We all know of the celebrated Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi of the ‘Turban Tadka’ fame who has become a household name among Indian food lovers today. But little did we know of this simplistic, jovial, down-to-earth person that he once harboured the dream of becoming a fighter pilot. However as luck would have it, he ended up into this profession by fluke and was even ready to give it up if it did not interest him. That he was destined to be a chef could not be changed and before late he realized that this was where his true calling was. And today we have him as one of the finest chefs of India ruling everyone’s heart with ‘namak shamak’ and spreading joy and happiness.
We got a chance to meet up with Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi and talk to him about many aspects of his life and this is what he has got to say – (And true to his words, he also shared a very interesting recipe with us which we are sharing at the end of his interview for our readers to try it at home)
How did the thought of becoming a chef come to you? Which profession would you have chosen had you not become a chef?
It was in the year 1984 when i was preparing for my engineering entrance exams when my elder brother suggested me to try out Hotel Management as he believed that hospitality sector would grow. He arranged for the forms, filled it up and I gave the exam, got selected and chose Bhubaneswar IHM. We had decided that if I do not like the course, I would come back within three months only. However I somehow developed a liking for this profession and thought that this is what I am supposed to pursue and become a Chef. I never looked back ever since then and continued to spread happiness with my skills.
Yes my first preference and liking was to become a fighter pilot. If I had not pursued Hotel Management, I wouldn’t have opted for engineering; rather I would have gone into becoming a pilot and joined the armed forces.
Where did you learn to cook? What is the first dish you had prepared as a chef?
I never really learned to cook during my early days. However I would sit beside my mother in the kitchen and watch her cook and at times help her too. My father in fact would always cook on Sundays. He would get the grocery and the meat and cook for all of us at home. It was a ritual for my father to actually make pickle for the entire family. My job was to cut the mangoes. It used to be a celebration on the day when pickle used to be prepared, as we all would eat steamed rice, with dal and the pickle left in the big vessel. I would also experiment making different dishes with my sisters like the imli churan, guava chat. Those were my early dishes that I made as a young boy.
As a Chef I first started working with the Oberoi Bhubaneswar and my first hand experience at making something wearing a uniform in a hotel was the Russian Salad.
Share with our readers any one experience from your initial days of cooking? How many years have you been in this profession?
I think it is important to keep in mind one important message while cooking – fall in love with it. Remember how our mothers religiously cook the three meals for all 365 days without complaining and those are the meals that you fondly remember all your life. So cooking is meant for passionate people. My initial days of cooking were tough as I was made to peel tons of onions and do all pre preparation jobs, which I feel was very important to sink into the tough work that we do in the kitchen. However nothing distracted me; everything I did in the kitchen was with passion and this soon got noticed by my seniors and they would love to have me in their teams. It gave me the opportunity to learn the art and science of cooking from them. I would be around with them for more than twelve to fourteen hours a day, do all their work and get to know the fine art of cooking. All this did not come easy though I spent nearly first five to eight years of my career mastering the art from them. However now that I am into this profession for the last 28 years now, I still feel that you have to be a student all your life to learn new things every day.
As a chef who has been in this profession for so long, what kind of trends do you foresee shaping the food industry in India in coming years?
Well India is the most sought after country and with the economy growing in the right direction, it has direct impact on food. This helps people experiment with different cuisines. I surely see that more international cuisines are entering India. Earlier it was just Chinese, or Thai, or Italian, or Mediterranean or Mexican; but now we even see Japanese, Peruvian and Spanish entering the fray. And I am sure in time to come there will be more cuisines entering our country and more concepts too.
Having said this, one thing has to be underlined that everybody has to do what Indians like the most; experiment around Indian flavours. Nationally, people are experimenting with flavours from various regions of the country; first it was just North and South; now it is more specific, like Rampuri, Hyderabadi, Chettinad, Parsi etc. I am also happy to see that street food has suddenly become a thing in restaurant menus.
How best can regional cuisine of India be promoted? Which regional cuisine do you like the best?
I think till date Punjabi food has been considered Indian food nationally and internationally too. For breakfast it was South Indian to some extent. However India has so much to offer. People now travel extensively within the country and try to experiment with new flavours and food.
