India’s most popular chef, Vikas Khanna, is an award-winning food writer, filmmaker, humanitarian, and executive chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant Junoon, a trendsetting Manhattan gathering place that’s legendary for its fusion of traditional and modern Indian regional cuisines, artfully prepared using organic ingredients from local farms. Chef Khanna recently partnered with us on a collection of Indian sauces and spice blends, and we caught up with him to discuss Indian home cooking, working with spices and the Indian food stereotypes he’d most like to put an end to.
If you could teach the Western world one thing about Indian cooking, what would it be?
Vikas Khanna: Indian cuisine is extremely complicated and simple at the same time. It is not all about curries. There is so much more to it.
Tell us about your background.
VK: I was born and raised in Amritsar, a city in the north of India. I grew up cooking, helping grandmum in the kitchen. I got so obsessed that at the age of 16 I started doing catering. I started a small catering company with my grandmum in the back of her house. Then I graduated with a degree in hotel management, and then I continued to work in India in major hotels in the country. In 2000, moved to America to work; I absolutely loved New York City. I had a catering company, and my small cooking school, and I worked in a small restaurant near Wall Street. When everything closed, then I worked in a restaurant called Purnima, and then the journey continues. Since then, I’ve written 25 books.
Who taught you how to cook?
VK: My grandmum, because I was her kitchen helper. We had a huge temple [in Amritsar]; it’s called the Golden Temple, and they have community kitchens. She would take me there to volunteer as a child. So my understanding of the power of food came from there, where everybody helped as a community to feed the hungry. I spent a lot of my childhood in that kitchen.
She also always understood one thing: simplicity. The greatest cuisine or the greatest dishes you ever taste in your life are never the complicated dishes.
How do home cooks work with spices differently in India, compared to the United States? Do you see any cultural differences in the way people view cooking with spices in India compared to the United States?
VK: [In India], everybody has their own spice mixture. There is a blend that everybody makes at home which is very signature of the family or the culture or the region.
So we should dispel the idea that there’s a set of core Indian spices that everybody uses at home?
VK: My mother doesn’t know what a curry leaf is, and has never used mustard seeds in her cooking, ever. My mother doesn’t know mustard seeds could be used in cooking! But if you go to a South Indian home, you’ll have cooking with curry leaves and mustard seeds. In the north, we have never used coconut in our cooking. In the south, you hardly make a dish without coconut.
What do you think are some of the biggest mistakes people make when buying, cooking with, or storing spices?
VK: The biggest mistake people make is that they start to put powders in the beginning of the cooking process. That’s wrong. Whole spices are actually fried in oil, never the powders. Powders turn very bitter because they burn too fast. I work with lots of powders, but you never put the powders in hot oil. Powdered spices are very delicate. [You add them] in the middle or end of cooking.
Tell us more about the sauces and spice blends you’ve created for us.
VK: They’re a good start for people who are trying to understand Indian flavors, and are trying Indian food at home. The sauces have been done in a very, very delicate way, and I think our spice packaging is awesome.
What’s South Asian food stereotype would you like to put an end to?
VK: People are going to kill me when I say this: Chicken tikka masala is a British dish. We don’t have chicken tikka masala in India. And we [Indians] have no concept of mango lassi. Lassi is a yogurt smoothie; it’s either sweet or it’s salty or it’s plain. Only when I came to America did I hear of mango lassi. It is a totally American thing.
Shop all of Vikas Khanna’s sauces and spice blends here.