I feel overwhelmed with television or public speaking. Books help me express myself: Vikas Khanna

On Forbes India's podcast From the Bookshelves, the Michelin-starred chef speaks about his recent book that's being made into a film, how his grandmother's kitchen shaped his formative years in cooking, why he jumps across genres as a writer, and being driven by the need to constantly remain inspired

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Jun 29, 2023 01:12:30 PM IST
Updated: Jul 6, 2023 12:20:26 PM IST

I feel overwhelmed with television or public speaking. Books help me express myself: Vikas Khanna Michelin-starred chef, Vikas Khanna

Vikas Khanna is arguably India’s food ambassador to the world. The Michelin-starred chef, who was recently in the news for creating an AI-generated image of Mona Lisa eating Indian food, spoke with Forbes India about the other side of his career—writing books—on the podcast From the Bookshelves. He discussed his most recent work of fiction, Imaginary Rain, which is also being made into a film starring Shabana Azmi.

Khanna says the book is a semi-autobiographical account inspired by his grandmother, who is also one of the reasons he took up cooking. He spoke about why women’s work in the kitchen is often taken for granted, how food is extremely forgiving, and why he wants to use the written word to take stories of Indian kitchens, cuisines and culture to the world. Edited excerpts:

Q. You’ve called Imaginary Rain, which is your 40th book, your best one yet. Why do you think so?
I feel it’s my life’s best work because this is the first time I’ve given a tribute to my grandmom, in a very fictionalised-yet-real way. And when you’re giving a tribute for the first time to someone who is very important in your life, there’s a lot of pressure on you because there is no compromise and you give it your best. I’ve been waiting to tell this story for so many decades. Thanks to the opportunity I got now, I can tell it in such a large scale.

Q. What is the story all about, and what have you tried to convey through the book?
I’m seeing things from an NRI’s eyes. I’ve lived in New York for more than two decades now and my perspective of India is that of an NRI (non-resident Indian). It’s the story of a woman who is running a small, typical mom-and-pop kind of restaurant [in America], with so much of soul in her cooking. But no one appreciates it. The customers just want cheap food, at home they feel, ‘Kya badi baat hai? Khaana hi toh bana rahi hai.” [What’s the big deal? She’s just cooking food]. Her personal struggles and her redemption, everything’s at stake now. So, I am telling a story from a lens of what it takes to run a restaurant, especially by an Indian woman.

Since childhood, I ran banquets from my grandmom and mom, and I saw that their struggles were so underappreciated, till the time that I got into the Michelin circles and spoke about them. Otherwise, a woman’s struggle in the kitchen is so much taken for granted. In the film [based on the book], Shabanaji [Azmi] is playing the role of Prerna. She is struggling, emotionally. The book and the movie open with the last day of the restaurant, a few hours before they shut down her lifeline. And she says that she always hid in the kitchen because that’s where she could be invisible with her pain. She’s also dealing with a lot of trauma, and the kitchen gave her sanity. And now that was also getting shut down. She goes through a series of depression, and when the emptiness stars killing her, she decides to go to India. That’s where the second half of the book starts.

Q. Your grandmother has been a huge inspiration for you, both in your career as a chef and a writer. You used to accompany her to langars as a kid, the essence of which you try to capture in your book Barkat, for instance. How was your relationship with food shaped by your grandmother and how have you tried to put that in words?

Bohot mushkil hota hai, it’s not easy for a person who just wants to feel things, and wants to be as authentic and possible in expressing them. Especially in a book like Imaginary Rain, it was hard to write how she [Shabana Azmi’s character] finds her redemption in India and falls in love with cooking again. And after a few years, her nephew becomes the first Indian to get a Michelin star on a global platform, and he takes her to the stage. Might be fiction, might be reality, I’m not going to comment on that. But it’s not easy to express yourself in this way. If I’m writing cookbooks, I don’t have to tell you what I’m thinking or how I’m feeling, I don’t need to tell you how vulnerable I am, at any given day. Fiction does that to you, when you’re writing this kind of work. Especially a book like this.

Also listen: Stories from Indian Kitchens: Part 2, ft. Vikas Khanna

Q. Could you describe your grandmother, or beeji’s kitchen, and how you’ve tried to translate that essence into the book?

