Vineet Bhatia, who runs 11 restaurants, including Rasoi in London, Geneva and Mauritius, and Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai, is literally making Indian food fly high. Qatar Airways has recently appointed him adviser to its in-flight catering section. The double Michelin-starred London-based chef is back on Fox Traveller with the second season of Twist of Taste on weekends at 9pm. He speaks to t2 about the highlights of his culinary trek across the country and the new spin he has given to our favourites –– tea and paan, transforming them into Tea Roast Chicken and Kaddu Kheer-Paan Malai.
What are the challenges the show’s second season brings?
We are covering 13 new places. So, there is fresh material. This time, my wife Rashima did not travel with me. I went around with local people and traced popular traditional eateries. We have give an interesting spin to the format which viewers would love.
The places chosen this time are all small towns, except Bangalore...
We wanted to see how time has affected eating habits. Youngsters have contributed much to Bangalore ever since the IT boom in the Nineties. They have put the country on the world map not only in IT but also with their pub culture. We thought this is something that needs to be showcased to the rest of the country. Bangalore has an international crowd. We went to a place called The Biere Club. I was surprised to see not just youngsters but also a lot of foreigners enjoying themselves. This is what you have in European countries or in America. I am not a beer drinker but it was great to find ‘fresh’ beer, all locally brewed in steel vats, which is nice and hygienic.
Has the food culture in Bangalore evolved?
We went to an old restaurant established in the 1940s where they serve ‘classic’ dosas. For me dosa is something crisp with a filling of potatoes and a thick chutney. This place serves a dosa which is more like uttapam — very thick, with ghee and sabzi. At 7.30-8am there were at least 400 people, and many waiting outside, just to have dosa and coffee. The same people also go for a traditional breakfast and enjoy themselves at a pub at night. This blend of tradition and modernity gives Bangalore a distinct identity.
After doing an episode on Calcutta in the first season, this time you headed for our hills. How different was it?
It was important to visit Calcutta in the first season. The city has so much tradition with its artists and stupendous food. People always associate Darjeeling with chai, and why not! We were honoured to have Jamling Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, as our guide. He has climbed Mount Everest and was instrumental in saving lives during an avalanche in 1996. He showed us where he was born, his father’s memorabilia…. It gives you a sense of pride as an Indian. He invited me for high tea at the Elgin Hotel. There we had pakoras, jam cookies, ajwain cookies… We used Darjeeling chai to make roast chicken. It came out so well that we plan to use it in our restaurants. We found a little hut near the zoo serving beautiful, piping hot momos. Rolling mountains, beautiful tea valleys, misty weather — it reminded me of London, so I really felt at home.
For the Indore episode you found an eminent host in Richard Holkar.
Yes, Richard or Shivaji Rao Holkar is the current prince of Indore. He has lovingly restored Ahilya Fort and turned it into a boutique hotel. They serve such unusual food. The royal cook made us some fish kebabs. We also went to the streets of Indore. There we found a simple man making jalebis. He sells it by his mental estimate of 100g for each person. We told him there were 11 of us and we wanted just one piece to taste. The fellow made a jalebi that was at least a foot wide in diameter and weighed 1.3kg! My crew loved it.
Didn’t you also visit Varanasi?
Yes. The ghats are absolutely fantastic to look at from the water. The evening prayers, especially the 10-horse sacrifice, are so powerful that you actually feel connected to Lord Shiva.
We prepared a paan dessert there. The paanwallah shared a fascinating story. During the Raj, his ancestor sat outside the police chowki with his paan dukaan. He used to pass on valuable information to freedom fighters on scraps of paper hidden inside paans. And the police could never figure out how secrets were getting divulged.
Paan is so teekha. What made you think of making kheer using paan?
Paan is iconic of Varanasi. We were wondering what to do with it. If we cook with it, it becomes kadwa. So we made paans with malai, cream and elaichi. Then we flavoured it, took off the bitterness and made it into a dessert. We even covered the whole thing with chocolate. The combination was quite nice.
It was good to see Srinagar on your show’s cuisine map!
Yes, Kashmir has a rich culture. The wazwan meal is a dying art. To see khansamas and wazhas prepare a 20-course meal on firewood is a delight.
We were fortunate to attend a wedding and we were asked by the cooks to sit and have a meal with them on the same trami (a large metal plate). One kg of meat is given to each person to eat, with much love and care. A Kashmiri meal may be heavy but its flavours linger for a long time. This is the first time I ate a proper rogan josh. It is so different from what we make.
You experiment with fusion food, which is rather costly. Is there a way to get around it?
Use local produce. I have seen people using imported ingredients which automatically pushes up cost. I call this evolved food, not fusion food, as that is what has brought cuisines from different parts of the world together. In Bengal, for example, you can bake fish in a banana leaf, put some rice underneath, and use some sauce. That earns you respect while keeping costs down.