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Our Pick: “Barkat” and The Soul of Service

Feb/28/2022 / by Rashmi Gopal Rao
Image courtesy of Penguin Books India

Some words have deeper meanings than their simple English translations would suggest. Seva and barkat are two of them that Vikas Khanna mentions in his latest book, “Barkat: The Inspiration and the Story Behind One of the World’s Largest Food Drives FEED INDIA.”

In “Barkat,” Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna traces his roots. Simply translated as abundance that which transcends beyond material wealth, barkat also refers to an abundance of auspiciousness and blessings. In his 37th book, Khanna describes the importance of sharing food, giving back what we have as seva, which means much more than just service and the power of community kitchens. It is these values that have stayed with him and driven one of the world’s largest food drives, Feed India, which he worked on during the pandemic.

Childhood Memories

Spread over 12 chapters, the first half describes how Khanna was influenced by his grandmother’s stories, his foray into cooking and his experiences at culinary school. His grandmother, a guiding force in his life, instilled in Khanna the values of generosity, empathy and sharing, irrespective of how little he had for himself. He recollects days picking lemons for her which she used to make pickle for the entire family. As a child, he used to look forward to the ritual of donating a bag of flour from freshly harvested wheat to the community kitchen at the Golden Temple. It was there that he learned the tradition of taking prasad while bowing your head in humility. He also realized that it is only when we give after we take that the cycle is complete.

Khanna says he believes that cooking is not all science, but an art built on the foundation of love. He recalls his prized possession, a tandoor gifted by his father that set the stage for a career, with him starting a small catering unit, Lawrence Garden, out of his own backyard with his mother. He chronicles his training in Manipal and how he was introduced to South Indian food, and then various other cuisines, and finally the culture of food in “five star” restaurants during his internship. The episode of him being rescued and given shelter by a Muslim family during the 1992 riots in Bombay is particularly touching. Khanna feels that the blessings of the lady of the house stayed with him forever.

The Journey to America

The next half of the book is dedicated to the quest of his dreams and his passage to America.

“Arduous and backbreaking” as he calls it, he lists the tribulations he faced abroad, including the he slept in hunger and in the cold. He relives his days working sy restaurants, his meeting with Gordon Ramsay, President Barack Obama, His Holiness Dalai Lama, the starting of Sanskrit Culinary Arts, and the beginning of him authoring books and making documentaries.

The chat with his grandmother once he was awarded the Michelin star is truly inspiring. As is his assertion that his aim was always to bring forth the story of India and its culture to the world. For him India is beyond just food; he always wanted to break the stereotypes about India as highlighted in the Western media.

The Feed India Initiative

The last part of Khanna’s book is about the Feed India initiative, which he launched while in New York in March 2020. Khanna describes how he initially underestimated logistical challenges and problem of last mile distribution. Deterred by setbacks, he was about to give up but his mother motivated him to continue against all odds. Khanna explains how he leveraged social media and time zone differences to his advantage. He acknowledges the support of India’s National Disaster Response Force, as well as organizations such as India Gate, Dawat and GOQii, among others. With millions of meals, dry rations, sanitary pads and slippers being distributed, it was indeed an achievement for Khanna, and a proud moment for his mother.

Simple and unpretentious with engaging narratives, Khanna’s writing is lucid, earnest and honestly passionate. The book has interesting pictures, and makes for an insightful weekend read.

If books are what you love, you might also enjoy Illustrating the Vagaries of Culture with “For the Love of Laxmi”