In each state, I am seeing that people are opening restaurants catering to local flavors. If you were to look at Misal Pav, which was declared as the number one dish in the world recently, I see lot of people suddenly opening Misal pav stalls all over Mumbai. Local flavoured restaurants have been popular in every states; like Gujarat and Rajasthan are famous for its vegetarian thalis, Maharastra for Kohlapuri, Puneri food and Vidharba’s spicy food and so on. There are Bengali restaurants opening up everywhere. Litti Chokha has also caught on in most parts of the country.
Chefs are also adding their individual popular picks from various parts of the country into the menus. I would earlier see just Punjabi flavours and the rich Mughlai flavours but now you can see picks from Rajasthan, Hyderabad, Rampur, Lucknow and Benaras. I also see Chefs picking up ideas and flavours from various regions of India and make it as popular food. So I may take paneer as North Indian but at times a Paneer Malwani (which is a Konkani recipe) curry is also fine with guests.
I am in love with what India has to offer to the world. The learning never stops; every time I visit a new state I learn new things. I recently visited Jharkhand and found an altogether different flavour in their food. So to pick just one cuisine as my favourite would be unfair to what India has to offer.
Which style of cooking do you admire the most? (Indian, Continental)? What is ‘Healthy Food’ according to you?
I have been trained under Begum Mumtaz Khan from the Jagirdar family of Nizams of Hyderabad and have specialized in Hyderabadi food. My recent show ‘Desh da Swaad’ gave me an opportunity to travel the length and breadth of North India and get a new prospective of various ingredients and new food.
Indian food is very healthy. What we eat at home is the healthiest, right from the lentil, to the vegetables, carbs in the form of rice and chapatis. I think if one eats food prepared at home every day, his daily intake of all necessary nutrients would be covered.
How are new-age chefs innovating to build visibility/presence in the new media? (e.g Social media, Television food channels etc)?
Well, when I was honing my skills to be a Chef, we never had the opportunity of access to information on Web. Hence we had to work hard to learn everything. Now at least you get to know most of things on the net. Also it is a great opportunity for Chefs of new age to showcase their skills through social media by effectively using media that reach out to the audience. You have dedicated food channels now which have actually established the brand CHEF across the country. Now people recognize the kitchen staff as CHEF, which is a big shift from recognizing a Bawarchi as a CHEF.
Which is your favourite ‘Ghar ka khana’? Do you cook at home sometime?
My all time favourite Ghar ka Khana as a child was dal, chawal, tamatar chutney and aloo bhujjia. Now of course, at home I love the Rajma and baigan bharta a lot.
Yes I do cook at home, especially when my daughters demand me to cook Italian, Thai or Mexican.
Any advice you would love giving someone aspiring to become a chef?
Well I think these days the trend has set in for everyone to become a chef, as they feel it is a glamorous field. But a word of caution for all of them is that you have to sweat it out in the kitchen before you taste success. All those you actually work hard will see success someday.
What is your ‘Signature Dish’? Any recipe you would like to share with our readers?
Yes, indeed this is a great opportunity to share a great HOLI recipe with my readers so that they can enjoy the festival of colours this season. Well in my restaurant ‘Twist of Tadka’ I have two dishes which are very popular – Mirchi ka Halwa and Beetroot Amley ki Tikkiyaan with garlic yoghurt.
Mirchi ka halwa
Green chillies, seeded and slit 50 grams
Cube of alum 1inch
Ghee 2 tbsps
Semolina (suji / rawa) 2 tbsps
Green cardamom powder ¼ tsp
Grated khoya / mawa 1 cup
Sugar 4 tbsps
A few chopped cashew nuts, almonds and pistachios for garnishing
- Heat water in a non stick pan. Add alum and green chillies and cook for 2-3 minutes. Strain the chillies. Repeat this process 3-4 times. Drain and grind the chillies coarsely.
- Heat ghee in a non stick pan; add semolina and sauté for a minute.
- Add the ground chillies and sauté for 3-4 minutes. Add cardamom powder and mix well.
- Add khoya and sugar and cook on a low heat till the halwa begins to leave the sides of the pan.
- Transfer the halwa into serving bowls, garnish with chopped nuts and serve.
-Samrita Baruah / Anjali Sethi Joshi