Vikas Khanna: Good Diwali Eats, Where to Get Mithai, and the Best Ingredient You Probably Don't Know

Yesterday, we brought you part one of a Q&A with chef Vikas Khanna, chatting about the dishes he'll offer at his new restaurant, Junoon, and what foods he misses from his childhood in the Punjab. Khanna juggles many projects, including a catering company, cookbooks, and making a documentary about Sikhism, but when Junoon opens in the first week of November, he'll be cooking there full-time.

Today, in the second half of the interview, Khanna tells us his eating plans for the upcoming Diwali holiday, his recommendation on where to get the best South Asian sweets--which are eaten even more than usual during Diwali--his dream vacation destination and his favorite underrated ingredient.

With so many projects, do you worry about spreading yourself too thin? Will you be in the kitchen at Junoon most nights?

All of my other projects, including the Holy Kitchens film series and four books, are near completion and the few remaining will be delegated to members of my team for completion. We have been preparing for this moment for the past four years in order for me to smoothly transition into being at Junoon every night.

Please name an ingredient that is unknown or underrated that you like to cook with and why.

Kokum: It gives a warm and tangy flavor to curries and chutney. It's used mainly in regional cooking of South India and parts of Western India. I would like to see it used more in North India, Punjabi cooking. Are there any Indian restaurants in New York that you particularly like?

Oh, my. I have too many friends cooking in different restaurants to pick one over the others. I love the restaurants on East 6th Street. Even today, they remind me of my first winters in New York when they were my comfort food. Do you have a recommendation for a mithai--South Asian sweets--shop?

Rajbhog Sweets in Jackson Heights. [Ed note: We agree!]

How do you see Indian/South Asian restaurants in New York right now, and how do you think the scene will evolve in the next several years?

I am extremely proud of our new generations of chefs, by their imagination and creativity. We are honored to be a part of this transition towards a global vision of Indian cuisine.

Tabla is closing, but places like Junoon and Tulsi are opening, and Tamarind Tribeca has gotten great reviews. Do you think we are about to see widespread acceptance of high-end Indian cuisine, or do you still often hear that prejudicial phrase, "too expensive for Indian food?"

We have thousands of years of fantastic hospitality that is not seen in more casual restaurants. As long as we avoid the clichés of the places that have 90 dishes on their menus and give people some things that they haven't seen before, they will see the value of what we are doing.

 

What are your plans for Diwali this year? Any sweets or dishes you're looking forward to for the celebration?

Diwali is my favorite holiday. Diwali is the most auspicious time of the year for us. This year we will be at Junoon celebrating a new beginning.

I always look forward to sweet saffron rice (my grandmother's recipe) and Madras curry flavored truffles.

What do you always keep in your refrigerator at home?

I frequently have people coming over without any time to prepare, so I always try to have lentils and chickpeas to warm up and serve with my own pickled onions and some quickly made roti. People really respond to these simple home dishes, and then you can spend your time enjoying your guests rather than cooking in the kitchen. What's the biggest mistake you've ever made in the kitchen?

The sugar I usually used in India is grainy. While making the Indian dessert gulab jamun one time, there was only powdered sugar, which I was not familiar with, so I accidentally added salt instead.

What would you like to see more of in New York restaurants?

More attention to the simple idea of hospitality. Too many people leave a restaurant feeling that they weren't well cared for, and that leaves a feeling of lingering dissatisfaction. You really have to think that you're inviting people into your home for the evening. This is what separates the great restaurants from the rest.

What would you like to see less of in New York restaurants?

Less gratuitous invention and more attention to letting good ingredients express themselves naturally. What's your dream vacation destination?

Home to enjoy my grandmother's home cooking. That's not very exciting, but that's where my heart is. Well, also Bhutan. I think it's one of the most spiritual places on earth.


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