Sanjeev Kapoor is constantly on the move, not only because he’s India’s most famous chef, but because he’s such a passionate ambassador for the country’s food.
“I want Indian food to sit at the top of the world’s cuisines,” he says.
Beyond owning dozens of restaurants, spearheading a 24-hour food channel, and authoring books (he’s published more than 200 so far), Kapoor somehow finds the time to give back. The master chef works with the government to spur tourism to India by helping to demystify its diverse array of culinary traditions and supports underprivileged children and women through his involvement with the United Nations Foundation’s Clean Cookstoves initiative.
Here’s a look at the world through Sanjeev Kapoor’s unique lens (and appetite):
Monika Joshi: Where do you call home?
Sanjeev Kapoor: Mumbai. I’ve been in this city for 22 years and it’s where I’ve spent most of my time.
When someone visits you where’s the first place you take them?
I would take them for a drive to Girgaon Chowpatty Beach on Marine Drive. At night, I would take them around the Gateway of India on a victoria, which is a fancy horse carriage with lights. It’s a unique experience.
Why is travel important?
One of my favorite lines on travel is, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”
I see travel as a learning experience. It humbles you. If you ever think you’ve seen it all, pick up your bags and set forth. [Traveling] will show you how much more there is to see, do, and learn.
Can you think of an example of how being a visitor in an unfamiliar place has changed you, or taught you a lesson?
There was a Maha Kumbh Mela [a large-scale gathering to promote peace] in Allahabad and we had gone there to do catering. We were selling everything for under 10 rupees—virtually for free—but for hundreds of thousands of people who were there, this was expensive.
That’s when I realized that [where I live] we are working from a different view of India. Sitting in a city like Mumbai, I never would have gained this perspective. Now when I take part in food-initiative programs I am reminded of this trip and try to keep in mind how the less fortunate look at food.
What inspires you to travel?
My travels are invariably linked to food.
[What people eat] reveals a lot about a place—its history, its culture, its ethos, even its economy. I eat what the locals eat, and that, for me, is the best way to travel.
How does travel influence your cooking?
I have many “eureka” moments when I travel. I travel to learn about other cuisines and [in turn] incorporate what I learn into the menus of my restaurants. I have discovered a lot about ingredients and the different ways of using them. [For instance,] it was during the course of my travels in Meerut [an ancient city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh] that I experienced the magic of the yellow chili. Thus, my restaurant the Yellow Chilli was born.
I have also adapted cooking techniques from the Western world, and the results have been outstanding each time. In Indian cooking, we rely heavily on the stove. One technique used in Spanish kitchens is to marinate food and then cook it using an immersion circulator. When we [incorporated] that concept into a goat dish we serve at Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor in Dubai, it came out more flavorful.
What makes Indian food stand out among the world’s cuisines?
Indian food is very bold. It’s in your face. In most other cuisines, there are ingredients that work in isolation. An Indian dish might have 20 different spices and herbs that are completely contrasting in taste and flavor, yet they blend together when combined. It’s this complexity that I think people love. You [are able to] discover a new taste with every dish.
Can you offer any advice to first-time travelers to India regarding how to navigate the culinary scene?
Take baby steps. Indian cuisine can be fiery and volcanic to the uninitiated. What you see is not always what you get.
Start off with mild curries and let your tummy get accustomed to the spices, then gradually move on to higher levels. If you can manage to get invited to people’s homes, grab the opportunity.
Is there a way to distinguish food by region?
Northern and central India have similarities, as do the west, south, and east. For example, there is more use of tomatoes in northern and central Indian cooking than in the other regions.
The northern part [of the country] is in some sense driven by chicken and goat meat, while along the coasts there [is a bigger focus] on seafood.
What’s on your radar right now?
I’m currently rediscovering the wonderful flavors of coastal seafood. It’s hard to find fault in the combination of the region’s seafood with the rough edge of freshly roasted spices. To me it’s one variety of cuisine that hasn’t really been explored. It’s like a secret.
In the south, coconut is used commonly and rice is a staple. But the spices—things like cardamom, coriander, cumin—are essentially the same all across [India].
Which region has the best food, in your opinion?
Every region of India has outstanding food; the variety is unsurpassable.
Are there any food experiences you would recommend experiencing in India?
During Ramadan there are particularly festive foods. On every street there is a famous haleem maker. You get up early enough to go and eat that haleem and then you’ll be left waiting another year for the festival to come again. It’s that good.
In February and March, it’s carnival time in Goa and there’s nothing quite like it. The state is known for its seafood, cooked in two styles—the Hindu style and the Portuguese style. There’s this fantastic hot-and-sour curry called ambotik that’s served with shark. They also have a unique local red rice that is delicious. If you visit Goa outside of carnival season, I highly recommend the restaurants Martin’s Corner and Britto’s.
How do you feel about eating Indian food in other countries?
I’m a firm believer that India is the best place for Indian food and, as a rule, do not venture into an Indian restaurant when I’m abroad. Having said that, if a place comes highly recommended, I give it a try.
Which place after India itself would you say has the best Indian food?
If I was forced to choose, I would say London and Dubai. There are some restaurants there that serve Indian food that’s almost as authentic and tasty as you get in India.
Do you have any specific recommendations in these places?
In central London there is Amaya, Gymkhana, and Tamarind. Dubai has easy access to Indian ingredients. We opened Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor there and what you get is something all Indians would be proud of.
Is there a place that draws you back again and again? Why?
Spain for its color, history, amazing food, and people. Thailand for its beauty, mind-boggling variety of food, and warm people. I can go back to these places a number of times and never tire [of them]. They have an irresistible pull for me.
Which city has it all?
Barcelona. Be it culinary adventures, beautiful parks, museums, breathtaking architecture, sports, or nightlife, this city has everything.
Did you have a memorable experience there?
I once stayed with a family about 50 miles from Barcelona in a small village called Viladrau. Each day, this older woman would cook at home, and on one occasion she made paella, a traditional Spanish dish. That experience has stayed with me longer than any dish I’ve eaten at any top restaurant.
Your television series, “Out of the World,” is a hit. Tell us about it.
[Basically,] I visit different parts of the world and explore the destination by way of the local food. For our first season we explored much of East Africa—Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Did you have any travel epiphanies while you were shooting the series?
We were filming at a Maasai village, and had been invited into a small hut with a six-by-six inch window and hardly enough space to stand. [A few Maasai] began showing me how to cook a local dish with corn. There was no seasoning at all—nothing sweet or salted. To me it was very bland. But as a chef, it’s always about the celebration of food.
Chefs pay attention to so much about food—the taste, the aroma, the texture. But in places where there is a shortage, everything about the food feels special. You start respecting each and every morsel. Food just takes on a new meaning.
Monika Joshi is a researcher at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her on Twitter @TweeterMJ.
This interview has been edited and condensed.