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Pehchaan: The flavors of my motherland
and my grandmother -
the Woman who introduced me
to the joys of cooking

By Vikas Khanna

Indian hospitality is legendary. In Sanskrit literature, the saying “Atithi Devo Bhava” resonates in every household. It means God is a guest, and hence, it is an honor to share the meal with guests, irrespective of their social standing. This service is a form of worship and a religion by itself. As a child I always sneaked into the kitchen and observed carefully the process of this divine culinary experience.

I clearly remember the smell of the kitchen of my grandmother, whom we respectfully call Biji. She has an endless passion for serving family and friends her own homemade pickles, spice blends, marinated grilled meats, fresh vegetables, fresh breads, and everything she could do to make every meal a celebration. The pleasure of having the whole family sit together and enjoy the food and the company was her reward. For her, food was an _expression of love and care that binds families together.

This is the story of India and me, particularly its amazing foods, a story of scorching summers when the smell of ripe succulent mangoes thicken the still, hot air. I was an enthusiastic kid, not big enough to even reach the kitchen counters to see where Biji cooked the meals, which filled the air with exotic fragrances of the tadkas, infusing oils with spices. My interest grew everyday and with every season. Her food was simple and fresh, which was the comfort food for our souls. She was always generous enough to tell me the secrets of her magic. My food became somewhat the reflection of her teachings.

At seventeen, I wanted to convert a part of my father’s land into banquets, a place where people could celebrate family occasions and other events. Of course, the food was the main attraction of all celebrations. We named the banquets Lawrence Garden. I followed my grandmother’s footsteps and all cooking was done with two things in mind, simple and fresh. My mother, Bindu Khanna is a very dynamic woman who has a blend of public relations and business acumen. She is also known as the Indira Gandhi of Amritsar. She was the backbone of all the operations.

I remember the time when I wanted to be professionally trained. I applied in various culinary colleges all over the country. To my surprise, I got admitted to the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration-the most prestigious college in the country. It was the first time I was

leaving home and my parents. I was excited to discover the world but so scared to leave home.

The college was the realization of the fact that there were many diverse ways of cooking food. Later, whenever I got a chance, I traveled around the country to learn more about the regional foods. Every time I learnt a new dish, I introduced it at Lawrence Garden and consequently altered the taste buds of the guests who were so used to the cooking style of only their particular region. Though my Biji was little surprised with this enthusiasm for such foreign flavors, she always encouraged me and helped me to further develop and adapt these recipes to the local palate.

Slowly and steadily, Lawrence Garden became the top catering establishment in Amritsar. It had some of my original and signature dishes, which made the place very unique. It is to date the most flourishing banquets in the city.

After so many years of traveling around the world and cooking for years, I still feel that my appetite was only satisfied with her simple cooking. I salute her dedication and love for our family on Mother’s Day and may her kitchen feed more people everyday.


Batter-fried Spicy Fish

(Macchi Amritsari)

Growing up in Amritsar, I was always amazed by specialized cooking. Some restaurants or kiosks had the best grilled chicken, some served best desserts, but one of the most famous dishes from this city was fried fish, outside Hall Bazaar. It was a destination for all the out of town guests. My grandmother, to lure us into eating at home, developed her own healthy version.

I always try to add this dish in my restaurant menus, as homage to my hometown and my grandmother.

Serves 6

2 pounds fresh cod, monkfish, or salmon

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon minced garlic

salt to taste

1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon ajwain

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour

2 cups plain bread crumbs

vegetable oil for frying

1 teaspoon dry mango powder (optional)

1. Wash the fish and pat dry. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Rub the fish with lemon

juice, garlic, and salt and set aside for at least 2 hours.

2. Mix the fennel seeds, ajwain, cayenne pepper, and flour. Pour in water and gradually beat to a smooth paste. The consistency should be like thick pancake batter. Leave aside for 20 minutes.

