Vivek Singh’s new hardback may look like a cookbook – but between the mouth-watering recipes, it’s also a spell-binding look at the nature of human connections… and how food is the force that links us all.
In an exclusive interview, Vivek Singh lifts the lid on his spectacular, thought-provoking Indian Festival Feasts.
As she pulls the hardback from the row of Indian cookbooks, the young salesperson bursts into an amazed smile: “Wow,” she gasps, “what a beautiful book!”
It truly is.
Like a paint-spattered guest at a Holi party, the cover of Indian Festival Feasts is daubed in pinks, purples and oranges. Vivek Singh’s new book is a very, very pretty thing.
Hurrying down Piccadilly with my copy, I dived into the first restaurant I came to (a dim sum bar in Chinatown) and started reading. Taking my order, the waitress moved behind me so she could read the book right-way-up. “India,” she said, “so beautiful”. Within minutes, people eating at tables six feet away were craning their necks to see the pages, and waiting for me to turn.
In a lifetime of book-buying, I’ve never seen a reaction like it.
Clearing a space among the dishes for my phone, I type a congratulatory tweet to @chefviveksingh: “BLOWN AWAY by your Indian Festival Feasts. My library of Indian cookbooks just discovered its most important volume.”
My phone pings.
“Oh wow, thank you Adam! Delighted with the praise! How are you keeping?”
After five baskets of dim sum, two portions of chilli oil and a half-bottle of warm sake – I have devoured Indian Festival Feasts from cover to cover. And I am genuinely blown away. Over thirteen chapters, Vivek Singh’s book introduces you to five faiths in India (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity) and the food that expresses their most important festivals. The thirteenth chapter invites you to share in a Bengali wedding.
As you’d expect from the chef who single-handedly reinvented Indian cuisine in the UK, the book is full of stunning recipes. More surprisingly, perhaps, it’s also full of very personal elements about Vivek Singh himself: his childhood, career, family and friendships. Skipping between the chapters on Holi, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali and Easter, there’s a strong sense that Vivek Singh wants Indian Festival Feasts to share a lifetime’s thinking about how food defines who we are.
Ten days after buying the book, I’m sitting with him in the bar of the Cinnamon Club – together with a copy of Indian Festival Feasts. The author is kindly making time before a busy dinner service to explain the ingredients and flavours of his new book.
Good Korma: Where were you when the first spark for the book came to you?
Vivek Singh: My wife and I had just been to the launch of my book Spice at Home. We were walking home late at night, hand-in-hand, when she asked me if I thought I would write another recipe book. That was the spark.
Every couple of months, I talk to my publishers – and they often ask me about what my next book might be. They pointed out that in media interviews I often go back to the Indian festivals that I enjoyed in my youth. At the same time, Firdaus Takolia, who worked with me then as my PA, started talking to me about writing on Indian festivals.
All those thoughts came together in Indian Festival Feasts. Once that door had opened, a flood of recipes and ideas started to come in from colleagues and friends. The task then became honing all of those suggestions into one book.
Good Korma: What’s your favourite piece of feedback to date on Indian Festival Feasts?
Vivek Singh: My publisher told me: “This is a happy book… a book that really brings people together”.
Good Korma: So how do you want the book to touch people?
Vivek Singh: I’m not really trying to tell people about the religious origins or the purpose of these festivals. The common thread is how the food which is the expression of these festivals has the power to bring people together. The feasts don’t just connect families, friends and faiths – but whole communities, and multitudes of faiths.
Growing up as a child in Bengal, I saw how the food from each festival brought people together to cook and celebrate – Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. What connects us is so much more than what divides us. That’s what I hope people will take from the book… that food can transcend religion as a connecting force.
Good Korma: That’s a big thought. Why is food so woven into Indian life?
Vivek Singh: Is it something around anthropology…the way that Indian society works? I was very lucky to grow up in a diverse society – and at the time I was growing up, a very significant part of the population was engaged in the full time activity of staying at home and cooking. My mother was a full time home-maker – and in an age before refrigeration and daily shopping, cooking was a way of life. Food is part of the way India lives and breathes.
Good Korma: Looking at Indian Festival Feasts, I don’t feel as if I’m reading about India… I’m actually in India! The noise, the colour, the smells. Did you set out to create something immersive?
Vivek Singh: What I hope comes through in the book is my own experience of India. It’s a complete melting pot of cultures, and it’s the place that shaped me. It may not be everyone’s experience of India – including some of the people growing up there today – but it’s mine.
Good Korma: If a reader wanted to experience one festival, in one Indian city – where would you send them?
Vivek Singh: Hyderabad, for Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha. I remember living and working there, and during those two festivals, Hyderabad becomes meatopia! There are people outside the mosques, distributing food to the whole community – regardless of who’s been fasting and who hasn’t. As I explain in the book, it wasn’t until I worked as a trainee in the Oberoi Hotel that I realised I’d never experienced aromas or sheer passion for food and flavours like the ones I discovered in Hyderabad. The city has all the sights, colours and smells you expect from India – but it has added complexity of the Muslim cooking. Old and new Hyderabad are different universes.
