TD conversations: Chef Vikas Khanna

Chef Vikas Khanna breaks new ground with the ‘Phygital NFT’ launch of his magnum opus, Sacred Foods of India, a limited-edition book on culinary offerings at holy places across India, which was unveiled at his Dubai restaurant Kinara recently.
Chef vikas khanna with his latest book, sacred foods of india.
Chef Vikas Khanna with his latest book, Sacred Foods of India.

“I have been waiting for two hours,” says Vikas Khanna when we connect after a slight delay from the scheduled time of the interview. He then chuckles, “People say this at restaurants all the time when they don’t get a table and want the staff to seat them immediately. I used the same excuse with you!”

The warmth and sense of humour remain intact despite the litany of media conversations lined up for the celebrity chef-author-moviemaker-philanthropist, who created history a few days ago with his latest venture that brought three unexpected elements together — spirituality, culinary heritage and cutting-edge technology — in a unique marriage.

We are, of course, talking about the headline-grabbing ‘Phygital NFT’ launch of his magnum opus, Sacred Foods of India, a limited-edition book on culinary offerings at holy places across India, which was unveiled at his Dubai restaurant Kinara, marking an Indian chef’s entry into Web 3.0 enterprise for the first time ever.

What this means is that the NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), created by Akshaya.io, the US-based company bringing Metaverse, NFT and Digital Twin together, will enable Vikas Khanna’s fans and those interested in rare collectibles to own the original digital asset along with the physical book. The purchase will authenticate the originality of this epochal work, and ownership of the asset cannot be duplicated in any form.

The tech space

Chef vikas khanna with his mother at the launch of the 'phygital nft'.
Chef Vikas Khanna with his mother at the launch of the ‘phygital NFT’.

Now, for those unversed with the Metaverse and the magic it unfolds, the digital jargon may sound confusing but Ganesh Raju, the Founder-CEO of Akshaya.io says it’s the right step at the right time. “The hype around NFTs has grown since the pandemic but most people think of it as monkey or cat pictures being sold for unimaginable prices. In this case, though, there is genuine value since there is a physical asset that you can touch, feel and own.”

He was certainly not off the mark as the first ‘phygital’ (Physical + Digital) unit of the sandalwood book was reportedly bought by a gentleman, Sanjeh Raja from International Centre of Culinary Arts (ICCA) at a whopping price of $50,000.

These facts have been well reported by now. But mindboggling prices and the possibilities of the Metaverse aside, for Vikas Khanna, it was more a case of his labour of love finding its rightful place in the digital world. He candidly admits his lack of tech-savvy. “I am not heavily into technology, but that’s what partnerships are for,” the Michelin-star chef tells Traveldine. “I am not asking Ganesh to test a recipe, similarly he does not expect me to give inputs on NFTs.” That said, Vikas believes that as a mainstream cultural personality, the partnership enabled him to seek new ways to communicate with the new generation in a post-pandemic world. Accordingly, he intends to create more augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) assets of his works and creations.

An Indian story

Presently, the asset that is the cynosure of all eyes is a representation of what can be described as “Spiritual India”. Sacred Foods of India is his 38th book (he had promised his dad he would write over 50), but it is probably his most special so far. Not in the least because it took eight years to compile but more because it delves deep into the culture, religiosity and spiritual awareness that underlines the country’s ethos and is releasing in the 75th year of independence. As he says, “Every country has its share of religions, but it is only in India that it becomes about giving and sharing food.”

Chef vikas khanna's sacred foods of india is a lavishly produced tome.
Chef Vikas Khanna’s Sacred Foods of India is a lavishly produced tome.

The seed for the project was planted during his hotel management training days in South India where the temples fascinated him with their architecture as much as the food. Years later, these trips and memories culminated in the birth of the book. “All my other books are on home cooking, street food, restaurants and aspects of India’s culinary history. But this history is incomplete without including food of temples, dargahs and monasteries. The beauty of this food is that it’s not for sale, the sanctity of the recipes makes them special since they are prepared by cooks as a duty between them and God.”

The result of this passion is a lavish 420-page production embellished with rare gemstones, Swarovski crystals and pages designed with gold gilding. Sacred Foods of India comes in a creatively engineered walnut and maple wooden box, the paper used has been acquired from Italy, the vegetable ink from Japan, and the glue from Germany.

