Celebrity chef Kunal Kapur curries favour with the Indian curry

Kunal Kapur got into an animated discussion on cooking, food trends and his latest show Curries of India

By Anannya Sarkar
  • Published 26.06.18
  • a few seconds read
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Chef Kunal Kapur at JW Marriott Kolkata. Picture: B. Halder

When we met chef Kunal Kapur at JW Marriott Kolkata last week, he was minutes away from wrapping up a shoot for a new series on Living Foodz. Despite a long day out in the sun, he was far from exhausted. Before tucking into dim sums at Vintage Asia, Kapur launched into an animated discussion on cooking, food trends and his latest show — Curries of India — set to go on air in July. 

Tell us about the show you are shooting...

I am shooting for a brand new show called Curries of India for Living Foodz and the entire endeavour is to bring out the classic curries, which are possibly dying or are evolving. We progress, we evolve and so does our food. A lot of things are being forgotten, so there is a lot of intensive research that the team has put together and we are trying to trace the history of Indian curries — how did they come about? When did it start? And as you go back, you realise that there are so many ingredients that we use today that never existed years ago. Most of our favourite curries differed so much in form from when they were first made!

What are the places you have been in the city in your quest for curries?

We went to this Baghdadi-Jew family where there is this lady called Flower Silliman, who is one of the very few Jews in Calcutta. She is 88 and loves cooking and their food is a very different take on the usual Bengali food and when we say “Bengali food”, I don’t just mean the typical Bengali food. There are many communities residing here for ages and it has been a melting pot of cultures — whether it’s Chinese or Nepalese migrants or Anglo-Indians. 

So all these combined becomes Bengali food. We tasted a particular curry called Chicken Chittani, an Oriya dish called Dalma and some Moricher Jhol. I learnt this is a very popular dish at home but we traced back its history. For example, it was the Turks and the Afghans who brought onions and garlic with them because for the longest time, Bengali food didn’t have these ingredients. They were fish-eaters because of the coast but a lot of vegetarian food was there. Why does the rest of India use so much of tomatoes and Bengal does not? So there are these small little stories that make the search on the curries of India more interesting. 

How has it been revisiting this city?

I did Thalis of India last year and Pickle Nation before that and now, Curries of India. I think there is a lot of art and culture that we always associate with Bengal and that’s very true about the food also. There is a certain vibe to it — karwa, meetha, teekha, fried, steamed. There is an amalgamation of every flavour in the food of this region. It’s not just Bengali food as there are dishes with British, Turkish and Afghani influences. 

I like the fact that Bengalis take their food very seriously. Whenever I talk about any Bengali recipe or dish on social media, I like how all Bengalis get very touchy. They are very opinionated... which is kind of good as it’s always a learning curve. Coming to Calcutta is always fun but I just wish the weather was better.

Your last post on Twitter was a video on how to make a dip. Give us a new dip recipe!
Let’s give one with avocado, which is considered to be very healthy. In fact, it is one of the first few things that is given to a baby in the US when they start having solid food. It’s good for the skin and helps in brain development and has Omega 3, 6 and 9. Peel an avacado and mash it, add onions, tomatoes, coriander, green chillies, salt and a lot of lime juice, and a good helping of virgin olive oil. Mix it all up and you’ll have an excellent dip. 

What is that one myth associated with the curries of India that you think this show will bust?

The word “curry” itself is not Indian, it was a name given by the British. All Indian dishes, whether it was a vegetable curry, a meat dish or a seafood dish, had their own individual names, their individual identities and character. For example, Roganjosh, Kosha Mangsho or Gosht Ka Korma. Because the British could not pronounce everything, they simply termed all Indian dishes with a lot of sauce, “curry”. So all chicken preparations were chicken curries to them. It’s a name given by the Britishers to us and we think curries have been made in India forever — there’s no such thing in our entire research that shows its origin in India. 

Having shot in Hyderabad, Chennai and Calcutta, what’s the most interesting story you discovered?

There’s this story about Haleem in Hyderabad. There were a lot of Arab settlers in Hyderabad, now Telangana and even in Barkas. If you trace it back, Haleem actually comes from an Arabic dish called Harees, which was basically boiled meat and wheat, and it came to India with the soldiers who were used as personal bodyguards by one of the Nawabs of Hyderabad, and before that, the Yemeni guards of the king of Vijaynagar, who set up base at Barkas. The original Harees was a little sweet and when their families settled there, they started using Indian spices. It changed to modern-day Haleem and the sweetness evolved into spiciness. Now, imagine meat with sweet! 

