Book Review: ‘Return to the Rivers’ by Vikas Khanna

Stories and recipes from the rooftop of the world
March 12, 2014 11:21 pm Last Updated: March 13, 2014 7:23 am

In many ways, “Return to the Rivers: Recipes and Memories of the Himalayan River Valleys” by Vikas Khanna takes readers as far away as earthly possible—about halfway around the world and up around 10,000 feet.

The cookbook, penned and photographed by Khanna, who is also the executive chef at Michelin-starred Junoon, spans the cuisines of Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, and northern India. Over the years, he picked up recipes from roadside carts, monasteries, weddings, markets, doughnut shops, homes of friends—and alongside, some lively, touching stories.

The Dalai Lama, who encouraged Khanna to document ways of life that are fast disappearing, wrote the foreword.

In the marketplace of Paro, Tibet, Khanna still finds bartering the standard practice—and not fast and furious bargain driving, but rather a whole lot of convivial socializing between neighbors, concluding only much later with the exchange of goods.

Food in this cookbook is just half the story. The other aspect that shines through is the deep kindness and spirituality of those Khanna encounters. It’s difficult to separate the two—people and food—in a harsh environment where, for example, little grows above the tree line. Hospitality is simply a way of life, born out of a dependence on others.

Khanna is an engaging storyteller and travel guide. Besides his post at Junoon, he also hosts “MasterChef India” and FOX Traveller’s “Twist of Taste” show.

In an interview, he recounted how he’d been sitting on a bus in Nepal, waiting for it to depart Kathmandu, on its way to Pokhara. He had been waiting for four hours, but the answer to his queries remained the same: the bus will leave when it’s full. Then Khanna said something happened:

“This woman knocks on the window [and says,] ‘Can you take it?’ I said, ‘Where?’ She has a big parcel of hand-knit sweaters and chicken jwanu [a dish in the book].”

“She said, ‘Pokhara. … My family lives in Pokhara, they can take it from the station. It’s my grandson’s birthday.’

‘OK and how am I going to recognize your grandson?’

‘He’s tall, he’s dusky, he’s very good-looking.’

I said, ‘That fits most of the people here.’ … I’m taking this curry I can’t eat, I’m holding it, and I get to the station. …”

There he found her family. “When I gave them the chicken jwanu and the sweaters, they said, ‘OK thank you. No, you can’t go, you have to eat.’” In the end, Khanna, who had no accommodations, ended up staying with them.

Recipes

The recipes are easy to follow. Although they include a few celebration dishes, most recipes are representative of the simple fare eaten every day.

I ended up cooking some surprisingly good dishes—surprising because they were so simple. One was masala anday, spiced hard-boiled eggs that were then coated in a mixture of hot oil and spices. The whites of the eggs took on lovely yellow orange hues and the eggs were fragrant due to the clinging mustard seeds and turmeric.

I made a couple of other dishes, potatoes from Sikkim, and spiced black chickpeas, whose fragrance unfailingly drew my family into the kitchen wanting to know what was cooking.

The book also features butter tea, a staple of Tibetan hospitality, something Khanna was obsessed with when he came back to the United States. He’ll admit “99.9 percent” of people don’t have the taste for it. “My sister said one time … you know you have a big place in New York City. There should be no reason some people don’t want to show up at your house, right? And you cook, so everyone wants to come to your house. But the only reason we’re going to stop coming is because of butter tea,” he said, laughing.

 

RECIPE:

Split Chickpea Chaat

From “Return to the Rivers: Recipes and Memories of the Himalayan River Valleys”
By Vikas Khanna
Lake Isle Press, 2013 ($35)

Traveling in the remote Ladakh region means you should be mindful of your nutritional needs. A beautiful but austere place, Ladakh is 10,000 feet above sea level, which places extra demands on your body requiring additional amounts of protein and carbohydrates. This chickpea chaat, popular in Ladakh, is one of my favorite snacks that I enjoyed while climbing the hills of the region. Even by the end of the trek, I didn’t tire of the snack. Of course, chickpea chaat is equally delicious at sea level.

An alternative way to prepare chickpea chaat is to soak the chickpeas overnight, then drain and dry them well on paper towels. Fry in 350°F oil before mixing them with the other ingredients in the recipe. When finished, they are crunchy and make a great party snack.

Serves 6 to 8 as a snack

1 cup split chickpeas
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups water
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 tomato, seeded and finely chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 fresh green chile (such as serrano), finely chopped

In a pot, combine the chickpeas, turmeric, salt, and water and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally until the chickpeas are cooked, but still firm, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain and cool.

In a bowl, combine the onion, tomato, cilantro, lemon juice, cayenne, and chile and mix well. Add the chickpeas and toss well to evenly coat. If necessary, season with additional salt before serving.