I say kulcha, one would assume it’s the stuffed Amritsari kulcha cooked in the tandoor on low heat with lot of butter and fat. But, I am talking about bowalla kulcha, translated as stinky kulcha. It’s double fermented, baked and eaten with pakoras, meats and chickpeas. These are different kulchas which you only get in Amritsar. There used to be a shop on Lawrence road which used to serve tikkas with goat meat cut very small and simmered in caramelised onions with spices. They were served with those kulchas. So, bowalle kulchas are my favourite street food.
5. Apart from street vendors, did you go to restaurants in Amritsar?
Growing up, I was barely exposed to restaurants. There used to be an air-conditioned family restaurant called Crystal, and an expensive dining space in a hotel named Mohan International. There wasn’t much of a restaurant culture, but there were lots of small food shops and vendors who specialised in certain food items. When I was a hospitality student and visited Maurya Sheraton in Delhi, their coffee shop became my foundation (in many ways) of possibilities of restaurants. And, when I started travelling around the world, my idea of restaurants changed. But, my heart would always be in those small places in Amritsar. When I create menus, I always bring in inspiration from there.
Gud ka halwa (Popular at Kanha sweets, Amritsar)
Recipe by Vikas Khanna
Three-fourth cup jaggery (grated)
1 cup water
2 tablespoons whole milk
Half teaspoon saffron (powdered)
1 cup ghee
1 cup semolina
3 tablespoons almond powder
2 tablespoons raisins
1. In a heavy saucepan, combine the jaggery with water and stir till jaggery dissolves. Place the pan over a medium flame and bring the water to a boil.
2. When water starts boiling, add the milk and skim off any scum that rises to the surface.
3. Add the saffron and cook the jaggery water, stirring constantly till syrup thickens. Remove from flame and keep warm.
4. Heat ghee in a heavy kadhai (or wok), over medium low flame. Add semolina and cook stirring constantly till semolina turns an even golden color.
5. Add the almond powder and cook for 1 more minute. Carefully stir in jaggery syrup and raisins and mix very well to ensure that no lumps are formed.
6. Cook the mixture till all the syrup is absorbed and mixture achieves the consistency of thick pudding. Cover and cook for 2 minutes, then remove from flame.
7. Serve warm.
Inheritance of flavours is a series with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.