Chef Lalit Prasad Pokryal wants to share a meal with his wife. Head Chef with Ras Bites—a member of the Palate Vine Group in Singapore—Pokryal skilfully turns an aloo tikki (potato cutlet) beside a skillet full of lamb kebabs as I approach his counter at a gourmet event in Singapore.
Hundreds of people from many countries roam about looking for good food, and Chef Pokryal offers everyone a taste of India through the tikkis and kebabs he shallow-fries to perfection. I initiate a conversation by asking him who he would prefer to have a good meal with ; I expect the name of celebrities or fellow chefs, but Pokryal tells me it would be nice if he could share a meal with his wife. “Food tastes best when we share it with the people we love,” he says. It becomes obvious to me that one of Pokryal’s biggest challenges in Singapore is his inability to spend time with his family. His mother, wife and a 14-year old son stay miles away in India; he visits them for a month every year.
Raised in the North Indian state of Uttarkhand, Pokryal comes from a Garhwali family that has seen abject poverty. He remembers walking barefoot to school till the age of 10 and selling wood from the forests to feed himself. Having lost his father at a very early age, he remembers the gnawing sense of hunger as much as he remembers the daily struggle involved in living a hand-to-mouth existence.
“I developed an interest in professional cooking after I read about it somewhere,” says Pokryal. “After studying and working hard in the kitchens of many restaurants and big hotels, I met someone who mentored me for nearly a decade.” Pokryal talks very fondly about Chef Soundararajan—of India’s Mahindra Holidays—who suggested that he should look beyond Indian shores to gain more exposure. Today, Pokryal leads a team of cooks that serves authentic North-Indian food to travelers from all over the world. Pokryal tells me that he has adapted his style to match international tastes but his roots play a huge role in how he cooks.
“I will never forget my childhood days,” he says. “I grew up in a place that didn’t have roads or electricity. We didn’t have enough to eat even, so there was no question of learning anything from my mother’s kitchen.” However, he adds that regardless of what he cooks, the base or the source of all his foods is derived from age-old practices that the younger generation is fast losing touch with. The manner in which spices are ground or grain is pounded, or the skill with which Indian breads are rolled—these are imbibed by watching and knowing, by being close to a particular culture.
“My wife asks me to cook whenever I go to India,” he says, laughing, adding that his mother prefers simple food that defines Garhwali culture. “The kind of food I make is for the global palate but boiled rice and kadhi are what my mother likes. Those are my favorite dishes too.”
I mention that few Indian women get into professional cooking despite being good cooks in their own homes. How do we encourage women to use their skills in this line of work, especially women who could do with additional income and a job to fall back on in times of need?
Pokryal says that though many Indian women cook at home, professional cooking tends to be very different from cooking for one’s parents or children. He points out that though his wife cooks daily, she hasn’t yet learnt how to dice onions the right way. “We are duty-bound to serve the best food regardless of what we go through at any stage in life,” he says. “Being a professional chef is all about learning, organising, and being responsible to our clients.” He adds that women will find it easier to be in business once they begin to organise themselves well. “It isn’t easy to balance chores at home and a regular job; if you plan well, you could do it.”
Pokryal introduces me to his team and poses for a snap with them as the aloo tikkis and lamb kebabs continue to cook on hot skillets. I smell the golden brown tikkis and ask him the secret to being a good chef. Dil se banao, he says. Cook with your heart, cook with love, and never forget your ethics.