Taste of Persia

Taste of Persia

in conversation

Taste of Persia

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear Middle Eastern cuisine? Meat? Well, chef Vikas Khanna has a bag full of surprises for you on his new show, Twist of Taste — The Persian Trail. “You will be amazed by how close Middle Eastern food is to Indian kitchens, spices and ways of cooking. In some countries, the food has so many crossovers that it belongs to both the nations,” says the versatile, Michelin-starred chef.

Middle Eastern flavours

Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Istanbul and Bursa, Vikas has brought back unique stories from each region. And he is hesitant to pick a favourite. But if he had to name one, it would be Oman for its love of India and our culture. “There are such amazing moments on the show that reflect their hospitality, warmth and welcoming nature. Making baklava or Turkish delights was truly legendary,” he gushes.

The USP of the show, as the name suggests, is the twist that the chef gives to a local dish. It’s a lot of work, confesses the chef who wears his love for Tibetan cuisine on his sleeve. “Some days we shoot only two dishes for the twist and focus on cooking non-stop to get the combinations right… Changing the dish and shooting all over again happens too. The truest secret of getting dishes on screen is patience; Chef Anjali Menon and Mass Entertainment made it possible,” he says.

As much as there’s a method to every twist, the key factor, the chef insists, is instinct. It was purely by instinct that he decided to give a “spice crusted prawns with kiwi emulsion” twist to shishtouk (mixed grilled meats). And it worked beautifully. Similarly, sumac makes for a good substitute for chat masala in Indian dishes, discovered Vikas, while some Middle Eastern treats could gain from a dose of star anise. But if there’s one ingredient that can make or break a dish, it’s got to be salt. 

For someone who believes that the greatest things or experiences don’t come to you unless you travel with an open heart and mind, good food is something that connects us all through its flavour and identity. It does not matter if it’s an elaborate spread or a humble fare, it has to be heartfelt.

“The vast culture of Middle Eastern food has left a great emotional impact on me. I feel richer knowing so many cooks, places and new ways of using ingredients,” avers the chef, who has become a huge fan of makhbous (biryani of the Middle East). One of the most important lessons he learnt on the show was that their cuisine is not all about meat and that their use of spices is truly inspired by the spice routes and Indian kitchens.

Desi connection

Just like there is so much more to Indian food than butter chicken and naan, there is a lot more to Middle Eastern cuisine than falafels and shawarmas. “These cuisines are ocean deep. So much to discover and bring forward to the world!” says the host, who enjoyed watching the first two seasons of the show by chef Vineet Bhatia.

For Vikas, watching food on TV is a “calming, non-political, and pure” exercise and there’s something very sacred, he believes, about the process from the chopping boards and fire ranges to the plates. “This is a totally new canvas. Food lovers will see new techniques they can use to make inspiring food for their loved ones. You will enjoy meeting new people from different cultures,” he says about the fifth season of the popular show.

How different is the experience of cooking for dignitaries (he recently cooked for Prime Minister Narendra Modi) from say, cooking for family at home, or customers at his restaurant? “It’s the same, just requires a little bit more planning. Every guest that walks into Junoon, NY is important. They are not just guests of our place, but they are here to experience Indian hospitality and flavours,” says the man who finds comfort in dal-chawal, but is adept at blending protein shakes and smoothies on a lazy day.

Earlier this year, Vikas released his magnum opus culinary book Utsav amidst much fanfare. “It’s my heart and soul,” he avers. “I have spent more than 12 years to complete it. It contains some of the most sacred and holy rituals and customs of Indian festivals. I always say that India is a festival nation. We celebrate every moment of the past, the present, and the unseen.”

(The show airs every Wednesday and Thursday at 9 pm, on FOX Life)

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