Sanjeev Kapoor

The celebrity chef you’ve never heard of

July 19, 2011

Since his start in 1984, the chef Sanjeev Kapoor has compiled quite the resume. His "Khana Khazana" cooking show is the longest-running in Asia, with more than 900 episodes broadcast since the show’s inception 18 years ago; it reaches 120 countries and more than 500 million viewers.

Last year Kapoor also launched Southeast Asia’s debut 24/7 cooking channel, "Foodfood." Add to this the fact that Kapoor’s an internationally bestselling author with dozens of cookbooks under his belt, the recipient of countless major awards, and the owner of a line of ready-to-eat-meals, a chain of restaurants, and a line of cookware, and you’ve exploded the definition of "celebrity chef." Yet he remains largely unknown in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Kapoor had his first American cookbook published. How to Cook Indian: More than 500 Classic Recipes for the Modern Kitchen is a weighty tome that covers all the bases, from spice blends, fragrant cooking pastes, and rich stocks to authentic regional dishes and hearty vegetarian food broken down by meal and food type.

When did you first realize you had a passion for cooking?
Cooking has always been enjoyable for all of us in the family. My dad was a good cook and I have fond memories of everything he used to cook. My mother stays with us and still cooks fantastic food for us. My older brother made it a point to help my dad when he was cooking, and as I grew up seeing men cook, I started cooking with them when I was around 10 years old.

When you were first starting out, what did you find most alluring about food and cooking?
Food has always been an adventure; there’s so much to explore, research, discover, and relish. The science aspect of cooking also appeals to me, but there is also so much art involved. I think it is a combination of all these things. Food is always a talking point, the common ground, the ice breaker in conversations; it’s an equalizer.

Sanjeev Kapoor

In the introduction to How to Cook Indian, you write that your extensive travels and the women in your life shaped and influenced your cooking. Tell me what you learned from your mother’s cooking when growing up. What did you love about her food?
I think it is a universal truth that food that is cooked with love is tasty. My mother has always cooked vegetarian food for us with patience, care, and thought. She knows what to use and how much to put in what, and her dish always turns out right, every time. Her use of spices talks for itself. Her food symbolizes simplicity as she uses the freshest ingredients and seasonal produce.

Many Americans are apprehensive about cooking Indian food at home because of the long lists of ingredients and the prep work required. In a country that relies heavily on convenience foods, do you think you can convince Americans to cook Indian food?
What I find very heartening about Americans is that they are very open to change; they encourage everything that is good. The apprehension surrounding the complexity of Indian food was the underlying motive for presenting the recipes in How to Cook Indian in a reader-friendly format. I am optimistic about home-cooked Indian food being served on the American table. My book tour was very encouraging, and after seeing the enthusiasm for the recipes, I now know that people actually needed help in bringing healthy food into their homes.

What are your favorite recipes featured in the book?
One is chickpea-flour dumplings in yogurt-based gravy, called Punjabi Kadhi. When growing up, this was a very traditional Sunday meal served with steamed rice. Another is a snack called Khandvi; I find these gram (chickpea) flour roll-ups quite fascinating. It was only after I married my wife, Alyona, that I learned about this beautiful savory dish from Gujarat. Making Khandvi is an art. I also love the recipe for Bhapa Doi, a sweet dish from Bengal, because it is simple and elegant. It’s nothing more than steamed yogurt with nuts and raisins, and I love making it because it can be done even when you’re in a hurry.

When you were first starting out as a young chef, did you ever dream you’d be this successful?
I admit I’ve always been a big dreamer. When I first started out, I was sure of one thing: I was going to work hard and excel in this field. My motive was clear and my passion to make Indian cuisine the number one in the world further sustained it. Every step I have taken in my career and professional life is another step closer to fulfilling my dream.

How would you describe your cooking style? How would you characterize your food?
I try to simplify. I cook with a lot of positive energy, and I keep the end taste in mind. I cook with the knowledge that the ingredients I have in hand are going to be used to the best of their abilities. I cook for the person who is going to eat the food. I have always been keen about pleasing the palate, whatever it takes.

At the end of the day, what do you want people to know about Indian food?
People should remember Indian food as a balanced meal; it’s something that is cooked fresh and served fresh. It is simple, yet exotic. There is diversity in it because of its blends of spices and herbs. Indian food is monumental, and I really don’t think there is a final chapter in my story. In fact, I have a new mission: To make Indian regional food more popular in India. There are so many unexplored cuisines from across the length and breadth of our big, beautiful country. I want to know more, learn more, and then take up the task of sharing my findings with the world.

Tina Vasquez is a hardcore home cook in Los Angeles. After years as a closeted food nerd, she now writes about cooking and food regularly for websites, magazines, and local newspapers.

Related recipe: Punjabi Kadhi; recipe: Bhapa Doi

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