Chef Kunal Kapur on how the fragrances of Bhutan will remain with him forever
Kunal Kapur’s trip to Bhutan has introduced him to unique tastes and kitchen practices, and the successful chef, recently out with his debut cookbook “A Chef in Every Home”, is all set to experiment and introduce new flavours into his growing repertoire. Excerpts from an interview:
You’ve just returned from an extended stay in Bhutan, following your book’s launch at the Mountain Echoes Literature Festival… Tell us a little about that?
Before Mountain Echoes, I had never thought about visiting Bhutan. When they told me Bhutan, I thought, okay, maybe, it’s a place further East of India. But I Googled and found out that it’s between China and India. I had no clue about Bhutan as a place and thought it would have major cultural influences from China and India. But when I got there, it was a drastic change. Even food-wise, I had thought the cuisine would be more like Chinese-Indian food. But I discovered a completely different cuisine. While Bhutan isn’t a developed nation, it is at once very humble and the people also take a lot of pride in being who they are. Wherever you go, there is a sense of art, colour and structure. I visited the Queen mother’s palace for a dinner hosted there, and I found the house and its walls looked similar to houses outside. It wasn’t flashy, but colourful and hand painted in that unique style that follows throughout Bhutan.
How does the discovery of a country and its culture convert into the language of food?
Bhutan’s cuisine is unique and very different from Indian or Chinese food. I discovered that they love chillies, and have a lot of variety of chilli. Almost every dish that you order has chillies. Whether fresh, dried, powered, whole, or flakes, it’s there in some form. There is a dish called Ema Datshi, it is basically chilli with cheese. They use a fresh green chilli variety, and it is cooked in water and cheese. It was like, you were literally having a plate of chilli, with no other vegetable on the plate. I thought that was quite a bold thing to have. Ema Datshi is also very popular, it is what butter chicken is to North Indian cuisine. Another interesting part of Bhutanese food is that they make a lot of cheese at home. Cow and yak cheese are very popular, and in the month that they prepare yak cheese, they tie it up with threads and hang it on their porch so that it dries and becomes hard. They use this throughout the year. They also smoke their cheese, and this you find in shops across Bhutan. I went to the vegetable market and also found the best quality of asparagus growing in Bhutan. And while it is not cheap, it isn’t as expensive as in India. You also find fiddlehead fern, again a great tasting vegetable. Another experience that was interesting was visiting a humble household in Bhutan, where I had the opportunity to be in the kitchen and learn a dish or two from the ladies of the house. What I saw was that in an adjacent room, there were rods on the ceiling from which hung long strips of pork and beef. What they do is they dry and keep this meat to use in the harsh winter seasons.
The food is not fancy, there is a lot of cheese and yak and pork meat used, and it is delicious. They make their own wine, a rice wine. It’s sweet tasting; the closest thing I can compare it to is fresh toddy.
Tell us a little about the idea of travel influencing and shaping your food and style of cooking?
I feel the biggest investment a chef can make is to travel. I don’t feel it is an expense; it’s an investment that helps you learn and grow. It is an inherent thing with every human being, discovering and finding new things. There is no more fun in what has already been done. Anything new and unknown excites me. It was with this intent that I went to Bhutan.
The idea of continuing to discover new cuisines instils confidence in me and whatever I am discovering and doing becomes good information for people who can access it through my social media, cookbooks and conversations like this one. It definitely shapes my cooking. I think there is a world beyond daal makhani and butter chicken. Chefs’ minds work in small little sparks of experiences a particular dish had on them. When I think of Bhutan, I think of chilli the way it was used in their food. I’ll remember the smell of the dried pork and how it had become fragrant and mild when added to the rice. You take on those experiences and experiment with them. Most experiments don’t work. But those one or two which click become part of your repertoire, and make your cooking special and different.