Q & A: Sanjeev Kapoor, India's chef to millions

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor's books have sold an estimated 10 million copies, and his Web site gets about 25 million hits a month.
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor's books have sold an estimated 10 million copies, and his Web site gets about 25 million hits a month. (Khana Khazana)
By Monica Bhide
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor has been called "the Rachael Ray of India," but by Ray's own admission, he has a bigger audience, has published more books (more than three dozen at last count), been on TV longer, starred in more shows and sold more products.

Not bad for someone who wanted to be an engineer before a friend persuaded him to go into cooking. The Punjab-born chef's career started to take off in 1993, when he was working at the Centaur Hotel in Mumbai and was invited to host a cooking show on the fledgling satellite channel Zee TV. "Nothing like that had ever been done in India before," says Kapoor, noting that the nation had just one TV channel before Zee began. "I had no idea what was expected of me."

His gamble paid off. Seventeen years later, "Khana Khazana" ("Food Treasure") has become the longest-running show of any kind in Asia, according to Kapoor, reaching more than 120 countries and more than 500 million viewers. His books have sold an estimated 10 million copies. His Web site, Sanjeevkapoor.com, gets about 25 million hits a month. He owns more than a dozen restaurants. He's launching a new magazine, a new spice line, products galore. Of course he has an iPhone app.

The biggest project so far will happen this year, when Kapoor launches a TV network of his own, India's first devoted to food, with more than 40 shows, some original and some licensed. Other Indian celebrities and food media personalities will be hosts, and Kapoor will star in an Emeril-style show in which he will cook in front of a live audience. (He even sings the theme song for it.) He anticipates more than 100 million viewers and billions of rupees in advertising revenue, staggering figures that analysts later told me are on the conservative side.

I spoke with Kapoor, 47, in his luxe new Mumbai office, where a staff of 40 worked in the background and Kapoor juggled the phone, his laptop and his BlackBerry while we talked. Excerpts from our conversation follow.

Q. How did that first show develop?

A. As a group, I think, we had little idea about who would be watching the show, what kind of recipes they would want, what kind of responses we would get. There was constant debate whether the host should be a woman. After all, one of the TV folks reasoned, cooking is a woman's job!

I decided to cook for the person who wants to prepare a meal without too much fuss, slightly aspirational but with a slight twist. I made a cheese-stuffed spinach dumpling. At the end of the show, someone asked me the name of the dish. I didn't have one, so I asked people to write in and suggest a name. That request resulted in thousands of letters. The episode ran for five weeks in a row, and the letters kept pouring in.

How has the Indian food scene changed since then?

There are new ingredients, better availability of exotic ingredients, and the Indian palate is much more globally aware and educated. A few years ago I would have cooked a simple Thai curry for my audience and told them to use lemon grass, which was hard to find. Today, if I cook the Thai curry, I am so happy to tell them what kind of lime leaf they should use and how to tell if galangal is fresh.

Is the audience demanding something new, too?

People are starting to really care about what they eat, and I try to provide my audience with the information they need to make better choices. Another big change happening in India is that there is more awareness by Indians of their own different regional cuisines. North Indian food is not only tandoori chicken, and South Indian food is more than dosas.

At times you have been criticized for not being enough of a chef and being too much of a "common man." What do you say to that?

I am here to teach people about food. I can make a mean roomali roti [a thin whole-wheat flatbread]. Those are really hard to make. But why would I show that off on TV? Most home cooks really don't want to know how to make that.

I have worked in hotel kitchens for many years. The skill set required there is very different. However, since I started my show "Khana Khazana" on television, things became very different for me. For my first episode, as I mentioned to you earlier, I made two dishes. One was simple yet unique, Shaam Savera [spinach and cottage cheese dumplings in tomato honey gravy], and the other was chicken breast stuffed with saffron cream cheese, flambeed with orange liqueur, complex and difficult to cook at home. Viewers remember Shaam Savera even after 17 years. Do I need to say more?

Whom do you look up to and admire? Who are your cooking idols?

My biggest inspiration would definitely be my father, who is no more. He was a great cook. He was a banker by profession, but cooking was his hobby. He gave me the initial boost to try out new combinations. My mother cooks vegetarian food, and her style is simple yet distinct. Otherwise, anybody and everybody is source of learning for me. A roadside food vendor may excite me as much with his food as a Michelin-starred chef.

Do your daughters enjoy cooking?

They enjoy cooking, but I cannot say if they would take it as a profession. Too early to say. They are still very young.

So who cooks in your house, say, on a Monday night?

If you had asked about Saturday or Sunday, it would have been easier. I normally cook on weekends. Monday night? Hmmm . . . the maid cooks!

Recipes

Tomato and Orange Shorba (Tomato and Orange Soup)

Saunfia Paneer Tikka (Fennel and Cheese Kebabs)

Shrimp Balchao (Goan Pickled Shrimp)


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