3. Half fill the deep pan or deep-fat fryer with vegetable oil and heat up to

350°F or until a 1-inch bread cube browns in 50 seconds.

4. Dip a few pieces of fish into the batter to thoroughly coat them. Then using your fingers, coat the fish with bread crumbs.

5. Gently set the coated fish into the hot oil and fry for 5 minutes, until they are somewhat golden brown in color.

6. When the fish are evenly golden all over, remove and drain on brown paper sacks.

7. Serve the dish hot, sprinkled with mango powder.

Basil and Dates Flavored Basmati Rice

(Tulsi aur Khajoor Pulao)

Last week when I told my mother that I was coming home early and asked what she wanted to eat, she promptly replied “tulsi wala chawal”. Traditionally we never use tulsi (basil) in Indian cooking, as it is revered in Hindu families.

When I first put this dish in the special menu, everyone was surprised with the combination. It became an instant favorite. The sweet fragrance of basil and dates impart an excellent flavor to the basmati rice.

Serves 4

1 1/2 cups basmati rice

salt to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium-sized onion, coarsely chopped

A 2-inch cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 cup dried dates, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped

1. Rinse the basmati rice until the water runs clear. Soak in warm water for 10 minutes and drain.

2. Boil 4 cups salted water in a large pot. Add rice and cook until it is tender and fragrant—about 10 minutes. Drain the rice and keep it warm.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook

until they are tender and translucent—about 4 minutes. Add the cinnamon

and garam masala. Stir until they are well mixed.

4. Add the rice to the mixture and toss until the rice is evenly coated. Keep it

warm until it is ready to be served.

5. Just before serving, add dates and basil and stir to mix.

A chef by profession, Vikas Khanna’s food is a blend of his traditional Indian Culinary Background and the flavors and history of the highly diversified New York food culture. He is owner/executive chef and consultant to several restaurants and has won acclaim from the prestigious James Beard Foundation.
Vikas is the founder of New York Chef Chefs ’Cooking for Life’, a non profit organization that brings together celebrated chefs of New York City, for tasting events to raise funds for relief efforts around the world. The proceeds of the events benefit organizations such as Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross, and many more.
Based on his research on the power of the palate, he has created, Vision of Palate, a series of food tasting workshops, designed to educate people with visual disabilities about the complex flavors and aromas of spices and herbs
Through SAKIV (South Asian Kids Infinite Vision), Vikas reaches out to different EYE foundations around South Asia. ’SAKIV- world’ was established in 2005 to host vision expos all around the world. Vikas is an honorary member on the Board of the World Peace Society, New York.
He is the compiler and illustrator of the book,’The Cuisine of Gandhi: Based on the Beliefs of the Legend’, a selection of Gandhi’s writings on food. His forthcoming book ’The Spice Story of India’, is his journal of recipes that are a result of his experiences while working with culinary masters.
Vikas is a graduate of the WelcomGroup School of Hotel and Hospitality Administration, India. He has also studied restaurant management at Cornell University, Food writing at Culinary Institute of America and Food Styling at The New School. He has taught at The New School Culinary Arts, Johnson & Wales, New York University, and Harvard Extension School.

To know more about Vikas Khanna and his work, please visit

 Ceiba: The Jewel in Washington’s Crown

By Amrita Dutta-Gupta

Ceiba, pronounced “say-bah,” opened in Washington, DC in September 2003 and is the fourth feather in the cap of three very creative men- executive chef Jeff Tunks and partners Gus DiMillo and David Wizenberg. The other three very popular and unique restaurants being in the city: TenPenh, DC Coast, and Arcadiana.

The name Ceiba refers to a magical, tropical Latin American tree with bell-shaped flowers. Naturally, the food, as well as the presentation and décor, which evoke a mystical atmosphere, have a large Central and South American influence. The owners made several trips to the region, specifically to Brazil, Peru, and Cuba, and did comprehensive research before crafting their menu and designing their restaurant.