Good Korma: In the first recipe in the book, you mention Litti Chokha as your “inheritance dish” – and describe cooking it over bonfires with your Dad. Have you introduced it to people in your restaurants?
Vivek Singh: Actually, Litti Chokha has never been on any of my restaurant menus – and there’s a reason for that. When you really love something, and it means a lot to you – you’re not prepared to sell it. Some people eating Litti Chokha in a restaurant might get it… but the moment that money changes hands there’s going to be a judgement.
What is Litti Chokha? It’s chapatti flour dough, which is starch… filled with chickpeas, which is more starch. People might look at it and think it’s too rustic, too earthy, too nomadic – and I don’t need that. Not everything’s for sale.
Good Korma: For someone coming to Indian food for the first time, which two recipes in Indian Festival Feasts would you point them to?
Vivek Singh: Mutton Biryani with Dried Fruits, and Kashmiri Spices, and Chicken Butter Masala. Biryani is a regulation dish at Indian celebrations, and this recipe is made even more special with dried fruit and nuts. In the east of India, Butter Masala is the dish that restaurants are judged on – and I learnt to cook this dish from the banquet cooks who catered for the 1,200 people at my sister’s wedding. I’d like to share both dishes with the reader.
Good Korma: In the foreword, you warn the reader that: “not all of the recipes listed in this book are ones that you will immediately fall in love with”, and that some recipes will take years to master. How high were you trying to set the bar?
Vivek Singh: The idea was to represent the celebration, and the specific dishes that express it. I wasn’t looking at a certain level of skill, or at a set of ingredients. As a result, some of the recipes are very straightforward, but others take years of practice… and very few people will go there. That’s OK.
Good Korma: What can a recipe book teach you… and what can’t it teach?
Vivek Singh: A recipe book can teach you the mechanics of putting a dish together, but you can’t teach someone to feel. Feeling is about expressing where the dish is from, and where it’s going. It’s about everything the cook is trying to express in that dish.
Good Korma: The food photography in the book is refreshingly realistic… the food actually looks like food.
Vivek Singh: Indian Festival Feasts isn’t a restaurant cook book – with restaurant-style plating. To create the sense of a domestic feast, we’ve deliberately gone for a home-style look to the food.
Good Korma: In your book, you’ve created a snapshot of India and its festivals as they are today. Were you trying to create a record of the festivals and their food?
Vivek Singh: Things are constantly adapting. For much of the 4000-year history of Indian food, we considered the splitting of milk to be inauspicious, then along came the Portuguese and introduced us to cheese. Today, India’s favourite national dessert is probably rosogolla – made from Indian cottage cheese – even though some people might think it is sacrilege.
My wife and I were having this conversation just last week – that potatoes, chillies and tomatoes only have a 300-year history in India. The food changes constantly – and so will the festivals.
Good Korma: Next week, India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence. What will Indian festivals look like in another 70 years?
Vivek Singh: India is changing every day – but if you go looking for timeless India, you will find it. I’ve seen so much change in India, but also seen so many things remain the same.
Good Korma: Reading Indian Festival Feasts, it’s touching how you credit whole chapters to friends and colleagues. You credit the chapter on Onam to Rakesh Ravindran Nair, and you christen one dish Hari’s Hyderabadi Kachi Biryani after Hari Nagaraj – both of whom have worked with you for a long time at the Cinnamon Club.
Vivek Singh: It’s my way of acknowledging all the support I’ve had. I’m lucky enough to have my name on the cover, but so many people helped. I hope that crediting my friends helps to make the book more timeless.
Good Korma: Your credit to Firdaus Takolia is pretty unique for an author. You say: “I’m not wrong in feeling that Indian Festival Feasts is as much her book as it’s mine”.
Vivek Singh: Firdaus was involved in Indian Festival Feasts for almost a year and a half. I’d write a chapter, and it was Firdaus who’d send them to the publisher, help with the queries, check the recipes, shop for prop and select the photos. We share the book.
Good Korma: Time and again, Indian Festival Feasts brings the reader back to the connections between people. What has life taught you about human connections?
Vivek Singh: I’ve learnt that simple things like where you grew up and what you do are important. But in this day and age, physical presence and geographical locations do not mean a lot. What means a lot is who you’re connected to, and who’s in your network. For example, I could be having three different conversations with three different people in different parts of the world. I am connected to people in New York, Perth, London and India simultaneously. That’s how connections have changed.
Good Korma: Indian Festival Feasts is full of your personal connections. Does that make it a record of who you are?
Vivek Singh: Yes, the book embraces my family, my friends – and the network and communities I interacted with. These connections are unique to me.