Indian-born celebrity chef Vikas Khanna is no stranger to fame. Ever since he appeared on our screens as the host of Masterchef India, he has charmed audiences with his endearing personality and child-like innocence. Not only does the global sensation whip up the finest delicacies with such finesse — he’s also a celebrated author, restaurateur, filmmaker and humanitarian.
Continuing his streak for experimentation, Vikas has joined hands with India’s first ‘phygital’ platform, Akshaya.io, to launch his 38th book Sacred Foods of India as a non-fungible token or NFT. The magnum opus comprises a collection of recipes that find a pride of place in the kitchens of various holy places in India. The collectible is available in both the physical and NFT formats, and its first unit was purchased by Sanjeh Raja for a whopping USD 50,000.
On the sidelines of the big bang launch event in Dubai, Zee Zest caught up with Vikas for a candid chat to spill the beans on everything about his book, his decision to collaborate with Akshaya.io, and how it is critical for artists to embrace the digital revolution to stay relevant today.
He was joined by Ganesh Raju, chief executive officer of Akshaya.io — the country’s first-ever platform that brings Metaverse, NFT, and Digital Twin together, to enable users to claim ownership of physical and digital assets with certified proof of authenticity.
Here are some excerpts from the chat:
1. What is your motivation behind writing the Sacred Foods of India?
Vikas: I think the idea to write this book originated from my documentary series Holy Kitchens, where I brought faith and food together. That was in 2008, and two years later, when the Wisconsin Gurudwara shooting happened, people had aggression within them and wanted to know who the Sikhs were. It was during this time that many watched this documentary and started visiting gurudwaras to understand the community better, and how it is built around the idea of true service.
That’s also when we realised that this can be a whole series. It’s not just in gurudwaras, but also in temples, synagogues, Mother Teresa's kitchen, or even dargahs. India is the only country in the world, where there exists a belief that to serve God is to serve the people. This is what became the foundation of Sacred Foods of India. I also believe that these dishes have such an intrinsic connection with our culture: we are increasingly becoming a western-inspired society and it is important to hold the values of our generation as a thread between the past and the future.
2. How did you recreate these recipes? Were there any challenges that you faced?
Vikas: I have a disclaimer in the book, which says that we cannot replicate those recipes; no one can. It is a true work of heart. While I was born in Amritsar, my education was entirely down south, so I have a very rare DNA (laughs). That’s where my entire idea of cooking evolved, especially when I was living in Udupi. I was put up in a community hostel and although people made fun of that, it turned out to be my biggest learning — it is here that I delved deep into the local cuisine. Even in the book, we have mentioned how these communities made me feel welcomed in a city where I couldn’t even speak their language.
When we speak about the recipes in the book, we have to also understand that there was use of cell phone cameras (sometimes, discreetly). Even when these holy kitchens share recipes, they say ‘use a pinch of this and that..’; and if you tell them ‘beeji, you have to tell me how long it takes’, they are quick to say, they don’t know, because that’s how they work.
I think I have also been using my intuition for the longest time. But let’s face it – with cameras and phones, it is dying; it’s all become mechanical. Our sixth sense is diminishing, because we don't remember things, so cameras helped us to document details, especially in the case of no measurements. Replicating these recipes is not possible; it is a language between them and God, but we have tried to strike a balance in our own way.
3. While it may not be easy to pick, what's the dish that’s closest to your heart in this book?
Vikas: I had promised my father that I would take him to Ajmer Sharif, but by the time we could go, he left us physically. I took my mother there and they were making zarda. They have been doing this for centuries, so it’s not a big deal for them, par hum bachon jaise kha rahe they. I think that recipe in the book really broke my heart — it’s as simple as meethe chawal, but it was the moment that moved us. I believe that food has the power to heal, and the zarda that we had in Ajmer Sharif healed us.
4. Have you made conscious efforts to take India’s culinary heritage to the global space ?
Vikas: I was a very typical chef, who would live my life paycheck to paycheck. My sister would push me and constantly remind me that I was in New York, and had the power to change definitions. She once told me to stop being in the USD 500/week mindspace and explore my potential to the fullest; something that cannot be measured in money.
I also realised that there were people who were constantly degrading Indian food and I would try to convince them that I come from the oldest living cuisine on the planet. Yes, modernization is important for winning Michelin stars, but the core of this whole movement is that you need to find a way to combine culture and cooking. Otherwise, you're just one of those chefs, putting out almost the same recipes.
I have been in a position where I have been the only brown guy in most of the big rooms or covers or kitchens; I think God kept reminding me that my mission is much bigger than just running a restaurant.
5. How did you and Vikas decide to collaborate with each other?
Ganesh: India is celebrating 75 years of independence, and it is a proud moment for Indians all over the world. What can touch people more than food? You have to see this book; it’s a masterpiece. We are so proud and humbled to partner with Vikas. We believe it is not only a book, but a collectible. It's something you want to keep in your living room for life, so that the future generations can learn about the country’s rich culinary heritage and culture.
6. Do you believe the launch of India’s first phygital book will pave the path for others to follow suit?
Ganesh: When people hear about NFTs, they immediately relate to the digital version. A lot of people question the value behind it. I would say Vikas’s book is a real collector’s item that can be held on; this is what we call phygital. It is a real physical asset and we will keep the NFT along with it and store it in the blockchain. You get a certificate that validates that you are the real owner of this masterpiece, released by Vikas Khanna.
7. Do you believe making inroads into the digital space and metaverse is the future for chefs?
Vikas: Yes, this is the future. Someone had to create this dent, since there’s a huge market out there and chefs have to be prepared for a revolution of this scale. A popular chef in India once asked me how I always turn out to be the first one taking all these risks? I would say it’s not just a risk; everything you do opens many doors. Minister Piyush Goyal had once said that we have to view chefs as ambassadors of trade; so, we shouldn’t limit ourselves. I believe everybody's now looking at digital content and owning it in a way that it becomes an asset.
8. Is there anything exciting in this space that you are planning in the future?
Vikas: You cannot imagine how many ideas these guys have. I believe we have to make sure that the content is worthy of people holding it for decades. It is all about longevity in the end, and in this case, it’s both physical and digital. This is a whole different universe and I am totally committed to it. When I give my heart, I give it my all. I believe artists will have to trust people in the technology world; those who have had years of experience, even before the digital revolution came to light.