Ceiba truly appeals to your senses—the brightly colored walls with Latin American murals, tiled floors, and tropical plants lining the walls make you feel like you’re in Havana…well, almost. In the evenings the soft Latin music in the background is perfect dinner music, and then, of course, there is the food.

Most people like to start their meal with a drink, and the Hemingway Mojito, a twist on the classic Mojito (the secret is a splash of champagne), is quite a favorite, served with a fresh stalk of sugar cane. There are also different flavored margaritas, the traditional caiprinha, and a multitude of other specialty drinks with names consistent with the restaurant’s theme, such as “Playa del Sol” (coconut rum, amaretto, and pineapple juice) and “Yucatan Sunset” (rum, mango puree, and grenadine).

Next come the appetizers served in stone and earthenware dishes. Some of the best items on the menu are the appetizers. A standard Latin American starter is a ceviche, which is basically raw fish marinated in lime or lemon juice with olive oil and spices. Ceiba has several types of ceviche, centered on bass, bass, tuna, shrimp, and grouper. The Yellow fin Tuna Ceviche with cucumber, mango, lime dressing and crushed cashews is one of the most imaginative on the menu. If you can’t choose just one, they also have a sampler of all four available.

The appetizer section of the menu is the one I am most familiar with, and I highly recommend…everything! The Jamaican Crab Fritters, Duck Confit Emapanadas, and the Queso Fundido are incredible. The savory crab fritters are surprisingly light and not greasy or overly fried. The duck empanadas are stuffed with duck confit, olives, and raisins, which add a touch of sweetness. The Queso (Cheese) Fundido is served sizzling in a hot lava-stone bowl and comes with poblano peppers and fresh, warm tortillas.

As far as soups and salads, the Cuban Black Bean Soup is popular (at least it is among my friends!), as well as the West Indies Conch Chowder with a sherry pepper sauce. Ceiba also has an Octopus salad, which is quite a unique dish, but sadly, I’m not brave enough to try it!

What I have tried is Ceiba’s specialty entrée, “Feiojada,” a Brazilian braised Pork shank that is extremely tender and served with the traditional (and quite flavorful) rice and beans; it is the national dish of Brazil. Because of the special braising techniques and spices, this dish is only available for dinner. Another delicious entrée is the lobster, usually served grilled. Although many of the entrees are fish/seafood, there are other tasty options, including the moist Caribbean Barbecue Chicken Breast and the vegetarian Mexican Tortilla ’Chilaquiles’ Casserole with roasted sweet corn, spinach, Latin crema, and arugula salad.

Finally, we have the desserts! Ceiba has its very own Latin American pastry chef, David Guas. My favorite dessert is the Cinnamon Dusted Churros served with warm Mexican chocolate for dipping. Many of the desserts are quite rich, but there are lighter options such as the Grapefruit Tart and seasonal Sorbets, as well as the scrumptious Vanilla Bean Cheesecake.

Overall, Ceiba is definitely one of the best dining experiences I have ever had! If you’re in DC, make Ceiba part of your trip!

Amrita Dutta-Gupta grew up in Roswell, GA, and then attended Vanderbilt Univerity, where she received a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Political Science. After graduation, Amrita worked in London for a year, before settling in DC where she is active with the Vanderbilt Alumni chapter and an officer in her sorority alumni group. She enjoys traveling, shopping, reading, and eating out!


Specialty Recipes

Courtesy of Ceiba and their chefs.

