By Madhusree Chatterjee
Traditional cuisine has much to do with memory. The act of cooking and eating ethnic food is an exercise in nostalgia – linked to the ritualistic cultures that occupied much of our childhood in countries like India that has a culinary heritage dating back to more than 5,000 years.
Master chef Vikas Khanna, the owner of the niche Indian eatery Junoon in New York, has captured this essence of nostalgia in his new book, “Everyone Can Cook” — an easy-to-make anthology of recipes that celebrates 200 year old history of canned food across the world. Sponsored by Hindustan Tin Works [foremost maker of cans in India ], the anthology brings out the importance of food preservation and the “fresh effectiveness” of canned ingredients in the kitchen where cans are often discarded as “stale”. And hence not authentic.
Khanna looks inwards into the man's deepest gastronomic psyche to look for the relevance of tradition in food that the "can" symbolizes. The young chef, known for popularizing “ghar ka khana” (home cooked food)" and ethnic Indian platter in New York, echoes American journalist, activist and food philosopher Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto) to capture the essence of memory in food. “This idea of a little woman cooking in a kitchen and the aromas wafting from it – the image is every difficult to let go. Hence is food is more of a memory of an image at the time when we are watching more food on the television than cooking it in the kitchen,” Khanna told this reporter/writer in the capital.
Michelin chef Khanna’s first memory of canned food goes back to his first Christmas in America in 2000 when he found “security and comfort in a facility” – the Rescue Mission — in the strange land. As he cooked there, he saw how canned foods touched the lives of the needy. Back then, no one knew about anything about the canning industry barring that “the Canned Food Bank was a succor", the chef recalled.
Several years later, when the book became a reality, Khanna saw the food can as a larger picture of something more profound – an icon of unity that levels divides in the kitchen in an age of changing lifestyles”. The chef has been collecting can art for years – and several of them deck up his culinary space in New York. The beginning of his collection goes back to a trip to Orissa when “he came across children painting food cans by the road side”. He bought loads of them back to US.
In America, cans are liked to the popular artistic canvas by the Campbell Soup cans immortalized by father of contemporary new wave kitsch art Andy Warhol, who touched up the cans as work of iconic art to forge an instant connect with the average American on the street. The counter-culture of "can art" makes room for a deeper spiritual meaning in Khanna’s opinions of canned food – and the ancient rituals associated with food.
Khanna tries to establish preservation and the traditional cultural resonance in gastronomy with anecdotal recollections. One of them is about a Kashmiri pundit woman "who came to Khanna at his restaurant in New York". She wanted to know how she would “celebrate” Mahashivratri- if it was possible to celebrate it with pundit cuisine. “The essence of Mahashivratri to her was her traditional cuisine – of a land that she had left long ago”.
Khanna tries to connect her memory of the Shaivite ritual and the flavour of her native cuisine to the “preserved essence of food in a can” that carries more than just the food - but a legacy. “We are living in an age of diaspora- migration and displacement,” he says to explain the significance of rituals in food- and compares it to the food "can".
“I remember frying poori (traditional Indian fried bread) once at home without ajwain (bishop’s weeds- used in north Indian poori ) for an older aunt. She was upset because I did not add bishop's weed. I insisted why ajwain (bishop’s weed). She said it was a memory from childhood. Older people biting into the poori would be reminded of their childhood. That was the connection,” Khanna recounted.
A woman from Canada, who had booked a table at Junoon was moved to tears after “eating Khanna’s ‘aloo bari’- a simple Indian dish of potato cooked with dry lentil cakes baked at home”. “She said this is exactly how my naani (grandmother) made it. She was eating it after 70 years. I had personally made the bari (lentil cakes) with a dehydrator from France. I had never so felt so proud of being an Indian,” Khanna said.
Rituals make us relive, the chef mused, dapper as ever in his American style outfit and his marked Punjabi accent. “That memory of food – home, brood, clans, lineage and old kitchens- cannot be contained in dishes and modular- interactive cooking facilities. Rituals are difficult to let go.”
Rituals – those related to food- are usually recreated in groups like a symphony, Khanna asserts, The first world is far behind in rituals. Rituals make a society – and the day society becomes individualistic minus its collective rites, it would collapse. “Once a fellow Punjabi (sardarji) asked me (on a train, I was travelling in New York) where did I learn to bake bread. I said at the Golden Temple. He hugged me. It became a part of a ritual,” Khanna offered yet another insight into the ritual of food.
Trained in France, Khanna opted for Indian food early on in US. Hark it back to nostalgia, homesickness and fierce "nationalism". “No French, No Italian, but pure and traditional Indian. I have sold my 6 dollar Indian curry at 38,000 dollars in a special platter ‘Vikas’ Magical 20’ . If Indian curries can be sold for 38,000 dollars, how can “you stereotype Indian food”, Khanna questions. There are so many India- so many tastes that make Indian food stand out with the different ‘tadka’ (spice mix) for curries from across the provinces, villages and regions. Each narrates a different India story.
Khanna has been using the traditional Punjabi religious rite of “langar- community cooking and feasting” – usually practiced in the gurudwara (shrine) to spread the word of peace after the Wisconsin shooting in US. “I can teach Sikhism through a langar – it has every tenet that the religion teaches,” the chef says.
The White House led by President Barack Obama (for whom Vikas Khanna cooked a special Indian platter last year) required a chef to help with post shootout peace campaign, laughed Khanna. “I conducted 121 langars across US. In a 121 sq feet area in Times Square, I made the New Yorkers sit down - told them not to take off their shoes – and eat. I ordered 10,000 DVDs of my book, ‘Holy Kitchens’ and sent them to schools across America.”
Everything is life is in plural, says American anthropologist and philosopher Dennis Tedlock. “Food has always been communal. I went to Harappa and Mohenjo Daro to study ‘bartan (pre-historic pots and pans). There was no individual ‘bartan’. Every pot was communal…” Khanna pointed out, interpreting Tedlock's food consciousness. It was about sharing what was on offer in the kitchen – like in a "food can across geographies along the Indus valley”. Cuisine became symbolic in the process.
Khanna is currently writing a cook book for children.
A recipe from “Everyone Can Cook”
Spicy Chicken Corn &Bean Soup
(This soup gives the same nutrition as a whole meal, says chef Khanna)
One teaspoon of olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
I large onion
Half a cup yomato passata
Half a cup of red kidney beans in chilli sauce
Half a cup canned niblets
6 cups of chicken stock
Half a teaspoon of chilli flake
Half cup of shredded and boiled chicken
Half tea spoon of basil
Salt to taste
Heat olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium flame. Add onion and garlic and sauté till transparent. Add passata and sauté for 7 minutes. Mix kidney beans in chilli sauce and corn and sauté for another minute.
Stir chicken stock and red chilli flakes . When the soup thickens, mix in chicken, basil, salt and cook for one more minute. Serve with bread rolls.
Book published by Om Books International