For an award-winning chef, Vineet Bhatia has no qualms admitting that his wife manages to stump him in the kitchen at times. Seated next to him, Rashima Bhatia, his partner in business and life, cracks up in mirth and adds that the master chef eventually comes up trumps. This one-upmanship is on show on Twist of Taste with Vineet Bhatia, a new travel and food show on Fox History and Traveller, which traces the couple’s journey through 13 Indian cities in their quest to answer that most basic and most confounding question: What is Indian cuisine?
For Bhatia, one of the earliest “reinterpreters”—to borrow a word from the chef—of traditional Indian food, it’s a pilgrimage of sorts. The chef grew up in Mumbai and began his career at The Oberoi there, but it was London where he came into his own—modernizing the cuisine and earning for it a respectability that the curry houses couldn’t. Zaika, a restaurant he co-owned before he left it in 2005, earned him and Indian cuisine their first Michelin star. He repeated the success with his Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in Chelsea in 2005 and Rasoi by Vineet in Geneva in 2009. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Chef’s special:Rashima and Vineet Bhatia on Twist of Taste with Vineet Bhatia.
Tell us about the show.
Twist of Taste is a 13-part series. We travel to Amritsar, Jodhpur, Delhi, Kullu, Mumbai, Goa, Hyderabad, Chennai, Cochin (Kochi), Bhubaneswar, Puri, Kolkata and Guwahati—taking in the sights, the history, culture and shopping. We also eat all we can. As a challenge I’ve to come up with an innovative dish featuring a mystery ingredient Rashima gets. In Delhi, we were shooting in Khari Baoli and Rashima spotted phool makhana (lotus pods). She didn’t know what they were, so I explained it’s something that was used in gravies or popped like popcorns. It’s passé, I told her. That turned out to be the secret ingredient!
I had to come up with something quickly, so I made rabri. Later, I learnt it is actually a rustic dish from Punjab. They make kheer out of it. It has been one fun education. In Jodhpur, we had this gulab jamun ki sabzi. It sounds weird, but it was delicious.
There have been India-centred food/travel shows. What Vineet Bhatia touch will this have?
As the name says, it’s a twist of taste. As restaurateurs, we try to redefine Indian cuisine. We don’t want to teach you how to make a maa ki dal. We want to show you how even simple comfort food can be elevated to a fine-dining experience. Probably make it into a sauce, or purée it as the base for another dish. In the show, we make a kofta out of it.
Why Kullu? It’s an odd choice as a culinary destination.Why not Kullu? We wanted to see what the cuisine was like beyond the known centres. Plus, this is a travel show. As for cooking, you cannot go to any place with a set idea. You’ve to go to the markets and see what’s available. So I’m really looking forward to Kullu—it has good fish. The trouts are fantastic. I’ve heard that the locals make a chutney out of bhang. I’ve never tried bhang, so I definitely want to use that in something.
How do you react to criticism that your food is not authentic Indian, but a “Frenchified” version of the cuisine?
The food I cook is Indian. It’s all rooted in classic Indian khana. The techniques I use are all Indian. If someone tells me it’s not Indian enough, I ask them, what is Indian? The biryani, the korma, the naan—all came from outside India. Spices are the only truly Indian component. The blends of spices, and the combinations they are used in.
I plate food to make it more visually appealing, to enhance the sensory pleasures of eating. My food looks different, yes, but so long as the flavour profile is Indian, I’m happy. If you close your eyes and eat and if it tastes like what you know to be Indian food, then it is Indian. It doesn’t matter whether it’s served in a katori (bowl) or a plate.
You returned last year to Mumbai with Azok and Ziya. Do you have any plans to set up in Delhi?
I’d love to come to Delhi. My first restaurant in India was in Delhi. It was in 2001, in New Friends Colony. It ran only for nine months. It was way ahead of its time conceptually. But what I see in Delhi these days is that it has really opened up. From being a conservative city, the culinary scene has really exploded. Shooting the Delhi episode was an eye-opener. It will surprise even lifelong Delhiites.
Twist of Taste with Vineet Bhatia airs on Fox History and Traveller every Sunday at 9pm.