My early days in the kitchen were always the typical, ‘sabjiyan dho de, bhindi kaat de’ [wash the vegetables, cut the okra] routine. My grandmother had a small kitchen and there was a counter in the kitchen where she did a lot of prep. We had a huge family. There was a yellow door, which always looked like haldi [turmeric] to me. Aata goondna, phulke banana [kneading the dough, making phulkas] is what I learnt from here. Typical Punjabi home kitchen in Amritsar. Nobody has travelled out of their home state, there was no internet at the time. So, we used to just eat those same eight-10 dishes in rotation. Small-town boys and girls with extremely middle-class experiences.

One thing—I don’t know if I would call it an advantage or disadvantage—is that I got to spend more time with her than the rest of the grandchildren. Because I couldn’t play outside for most of my childhood till I was 13 [Khanna was born with a condition of misaligned legs and had to wear wooden shoes till his teens This impaired his ability to run and often subjected him to ridicule from his peers]. My grandmother’s kitchen was the only place where I felt that I was equal to everyone… where I felt that she gifted me with this little tokens of food and love. Unka achar packets mein banta tha saari family ko jaata tha [She used to make packets of pickles and send it to the entire family]. I used to tell her, ‘Why are you making it for the entire family?’, and she used to say, ‘This mango tree belongs to all of them’. I just loved that gratitude.

Sab bhool gaye [Everyone forgot her]. Those days we did not have telephones, and we used to get the odd letter from family members, but she remembered that her mango pickle had to reach everyone’s houses in the summer. Because that was her tradition. And I felt that food is so forgiving. It’s the biggest connecting force. When my grandmother passed away, everyone came back to Amritsar. All the relatives from Canada, America and Mumbai, and they said, ‘Amritsar doesn’t smell the same anymore’. I feel that too. So I can’t define her kitchen. For me it was a temple that I worshipped.

I feel overwhelmed with television or public speaking. Books help me express myself: Vikas Khanna
Q. When there are such strong emotions attached to what you’re feeling, why did you decide to write books as a medium to express all that?
Main theek se bolta nahin hoon. Meri diction mujhe pata hai meri problem hai [I don’t speak well. I know my diction is a problem]. There’s a lot of Punjabi in my diction. Even if I speak in Hindi, it is Punjabi. When I speak in English, people don’t understand what I’m saying. But I wanted to find a medium to express my culture to the world at large. I remember they used to call me to seminars for cooking and I used to tell them, ‘I’ll cook, but don’t ask me to speak’. This is 2004. I still get very overwhelmed with public speaking or when I have to do a presentation of food while I’m talking.

Many chefs dream to be television (TV) chefs. I never aspired to be on TV. But books were something that became a good avenue for me to express myself. Moreover, my sister and I were very bad in studies. One day I told my dad that I don’t read books written by others and will write my own books. And my dad asked me, ‘How many books will you write?’ And I said, ’50 books!’. I was a kid, I really didn’t know anything. But I promised my dad that I will write 50 books and disappear into that world. And I have been a promise-keeper. I am not the best son, but I try my best.

Q. So, when you started writing all those years ago after making that promise to your father, till now, when you’ve written your 40th book, how have you changed as a writer?

Not much. I feel like when you find a successful equation, you tend to continue to do that. I believe in Buddhism, where you make a mandala of one shape and then destroy it. I like to destroy my books, movies, documentaries, because I feel like once I find a success in certain theme, it is so easy to continue the replication of that success story. But I’ve tried to be as different in every book—the way it looks, the way it has been presented. I’m probably the only person who keeps shifting [between genres] so much. Like children’s books, cookbooks, books about culture and heritage, books about temples and architecture, non-fiction and fiction. I keep jumping from one genre to another because I feel I shouldn’t be trapped by a cloning system. I’m alive, I’m an artist—at least, I pretend to be—I should be expressing myself in different ways, be it poetry or prose or something else.

Q. What about writing do you find most difficult, even today?
I don’t find cookbooks to be difficult, but that’s not the case with fiction. I struggle with the character graph because many of my expressions are in Punjabi, and translating those to English could be very difficult. It takes a lot of time. I write entire chapters in Punjabi, and we have to find a translator who is good in both Punjabi and English. So that’s a huge challenge for me. Then I expect that when I’m writing something deep or heart-breaking, I have to find a way where my Punjabi doesn’t get diluted.

Q. What does the future hold for Vikas Khanna, the writer?

I have a children’s book coming up on dogs, their promise-keeping and the beauty of their friendship. We have an amazing cookbook coming out, which is about my research on the life of spices, from being seeds to blossoms to plants to all the drying and processes that happen before they become spices. So, these are very interesting subjects and I hope I remain inspired. That’s the most important thing for me.

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