Aditya Bal is a cook show host and author of The Chak Le India Cookbook that hand-holds you through the country's cuisine heritage
It’s not just braising and basting. Aditya Bal also wants you to learn how to ‘bhunao’ and ‘bhaghar’. This is what sets his first book, The Chak Le India Cookbook apart from the rest of the food glossies. At a time when most writers are industriously abbreviating cooking instructions and ingredients to appeal to the ‘I want dinner in 15 minutes’ market, and a number of Indian recipe-books are tailored for Western/ NRI audiences, Aditya’s sticking to an old school format. Detailed instructions, intricate multi-spice masalas and unhurried cooking techniques.
“Do you think it looks complicated?” he asks, sounding faintly worried on the phone from Bangalore. To be honest, at first glance, it can be daunting for amateur cooks and the curry-in-a-hurry brigade. But then, reading through the recipes carefully, you realise that you’re being hand-held through the process, with every stage meticulously explained, which ironically means it’s easier than many ‘quick recipes’ that assume you’re already familiar with the basics. After all, Aditya knows how to build a cooking repertoire from nothing. That’s how he learnt his way around the kitchen.
His love affair with food began as a child in Kashmir, when he would share stringy goat cheese lunches with the shepherds of Gulmarg. Later, a successful model in Mumbai, he yearned to escape the spotlight and get behind an apron. He finally took the plunge, moving to Goa, where he worked his way through restaurants learning Goan, Italian and French cooking. However, back in Mumbai, he realised that professional kitchens weren’t particularly sympathetic to self-taught cooks. So he did a screen test for NDTV Good Times – and has been anchoring their Chak Le India food show for almost four years now. This book is a collection of the recipes he learnt along the way.
“At first we explored mainstream places and famous restaurants. Big cities, where we would eat at the famous, old, well-known places,” he says, talking of how they eventually started moving into the interiors of India to discover recipes that never make it to the metros. “We realised that cities aren’t the best windows to regional food — their food is commercialised. So we started to travel down the West coast, the Konkan coast, the Malabar coast. Now we’re at a stage where we just point in one direction and drive — we don’t know where or what we’re shooting till we get there.”
Aditya says the show’s possible because of the people they’ve met along the way. “Kind, generous people who help us out at every stage. At Bannikuppe village in the Mysore-Coorg belt, we started at the local market, and found Sichuan pepper corns, chilli oil and fermented soya beans. This was because of a Tibetan settlement there, but it was so unexpected to be eating a meal of noodles with spicy chilli peppers in the middle of a completely different culture.”
The format involves Aditya learning an authentic local recipe from each place he visits, and then cooking his own interpretation of the dish. Fans started recreating the dishes at home, and then writing to him to say how well they turned out. “So, they’ve been tested,” he says, “I have got a fair amount of feedback. I’m hoping people use this book as a guide.”
That’s why, he states, he’s written it this way. “I write recipes in detail so you can picturise the entire cooking process. Indian recipes — if written properly — are going to turn out long, because our food involves more than just a three- ingredient white sauce. My intention is to demystify these recipes. I’ve broken them into different components, because that’s how I approach cooking.”
He explains that truly understanding the building blocks is what finally liberates you from slavishly following recipes. “If you can understand how to put together a dish from tempering, to basic ingredients, to the medium of gravy you’re using, you’re freed from the recipe.”