The recipes cover the entire gamut from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, from a phirni to a tamarind rice and maa ki daal. Vikas’s personal favourites are the payasam at Madurai Meenakshi temple and the millet drink served at Koothandavar Temple in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu during a festival dedicated to transgenders.

But each item tells a story of its own. A story, that he says, deserves to be presented with grandeur. “It was at the Madurai Meenakshi temple that I got an idea to make this project more majestic than usual. Think about it, these structures were built centuries ago and just being there makes you awestruck. I realised I needed to create a book that not just reflected this majesty but also showcased the diversity of India.”

The project began in earnest, but the challenges were many. One was the lack of precise measurements and ingredients. With these recipes being handed down for centuries, temple cooks rarely measured ingredients, yet as a writer, he could not have presented a recipe without measurements. A bigger challenge was to decide which ones to include and what to leave out. A lot of temples, for instance, served the same dish prepared with variations — for instance the tamarind rice in different holy places in Chennai. So, making a final list was a tough call for Vikas and team. Finally, the pandemic delayed matters further, though it was a blessing in disguise considering the unique digital form that the book has now taken.

Kinara, chef vikas khanna's dubai restaurant.
Kinara, Chef Vikas Khanna’s Dubai restaurant.

Vikas admits that it would be impossible to attain the original essence of the recipe. “The idea behind the book was to enable people to make these recipes at home but let’s face it, you can’t even get close to the original flavours available in a particular temple,” he shrugs. “There is a certain purity and indescribable magic in the food prepared at these places.”

Food to films  

Food aside, films are also on Vikas’s mind. His last directorial, The Last Color starring Neena Gupta won him a lot of acclaim and he is ready to roll with his next, featuring Shabana Azmi. Vikas sees movies as a medium for advocacy. The plight of widows was something he felt strongly about, and it was reflected in The Last Color. He is equally passionate about immigration issues. “People think NRI life is like a Karan Johar film where everyone lands in helicopters. In reality, life for immigrants is full of challenges, which is what I want to portray. I am not a filmmaker, I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I only work on projects I am passionate about.”

What makes him happy is the recognition from his lead actors. “Neena-ji (Gupta) has said The Last Color was the film she enjoyed working the most on and it thrilled me no end. Shabana-ji says she actually felt the pain of the character while working on this movie. These are two of the most famous actresses in India whose words are my biggest compliments. So, guess who has the credit of working with both of them? Shyam Benegal and me! That’s more than enough for me!”

Recipes

Mah-ki-dal

Mah-ki-dal is a punjabi classic. Image: shutterstock/joanna tkaczuk.
Mah-ki-dal is a Punjabi classic. Image: Shutterstock/Joanna Tkaczuk.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 2 green chillies chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 3 tomatoes, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • ½ tbsp cumin powder
  • ½ tbsp coriander powder
  • ½ tsp red chilli powder
  • ½ tbsp garam masala powder
  • 1.5 cups whole black lentils, soaked overnight and boiled
  • Salt
  • Fresh coriander chopped

Method

  • Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, chillies, garlic and ginger. Sauté until the onions soften and become translucent.
  • Add the tomatoes and cook for 2-3 minutes until very soft and mushy. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, chilli and garam masala powders. Mix well and sauté until the oil starts separating from the mixture.
  • Add the boiled lentils, salt to taste and 2 cups of water. Mix well and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil.
  • Sprinkle chopped coriander on top and serve mah-ki-dal warm with rice.

Phirin

Phirin is best had in clay pots. Image: shutterstock/prabhjit s. Kalsi.
Phirin is best had in clay pots. Image: Shutterstock/Prabhjit S. Kalsi.

Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp semolina
  • 4 cups full-fat milk
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder
  • 6 tbsp sugar
  • 6-8 chopped almonds

Method

  • Soak the semolina in 1 cup of milk for one hour.
  • Heat the remaining milk in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Once the milk comes to a boil, reduce heat and continue cooking, stirring continuously.
  • Add the cardamom and sugar. Mix well until all the sugar dissolves.
  • Add the soaked semolina along with the milk. Mix well and stir continuously to prevent the semolina from sticking to the pan or forming lumps.
  • Simmer on low heat until the mixture reaches a consistency where the phirin is thick.
  • Take the pan off the heat and set aside to cool. Transfer the phirin to clay pots and sprinkle almonds.
  • Refrigerate overnight before serving.

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