Curried West Indies Style Spiny Lobster 
(Serves 6)


Curried Béchamel:

  • 2 T Butter

  • 2 T All Purpose Flour

  • 1 T Barbadian Curry Powder

  • 2 C Milk

  • 1 T Whole Grain Mustard

  • Hot Sauce to Taste

  • Salt to Taste

Island Sofrito:

  • 3 T Olive Oil

  • 1 Scotch Bonnet Chili (careful – spicy)

  • 6 Spring Onions/Scallions

  • 1 Small Yellow Spanish Onion

  • ½ Fennel

  • 1 C Sherry

  • 1 C Orange Juice

  • 2 C Shellfish or Chicken Stock

  • 3 Tomato Concassé

  • ½ Tsp. Fresh Thyme

  • ¼ C Sherry Vinegar

  • Salt and Pepper to Taste


  • 6 Whole Spiny Lobsters (1½ lbs. each)

  • 1 Mango

  • 1 T Butter

  • Salt to Taste


Béchamel – Melt butter in a sauce pan. Add flour and cook forming light amber Roux. Stir in curry powder, whisk in milk until sauce thickens.

Remove from heat. Whisk in mustard, hot sauce and season to taste. Reserve warm.

Island Sofrito – Add oil to sauce pan. Sauté scotch bonnet chili, green onions, Spanish onions and fennel for 3-4 minutes, until tender. Deglaze with sherry. Add orange juice. Reduce by half. Add stock. Reduce by half. Add tomatoes and simmer 3 to 5 minutes. Add vinegar. Cook for 10 more minutes. Add fresh thyme. Reserve warm.

Lobster Prep – Split Lobsters. Remove meat and wash out shell. Season and sauté lobster in butter until medium rare. Cool and medium dice. Add diced peeled mango.

Bringing it Together – Fold Lobster and Mango into Sofrito and Béchamel. Fill cleaned shells evenly with mix and bake in 400° oven for 10-12 minutes, until mixture is hot. Serve with Coconut Rice and Crispy Fried Spinach.

Presentation – 2 halves per person with ½ cup of rice and crispy fried spinach.



Vanilla-Bean Cheesecake
(Serves 8 to 10)



  • (As needed) nonstick vegetable oil spray

  • 1¼ C. graham cracker crumbs

  • 2 T. sugar

  • ¼ C. unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 8-inch-diameter springform pan with nonstick spray. Mix graham cracker crumbs and sugar in processor. Add melted butter; process until crumbs are evenly moistened. Press crumb mixture onto bottom (not sides) of prepared pan. Bake until crust is set and deep golden, about 12 minutes. Cool crust while making filling. Maintain oven temperature.


  • 3 pkgs. cream cheese (8 oz. each), at room temperature

  • 1 C. sugar

  • 2 ea. vanilla beans, split lengthwise

  • 4 ea.large eggs

  • ¾ C. sour cream

Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar, then scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; beat until smooth. Add eggs 1 at a time, blending well after each addition. Beat in sour cream.

Pour filling over crust. Bake cake until puffed, golden on top, and set around edges, and center moves slightly when pan is gently shaken, about 1 hour. Top may crack. Cool 30 minutes. Refrigerate uncovered overnight.

Guava Topping

  • 2 T. water, plus ¼ cup

  • 1 ea. envelope, unflavored gelatin

  • ½ C. sugar

  • 2 C. guava nectar or guava juice

Pour 2 tablespoons water into small bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over; let stand until gelatin softens, about 10 minutes. Bring sugar and remaining half cup of water to boil in medium saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil until reduced to half a cup, about 3 minutes. Add guava nectar to sugar syrup; stir over medium-low heat just until mixture is hot. Add gelatin mixture and stir just until gelatin dissolves. Place in freezer until gelatin begins to thicken slightly but is still pourable, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Spoon guava topping over cheesecake, spreading to edges of cake. Chill until topping sets, at least 8 hours or overnight.

Mango-Lime Salad

  • 3 ea. firm but ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, cut into ¼ inch dice

  • 4¼ T. sugar

  • 3 T. fresh lime juice

  • 1½ T. dark rum

  • 1 T. grated lime peel

Mix all ingredients in small bowl. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes, tossing occasionally. Serve chilled or at room temperature.


Using small sharp knife, cut around sides of cake to loosen. Remove pan sides. Cut cake into wedges and transfer to plates. Spoon Mango- Lime Salad alongside. Sprinkle with toasted coconut.

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