Kiran Jethwa: One for the country roads

Chef and restaurateur Kiran Jethwa maps Indian cuisines and culture through its beverages for a new Fox Life show


Kiran Jethwa drinking milk at an ‘akhada’ in Varanasi. Photographs courtesy Fox Life
Kiran Jethwa drinking milk at an ‘akhada’ in Varanasi. Photographs courtesy Fox Life

Kiran Jethwa, a Kenyan chef, restaurateur and TV show presenter, looks smaller than he does on the screen. “There are so many cameras from so many angles, they add quite a few pounds,” Jethwa quips. He was in India last month for a 30-day tour of the country to shoot his latest show, Spirited Traveller, which will premiere on Fox Life on 20 March.

We meet in a south Delhi restaurant where Jethwa, 40, is shooting the final episode of the show. He is making Fried Whisky Ice Cream—chocolate ice cream flavoured with whisky, oranges and pistachio, coated in jalebi batter, deep-fried and served with sugar syrup. “I was told that people in Delhi love their fried food and whisky. So here’s my tribute to that spirit,” says Jethwa.

Shooting the fried ice cream episode seems to have exhausted Jethwa. The team is running late by more than 2 hours and he has to cancel shooting in Chandni Chowk. “The cooking sequences are always a big challenge,” Jethwa says. “You never have the equipment that you need and doing it for the cameras, the takes and the retakes, it is always difficult. What you make is dictated 100% by the kind of ingredients and equipment you get on any given day.”

Jethwa, born in Kenya to an English mother and a Gujarati father, says both his parents are great cooks. He started cooking when he was just 5 and was introduced to professional kitchens at around 18. “I loved the energy and the intensity. You can either succumb or thrive in that environment. Thankfully, I survived,” he says.

In this interview, he speaks about the series and his experiences in India. Edited excerpts:

Describe some of the unique drinks you came across while shooting for ‘Spirited Traveller’.

It’s been quite a whirlwind tour but each place has thrown up something interesting that I didn’t know before. There were coffee and fruit wines in Coorg; one woman said she made some 15 different kinds of fruit wines. One of them, made from hot peppers, was called chilli wine. In Mumbai, there was sol kadi. In Bengaluru, I saw people making a drink from ragi, which was more like porridge, a very popular breakfast, I was told.

But three places and three drinks stood out from the trip: Nagaland, Sikkim and Varanasi.

In Nagaland, they make a rice beer called chang. The brewing process is unique. The yeast they use is harvested from the forest. Apparently, no one knows how to make that yeast; it is a guarded secret.

In Sikkim, I had a finger-millet wine called chichauk. Again, a local brew that takes a long time to make and that people drink from long bamboo glasses. That was probably one of my favourite drinks.

In Varanasi, we tried the thandai. The local thandai expert flavoured it with orange and then added bhaang to it. I was quite nervous drinking it because you hear horror stories of people passing out. But what was really fascinating about this thandai was that it was very peppery before bhaang was added to it. The addition of bhaang totally subdued the pepper.

Kiran Jethwa toddy-tapping in Kochi.
Kiran Jethwa toddy-tapping in Kochi.

One drink that intimidated you?

I think the thandai would be the one, because of the bhaang. I was surprised to see that bhaang was actually allowed. I think a lot of people, including members of the crew, thought thandai was made from milk. But there was no milk in it. The thandai was made from almond milk and flavoured with cardamom, pepper, pistachios, saffron and oranges.

What was the most challenging part of the series?

The schedule (laughs). Moving every one-and-a-half days, that was challenging, but that was so for the entire team. Personally, it was a challenge to create dishes like I have done on this trip; 90% of them have never been created before. You have to understand that it is not merely a cooking show. This show is based around the drinks across the country and the dishes they inspire, the stories they tell. It is like the fried ice cream that I made here today. Nobody has done that using jalebi batter and whisky. And it will probably not be done again.

Another dish, for example, that I did in Delhi was inspired by kanji, sarson ka saag and parathas from Parathewali Gali in Chandni Chowk. I had never seen black carrots before. So I made a kanji soup. I took paratha dough from Chandni Chowk and stuffed it with sarson ka saag to make a large dumpling and deep-fried it. That’s the kind of dish that sums up Delhi and I don’t think anyone would have tried it before.

You take ingredients from the places you visit and use them in your kitchens. What are you taking away from India?

A lot actually, probably more than I have taken from anywhere else. As it is, the food in my restaurants is Indo-Mediterranean fusion, so I deconstruct Indian food and then reconstruct it in a simpler way, taking only key elements of flavour. There are cooking techniques that I have learnt here this time, a lot of new flavours as well. The wrapping of food in banana leaves before cooking, for example. Very simple but not done enough. Flavour-wise, the use of mustard seeds in Bengal is one example that comes to mind immediately.

Kiran Jethwa drinking ‘zutho’ in Nagaland.
Kiran Jethwa drinking ‘zutho’ in Nagaland.

What is the need for a food/drink show about India?

Well, the concept came from Fox. When they approached me, it was really a no-brainer. Not only because the drinks sounded fascinating but also because it gave me a chance to travel through India, where I think I have spent less time than I should have, considering it is the land of my ancestors. But in the 30 days I have spent here, I think I have seen more of India than many people would in their lifetime.

Tell us about some of the most memorable experiences from your shows.

It is always fun to meet new people and learn new things and all the three shows have given me that opportunity. If I had to pick one experience each from them all...from Tales From The Bush Larder, I would pick the episode we did in Zambia. They had these forests full of wild mushrooms. There were like 15 different kinds of just the edible ones. We collected all those mushrooms and made a nice dish with them.

In Fearless Chef, there was one episode we filmed in Mozambique in which we dived in shark-infested waters to hunt dogtooth tuna. My favourite from this series would be Varanasi. When I got there, I was feeling like, where have the Fox people brought me, what is going on here? You get into the city, which is filthy, chaotic, crowded—it was just a sensory overload. But at the same time it is fascinating, and it is not so much about the food as it is about the experience. The fact that death is so much in your face, it is very powerful. I think in most parts of the world, we isolate, even sanitize, death. And then you see it in Varanasi in almost a medieval way, embraced and almost celebrated...it is fascinating. And then there is an array of fantastic food. The chaat there is just out of the world. The street food scene is buzzing.

The most difficult of all the shows and episodes would be the one we did in western Mongolia. It was minus 40 degrees, and I was with the Kazakh eagle hunters, on a quest for wild rabbit, on horseback. Working in those horrendous circumstances for over 12 hours, it was just an incredible experience.

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