The year is 2017. It is a regular weekday menu at the dinner table of my home in Mumbai. Steaming tomato saar and rice with a side a coconut-dusted beans sabzi, Mum’s Mangalorean specialities. The TV tunes into an episode of Spirited Traveller, a cooking show that explores India through its local food and beverage. Kiran Jethwa, a Kenya-born, half-Indian, half-English chef appears on the screen. “In India, a lot can happen over a cup of tea,” he says in his British accent. This isn’t the first time a chef from the West has attempted to map India’s food or its roads. But Jethwa hits a sweet spot by shedding the Western gaze. His approach is hyperlocal. The now 43-year-old uses food as a vehicle to navigate a place and understand its people and culture. It doesn’t matter if he is cooking for the Lepcha tribe in Sikkim, swimming with fishermen to catch karimeen in the backwaters of Kerala, or downing hot jalebis straight from the kadhai in the streets of Delhi—he knows his audience. And despite having eaten my stomach’s fill, I am left hungry by the end of each episode.
Three years later, I catch up with the chef over an audio interview amid the pandemic, while he isolates at his home in Kenya. Edited excerpts:
As someone who has constantly been on the move, how have you been adjusting to a life largely indoors?
It has been extremely disruptive. A lot of my travel plans for TV shows and appearances have been cancelled in 2020. In Kenya, we’ve had a country-wide lockdown since the last four or five months. I’m based in Nairobi and have been here since the pandemic began. Although no flights are allowed in or out of the country, we are free to move around in our county while adhering to social distancing and safety norms. The government has been proactive and got ahead of the situation rather quickly. We are apparently going to hit our peak sometime between August and September. So, it looks like this is how it is going to be for a while. If I had to compare it with Spain and other parts of Europe, where people were locked inside their apartments, I feel very fortunate. I have space where I live and I can go for walks around the forests. We can ride our bikes and get around to the shops.
There are other positives too—I have been forced to remain grounded. As a person who travels a lot, I have a hectic schedule. It sounds glamorous, but there are times it gets quite wearying. So it has been nice to spend quality time with the wife and kids. But I still think, like everybody else, that being stuck in one place has been very, very difficult. Uncertainty is a very difficult thing to deal with.
You grew up in a British-Indian household in Nairobi and moved to Manchester at 18. What is home to you?
I have two homes. Kenya is my first home. I was born here. I have got my family here. I have set up my businesses here and I’m still here. I moved to the U.K. and spent three years at Manchester University to pursue my studies. My Mum’s and my wife’s side of the family are from the U.K. So I keep going back there, particularly the southern parts of Sussex. It is my second home.
How big a role has culture played in home cooking for you? Which are some of your favourite meals?
It is everything. It has shaped how I cook, who I am and what I enjoy eating. Everything I have learnt today as a chef is rooted one way or another in what I have learnt at home. Being half-Gujarati, half-English, I was exposed to a very diverse palate. We ate Indian, English, continental, Asian, and Southeast Asian food. My Mum’s home-cooked dal with goat shank bone is my go-to. She slow-cooks the leg bones of the goat. So you get the dal and the marrow. I love that. She also makes a fantastic Greek moussaka. We grill the aubergine before putting it through the moussaka. My father used to make a beautiful fish masala.
Most cuisines from the southern hemisphere are under-represented globally. Have you felt a transformation on that front and do you think the world will come to recognise it in the future?
I’m not sure if I agree with that statement. If you look at Australian food, Southeast Asian food or Latin American food—all from the southern hemisphere—they’re very well represented these days. I think it has to do with globalisation fuelled by social media and the access that people have to social media. If there is any cuisine, set of cuisines or an area that I think is under-represented, it is possibly the African continent. Maybe that’s where some focus could go. If you go from Uganda to Kenya to Tanzania to West Africa to South Africa, the food is totally different. So you cannot say African cuisine. There’s no such thing. You have to localise it as you would for Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian. They’re all very different. But I’m hoping this part of the world will start getting more attention regarding its food.
What are a few must-try delicacies in Kenya?
If you come here, you have to eat the staple food and it is more about the occasion and the whole experience rather than just the food. Ugali is a white polenta-like simple delicacy. There is nyama choma, which is barbecued meat (usually a goat) that you should have with ugali. It is delicious and Kenyans love it. We have some coastal delicacies. A good Swahili seafood curry with chapatti is lovely. There is a great dish called mbaazi, which is a type of pulse cooked in coconut and is often eaten with mandazi (Kenyan doughnuts). It is fantastic with a nice cup of Swahili masala chai. Those are the things I would point people towards.
You’ve lived up to the show’s title in Fearless Chef. Which were a few of your most daredevil moments?