What has the curry evolved into?

I think it has become more of a dish of convenience for us and there is a standard taste that we want in a specific region, irrespective of whether it’s right or wrong. It has also gone to the next level where you go to the market and buy a packet, open it and put it in the microwave and the curry is ready in five minutes. Even food influencers have come up with titles such as ‘Curry in Minutes’. Technically, a curry is always about slow-cooking, ingredients, and even a combination of Ayurveda and Satwik techniques. So it has been a huge evolution. Now, it’s more about filling your tummy and cooks are more than eager to tailor-make it to the regions and the flavours in demand. Food is always evolving! 

What about Western influences?

Huge influence! Look at any average individual in the world, especially in India — food, eating out or eating at home, is a very global experience. It wasn’t the case when, say, I was young. My parents didn’t know what pasta or Thai food was. When I told my six-year-old son that pasta is not Indian food, he didn’t believe me! He likes his pasta in white sauce and mom, papa and dadi, all make it at home. So for him, it’s very Indian.  

What is the dominant food trend this year?

India is going through a phase and I think there is a lot of confusion. There are a lot of people looking for healthy food and a lot of healthier options and that is the trend that everybody says is on now. But when I look at the menu of what has sold the highest, it’s still samosa or French fries or dishes with cheese. So I think we are in a very confused state. 
People want to talk about health but are not ending up ordering healthy all the time. At the same time, I see a huge trend of local food going global where traditional home-cooked things such as a tadka or even a pickle sees a facelift in a swanky restaurant. More and more traditional Indian recipes and flavours are coming to the forefront with help from chefs and home chefs alike by putting it out on their social media platforms, leading to research, which is brilliant. There’s never been so much research and documentation on food. 

What do you think about the new social media trends and hashtags such as #foodporn and #foodgasm?

Social media is all about excitement and there is a group — a small group — who create very meaningful content. Food bloggers have, over the past few years, contributed a lot in terms of putting out food trends, cooking techniques, availability, reviews, research and it has helped everyone be a little more educated about what to eat, how to eat and where to eat. The popular hashtags, they’re like a trend. After a while, these will die out and new words will come, so you gotta flow with the time. #Foodporn and #Foodgasm? Okay! I won’t come in the way of ‘porn’ and their ‘gasms’! (Laughs)

What’s new in your kitchen? Are you following any new trends?

I am researching a lot on salt. There are various varieties within and outside India. Salt is something that even if you use the most expensive ingredient, if you don’t use salt, the dish is a fail. I am researching how the different varieties are different, their sources and their effect on food and I am planning to do something with that soon. 

You have had a long day of shoot in Calcutta. What would you want on your plate at the end of the day?

Right now, I am thinking Asian food at Vintage Asia! I like their selection of dim sums and tonight, my dinner will comprise only dim sums and chicken and prawn are my favourite stuffings!

ON HIS LIST

Favourite curry:

Picking one is a punishment but rajma-chawal is my comfort food. There are a few things that I don’t meddle with. I have grown up eating it made by mom and it’s still her job to make it and I don’t mess with it.

Flavours you are inclined to: 

I like to work with chocolate. I love garlic, love to work with butter, cheese and seafood a lot. I think I have a good hand at cooking vegetarian food as well. 

Fave veg and non-veg ingredients:

Aloos are very versatile — they don’t have character and because of their dheeley character, they blend in wherever I put them. I like Chilean sea bass and lamb in non-veg.

Favourite ingredient in a mocktail: 

I like lemon and mint as I like my mocktails very fresh, especially in summer.

Fave ingredient in a dessert: 

Cinnamon. 

Fave ingredients in your tea:

Jasmine and vanilla. 

Fave restaurant:

Sanadige (South Indian restaurant), Amour (Italian) and China Kitchen (Chinese) — all in Delhi. 

Fave dish to cook with your son:

Eggs and pasta. The last thing he made was bhelpuri.

Fun ingredient you like experimenting with: 

Lichen or pathar ke phool.