In this exclusive interview, I talk to Sanjeev Kapoor-possibly the biggest TV chef in the world. Star of the hit Indian TV show, “Khana Khazana”, Sanjeev has hosted the longest running cooking show in Asia, airing in 120 countries and accumulating more than 500 million viewers in the 18 years it has been broadcast. Also an entrepreneur, his 36 books have sold and estimated 10 million copies around the world, his website receives 25 millions hits a month and he has his own 24 hour TV Channel. Deemed as “the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine”, Sanjeev has gained an astonishing track record in the industry and was also selected as one of the top five Celebrity Chefs in the world along with Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal and Wolf Gang Puck by CNN’s Richard Quest. In this interview, we talk about what brought Sanjeev to Indian food, his success in his career and the various aspects of Indian cuisine.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your career and what brought you to Indian food?
As an Indian and a professional chef I have been nurturing the dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world. My cookery shows, my food channel, my books, my website all are created with the aim to glorify the richness of our food culture and to keep alive the traditions of the Indian kitchen. I started off as kitchen trainee with ITDC in 1984 and then moved out and up into various organizations. I had long stint as Executive Chef with Hotel Centaur in Mumbai. At this point my programme Khana Khazana was created and evolved and took off! This cookery show has had the distinction of being aired nonstop for more than 17 years. I use the platform of TV to put forth my passion for Indian recipes.
Q: How has your upbringing and your education at the Institute of Hotel Management influence your cooking style?
Knowledge is important but the real power lies in knowledge applied! When I was growing up I saw my dad cook delicious food for the family. I started venturing into our kitchen when I was just ten years old and those formative years gave me the belief that men can cook! My formal education has been able to train my mind to accept that hotel management and catering is hard work but doable, just check the work of one of the best in the business, https://keeses.com/catering-fort-lauderdale/, we have great inspiration from them ! Because we were taught about ingredients, cooking techniques, etc I have always been confident about playing around with flavours and creating something new.
Q: What do you think have been the main reasons for the long-term success of Khana Khazana?
I simply gave my audience what they wanted! Keeping my finger on the pulse of the market paid off. I have been advocating that home food is best and there should not be any fear in cooking for the family. My teaching style has been well loved and also the fact that I have been cooking food that is not daunting to the audience.
Q: What are the key factors in making Indian food “authentic”?
The description of ‘authentic’ is subjective. For me arriving at the most acceptable taste for the masses is authentic. Then that is documented.
Q: Why do you think Indian food has become such a universally popular cuisine?
There is such unity in the diversity of Indian food that it has won the hearts of all. Flavours, textures, presentation, variety, taste – all are vibrant and unmatched. I would say Ayurveda plays a role in this – an Indian meal has the power to satisfy all six senses of taste and the palate is the same the world over. So when a non Indian enjoys Indian food it is because all senses of taste have been satisfied. Well, he might just not be aware of this power in Indian food but it is there.
Q: Some people feel Indian cuisine is misunderstood-what are you view points on this?
Actually, Indians themselves remain confused about Indian food! We have so many regional cuisines and somebody from the North of the country will find only rice and dal oriented dishes down South. Well, the north Indian survives on wheat. Similarly, people of East love fish but the central regions have no access to so much fish! The world has been thinking that Punjabi and Moghlai food is Indian food that is why the popularity of the tandoori chicken and the chicken tikka masala. But today, thanks to the information glut, Indian food is being written about and read about in most parts of the world and cooks are venturing out in search of Indian recipe books, ingredients and specialty cookware.
Q: What is the significance of “street food” and “home cooking” within Indian cuisine?
I would describe street food as tasty and affordable food that, with passage of time, becomes synonymous with the geographical location of the city. This is further defined by what the people of that area like! But Indian cuisine is first and foremost home cooking. From there came the need for survival from the food business hence the evolution of street food. And then with passage of time, some foods became specifically ‘street foods’! But there are ardent cooks who would love to emulate the taste of this same street food at home too. So this cyclical creation goes on! Home cooking has a strong foothold. Since ancient times it is a natural thing for the ladies to stay home and cook for the menfolk who go out to earn their living. And eating at home is economical than eating out. Typically Indians do enjoy eating out but then come back after a few meals for their comforting home cooked dal-chawal-roti-sabzi meal.
Q: Why has Indian food generated such a rich variety of deserts and sweets? What is unique about Indian sweets?
India is a vast country, the seventh largest in the world. It has 28 states and union territories. Each state has its language, its people and different cultures. Each culture has its traditions and festivals. As per our traditions, any auspicious moment or occasion needs something ‘meetha’ or sweet and because of these festivals the sweets and mithais evolved depending mainly on the availability of the ingredients available in the region. Gujarat has a lot of milk so from there comes shrikhand and ice cream. North has wheat and ghee and hence the halwas. South has rice and hence the payasams and kheers and hence forth.
Q: How can food & cuisine contribute to factors such as women’s empowerment, health, and surrounding issues?
All these are co-related. Food makes or mars health for all. A lady who cooks for the family is actually taking charge of their overall health and well being. And a healthy family is an important unit that makes up for a healthy society. This is women empowerment isn’t it? Another aspect is that women who have taken up food and catering as business ventures: be it home based or a large commercial one. Any business venture is empowerment. I have recently launched brand Wonderchef which is enabling Indian women to empower themselves by starting their own business.
Q: What have been the key drivers for the success of your journey?
My passion for making Indian cuisine the number one in the world is the main driving force. Because my goal is so clear, my path toward it is marked out…whatever hurdles come my way are then taken care of.
Q: How do you create a personal identity on dishes for a cuisine as wide and diverse as Indian food?
I would like to answer this a little differently. I would say any one who cooks can put a personal stamp of identification on the dish! If two people were to be given the same recipe with identical instructions the end result is bound to be different. Food and its taste changes from cook to cook. What I cook becomes different only because of my style of cooking! I have openly admitted that Alyona, my wife, makes better dosas and khandvi than I do! Or for that matter I think my mother’s Punjabi Kadhi is way better than mine!
In this privileged journey into Sanjeev Kapoor’s career, we learn the reasons behind why Indian cuisine is so universally accepted and enjoyed. We’ve also been taught about Sanjeev’s insight into the power of Indian food-the power it has to satisfy all six senses of taste. We have also looked into the driving factors behind Sanjeev’s career which quintessentially comes down to his passion for food and his desire to educate the world about Indian cuisine and its great variety and complexities which is truly unique and unlike any other.