Climbing those 100-foot palm trees and toddy-tapping on a tightrope in Sri Lanka comes at the top. It was absolutely terrifying. Dangling 200 feet in the air to harvest red spring honey right from its source with those giant bees in Nepal was dangerous, uncomfortable… I’m not saying scary, but definitely challenging. Learning to free dive to the 100-foot mark to get the dogtooth tuna in Mozambique was not as scary as it was mentally challenging. It’s a mind over matter thing that you have to learn. Took a while, but I was really happy to have achieved it.
You’ve scaled the length and breadth of India while filming Spirited Traveller. What are some of your fondest memories in the country?
It was totally fascinating and I think it is something that people need to experience. Just the diversity from one place to another is enough if you really want to get under its skin. Nagaland was one of my highlights. I loved how different it was in terms of the culture and the food as compared to anywhere else in India. Varanasi was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. To see death on display the way it is there and to be celebrated rather than to be mourned like it is in the West… I mean, it is totally magical. I really enjoyed the food there as well. Going up to the mountains in Sikkim was very different and beautiful too. I had my first jalebi in Delhi, the city that lays claim to its origin. I don’t know whether or not that is 100 per cent true, but to have fresh jalebis straight out of the pot is something that will stay with me for a long time. I love jalebis by the way.
You bring back ingredients from places you visit and incorporate them while reconstructing dishes in your kitchen. What were a few of your memorable takeaways?
From Fearless Chef, one of my most memorable takeaways was actually cinnamon from Sri Lanka. I hadn’t realised the difference between real cinnamon and false cinnamon. What you get in most places on the planet is not real cinnamon. Seeing the difference between the two is something that will stick with me for a really long time. I was shocked at myself as a chef for not knowing that. The honey that we harvested in Nepal from the combs of giant honeybees was an absolutely delicious and magical ingredient. One of the most surprising ingredient that I have ever discovered in my life was the grasshopper while filming the second season of Tales from the Bush Larder in Uganda. The insects come out at a certain time of the year near Lake Victoria. They’re plentiful. Ugandans deep-fry them and just eat them like a salted, crispy snack. It tastes like fried baby shrimp. Outstanding!
Live sago worms in Peru and a bull’s penis soup in Bolivia—which are some of the most unconventional food items you’ve acquired a taste for?
Going back to the previous question, crickets would be a standout. In China, I ate an awful lot of other insects—tarantula, millipede, centipede, scorpion. Those are definitely interesting. The sago worms in Peru were also a very strange ingredient. Although I have to say that they’re much better cooked than raw.
Which is the most underrated food destination in the world?
I would say Mexico. I mean, Mexican food is very famous and we have it everywhere. I have eaten a lot of them. But you haven’t had Mexican food unless you have had it in Mexico. The regional diversity, the incredible flavours and the variety of ingredients they use there are not very well-represented outside.
Is there a place you find yourself returning to?
I find myself continuously returning to Southeast Asia. There are some extremely beautiful beaches and forests there and the variety of natural wealth is abundant. Then there’s the food—both from urban to rural. Eating across the region is incredible. I’d like to explore more of Laos.
Many people have turned to home cooking as a therapeutic experience in the lockdown. What are your thoughts?
I think one of the good things to have come out of this lockdown is that people seem to have reconnected with home cooking. I certainly have. I’ve got obsessed with baking sourdough bread and experimenting with different types of flours. To have time to rediscover the love and art of cooking—when it is something that the modern world is pushing us further and further away from—is fantastic.
Where do you want to travel after the coronavirus threat subsides?
Honestly, we would like to go back and reconnect with our family in the U.K. Again, one of the positives of COVID-19, is that it helps you prioritise what is important. When everything is taken away from you, it becomes a filter of sorts and the cream rises to the top.
As a chef and a restauranteur, how do you predict the future of this industry?
Currently it is a very difficult time and a bit too soon to say what will happen in the future. I think we’re all trying to figure that out so we can shape our businesses. I’m certainly doing that with Seven Restaurants Ltd., my restaurant in Nairobi, which has been closed for four months now. Whenever we do reopen, we will be opening to a very different business landscape. People go out to restaurants to enjoy, relax, socialise and to get away just as much as to eat. With this virus looming, it takes all that away from people. People are on edge and it ruins the experience. Will it change consumer behavior of how they go out, if they go out, and what they want when they go out? I don’t know. I think it’ll reshape the industry and make it better. I think there were a lot of things wrong.
Much like in one’s personal life, it helps you prioritise what it is about the business that consumers really value. From that you can reshape your business to deliver what people want as opposed to what you think they want. It gives everybody a chance to have a say. I am up for the challenge. Because I like being challenged. And I can’t wait to try and crack that and be at the forefront of the restaurant revolution.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.