A Taste of the Himalayas
Lake Isle Press Interns Brianne Mirecki (left) and Meagan Goldman (right) with Chef Vikas Khanna in the spice room of Vikas' NYC restaurant, Junoon.
When I first met Vikas Khanna, I was prepared to be intimidated by a movie star persona and the radiant glow that I imagine surrounds famous people. As a college sophomore interning at Lake Isle Press, I was more than a little awed that I was going to be working with a food-world star.
But when he shook my hand and smiled, then started chatting with Hiroko and Jenn (the Lake Isle Press team), some of my fears dissipated. He was friendly, and the smile was real, and, well, he was a normal person. At least, more normal than I imagined someone would be with all those likes and comments on his Facebook page and the casual ability to tag the Dalai Lama in posts.
Throughout lunch and the morning we spent with him the next day at his restaurant Junoon, Vikas continued to surprise me not only by his genuinely kind, unassuming nature, but also by his fervent passion for life. Over lunch, he told us how he spent three days on a spice farm in India, searching for the poetry of nature and a way to express it.
He told us excitedly about the miracle of the black pepper flower’s pollination: “On the first day it blooms, the flower cannot be fertilized. On the second day, another flower opens above the first, like this, and the first one can get fertilized. But only if a single drop of water takes the pollen from the second flower down onto the first flower. So it has to rain on the second day of the flower, and also on the second day of the next flower, and the next. But it can’t rain too much, otherwise the pollen will get washed away.
“This is why it’s so hard to grow black pepper. It can only grow in a place where it rains once every day. And the leaves of the plant? They are shaped like umbrellas to pour the water into the flowers. Oh my god, the beauty! This is poetry to me.”
Vikas told us many stories – he is a wonderful storyteller – and that is what he does in his cookbooks, including his newest, Return to the Rivers. This book documents the culture and food of the Himalayas, a region close to Vikas’ heart. As he explains in the preface, he grew up relatively near the Himalayas and always dreamt of going to them. He first climbed into the area at age 14, with his grandfather, and has returned many times for nearly thirty years.
The recipes and their corresponding anecdotes and photos contain Vikas’ passion for life, humanity, and preserving traditions. The recipes are as varied as they are mouthwatering: recipes for street food like fried ginger eggplant, meat dishes like Tibetan spicy chicken meatballs, fish dishes like lhasa fried red snapper, and every kind of noodle and sauce, to name a few. The vibrant photos, which Vikas took on his travels, beautifully document the region and its food.
Next time I grind pepper onto a salad, I’ll think of Vikas’ story and the miracle of black pepper flower fertilization. His cookbook accomplishes the same task, turning food into stories, letting readers experience life at the top of the world, and all its smells and tastes.
Meagan Goldman is a food-lover and aspiring writer. You can follow her at www.meaganbakerwriting.blogspot.com