Check into today’s Free Range chat at noon, and you could win an autographed copy of “How to Cook Indian,” the latest cookbook from the best-known chef in the world: Sanjeev Kapoor. The 46-year-old Indian chef can lay claim to a true food empire, including an audience of 500 million, 140 cookbooks, 22 restaurants, dozens of cooking shows and a new 24/7 food channel.
In addition to cooking a quick dish with me in the kitchen at Indique Heights last week, the chef took time to answer a few questions and offer a few cooking tips:
You’ve been called the “Rachael Ray of India.” Are you comfortable with that?
Frankly, I find it a bit puzzling. But she’s lovely. I’ve met her a few times, and have been on her show. I guess she and I both do easy food.
You saw a need for this book in America?
Yes, I made a few trips here. I scanned the market and didn’t find one that had it all: traditional recipes with relative ease. I want Indian food to sit at the top of the world’s cuisines.
And the cookbook has several Washington connections, right?
My friend, and former boss, Vinod, introduced me to [food writer] Monica Bhide about five years ago. She was quite helpful in advising us about what would and wouldn’t work here with regard to ingredients and such. I told her I didn’t want to tone down the Indian-ness of these recipes. The result is a book that is progressive yet authentic, I think.
When did you work for chef Vinod?
About 25 years ago. I had just gotten out of catering school in Delhi and came to the Ashok hotel group. We cooked for thousands of people, for weddings and conferences. He was amazing, intelligent and caring – at a time when chefs weren’t sharing information with each other, he did so.
Indian chefs are used to cooking for multitudes. What’s the biggest crowd you’ve ever cooked for?
For Festival of India celebrations. In Moscow in 1989, I had a team of 100 chefs. We fed 160,000 people each day, a whole meal, for three days straight. After that, there’s really no number that bothers me.
What do you look for in a young chef, for your restaurants?
I give him an onion and see how he chops it up. Then I ask him to fry an egg.
I’m not sure you have any of this, but what do you do in your spare time?
I play the drums. A big kit with Zildjan cymbals. I had a band 25 years ago, but as you know, it’s a little difficult to play them on your own.
And tips from chef Kapoor:
* Indian chefs often keep a pot of simmering water nearby; adding spoonfuls to a curry or sauce is an easy way to adjust the mixture’s texture and temperature.
* Taste a tamarind concentrate before you add it to the pot. It may be flat or sharp. Then you can adjust by adding water or coconut milk.
* Modulate the heat in a dish that calls for fresh chili pepper by mixing red with a little green. Indian markets offer a lot of both.
* Indians love to cook with red onion. The ones we have in India are smaller than ones I’ve seen in the States, so keep that in mind when you read some Indian cookbooks. And the longer you cook the red ones, the sweeter they become.
* Keep pieces of fresh ginger submerged in a mixture of lime juice and salt. They can be refrigerated for weeks.
* Curry leaves last longer — about six months — when they are sun-dried than when they are dehydrated.
* The best way to have fresh kaffir lime leaves on hand is to keep your own plant.