Actor-turned-chef Aditya Bal tells Priyanka Sharma about his affair with food
I am happiest in the kitchen,” declares Aditya Bal, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead. As we talk, his attention keeps flitting towards the kitchen at Seven, the Pan Indian restaurant at The Suryaa in Delhi. Though he’s been on his feet for over four hours, “cooking up a storm”, there’s no trace of exhaustion as he prepares to host a cookout for some friends and family. The guest of honour is designer Rohit Bal who will be arriving shortly to celebrate the launch of his nephew’s first cook book, The Chakh Le India Cookbook. Chef Marut Sikka and Fashion and Design Council of India President Sunil Sethi are also on their way. “I’ll cook, people will eat and drink. What can be more fun?” asks an energetic Bal, adding a fresh batch of prawns to the crackling oil.
Only one dish is prepared at the live cookout: rawa-coated prawns, Bal’s speciality. Succulent and spicy, they go well with sparkling wine. Bal’s cooking reflects his personality — it’s simple, fuss-free and yet leaves an impression. Bal is a familiar face — he has been hosting NDTV Good Times’s Chakh Le India for over four years, travelling across the country to round up some of the favourite dishes of the region from scratch. And that’s the subject of his book. The recipes span a wide range — for meat lovers, he provides detailed instructions on how to spruce up Coorgi pandi kari (Coorgi pork curry), kosha mangsho (Bengali mutton masala) and mutton yakhni (Kashmiri mutton in curd and aromatic spices). For vegetarians, he offers aloo ke gutke (mustard flavoured potatoes) and bendakkai gojju (okra with tamarind). All the recipes, he says, are “accessible, simple and absolutely Indian”.
The cookout included delicacies from his book: machchi ke sooley (Rajasthani baked fish) was a perfect blend of a moist fish and a robust masala marinade, the kakori kebabs were spicy, crisp and well-seasoned. For vegetarians, the choices were rather uninventive: stuffed mushrooms and paneer tikka.
“Women write to me telling me how much their mothers-in-law loved my recipe! I know I have a responsibility.” Viewer feedback was what prompted Bal to put together all the recipes he’d learnt along the show into a book.
A former model and actor, Bal is rather self-deprecating when it comes to his tryst with Bollywood. While many of his films never saw the light of day, the one that did make it to the theatres (Mashooka in 2005), was “almost like a C-grade film”, he says with a grimace. It was at this time that he found his calling. “Food became my saviour,” says Bal. Growing up in Kashmir where his grandmother rustled up fluffy cakes with great expertise, Bal understood that food wasn’t merely a source of sustenance, but a way of life. A “self-taught” cook, he never went to a culinary school and has no plans of doing so.
On chef Sikka’s suggestion, he auditioned for a show at NDTV Good Times. Five months later, he had his own cookery show. Bal’s experience in both fashion and film lends him an easy charm and confidence. “I can face the camera without any inhibitions.” Discarding any notions of opening a “fancy restaurant”, Bal adds, “I’m the kind of guy who would open a dhaba. Food should be accessible to everyone!” As his show gears up for another season, Bal hopes his book will also catch the fancy of amateur cooks. He doesn’t have any one favourite recipe. “I eat everything. That’s my job after all.”