His website gets 25 million hits a month, for a start. His Khana Khazana TV show (which has been running for 17 years and is still going strong) is watched by an audience of hundreds of millions. He’s written more books than Stephen Hawking has read. His rapidly growing restaurant empire (which includes restaurants in India, Dubai and Doha, not to mention more to be opened soon in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and possibly Abu Dhabi) has got Colonel Sanders nervously looking over his shoulder.
There are undiscovered tribes of cannibals in Papua New Guinea who prepare their victims with Kapoor’s ready-to-cook spice mix range, for Heaven’s sake. And to top it all off - just to raise his profile a bit in the Andromeda galaxy - he’s starting up his own 24-hour food TV channel. I spoke to him on behalf of What’s On magazine (see May 2010 issue) about his presence in Dubai, his TV channel and the universal (in his case, probably literally) appeal of Indian food.
JB: What interested you about the Indian food scene in Dubai?
SK: When we opened in Dubai over eleven years ago, at that time the Indian food market was already crowded. Everybody warned me about it. I saw that there were quite a few places (Indian restaurants) but the quality was not there. So, in terms of giving people a quality option, we opened Khazana. Then we opened Options, which we wanted to make everything better, in terms of profile, positioning and product. In terms of what is available and what opportunities there are in Dubai, I still think it’s a very energetic market, in spite of all the downturns and everything. It’s still a very important market for us, and now we are launching our food products in that market - pickles, ready-to-cook pastes, spices - I think as a market our focus is more more than ever in Dubai.
Is it possible to buy your food products in Dubai now?
Yes, they have already reached there and I think they’re in the shops. I’m not exactly sure where, but they will be available.
Do you have any plans for expansion in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere in the Middle East?
Oh, yes, we are actually opening a few outlets in Bahrain, and we are looking at Abu Dhabi - we have some discussions going on there.
How would you describe your cooking?
Simple and no fuss.
That’s very straightforward!
Yes, it is (laughs).
I’ve eaten at both of your Dubai restaurants and, yes, perhaps it’s simple and no fuss, but it’s very vivid flavours, very evocative food...
Yes, it’s not me, it’s the uniqueness of Indian food. It has this specific flavour, it’s a robust cuisine. And that’s what we try to capture.
So, how do your two Dubai restaurants differ from other Indian restaurants in the city? What’s special about them?
Actually, I’ve not been to too many Indian restaurants in Dubai other than ours, so I really don’t know what’s different - I think it’s for people to decide. We know what we are and who we are, and i really don’t bother about what anybody else is doing. So to be very honest, I have no intelligence about other places, and I don’t try to be different from anybody else. We only do what we believe in. In food, I don’t believe it’s important to see what everybody else is doing. I think you should do what you are good at and what you believe in - I think that’s critically important.
Do you ever stop and pinch yourself when you think about your phenomenal success?
Every morning (laughs)!
Things have grown tremendously since your first TV show in the early 1990s...
That’s right. I think when you go into anything you never think that you will not be big. You always think that you will grow big. And whether this is big enough, who knows? It may be just the beginning.
Maybe it is just the beginning, because you’re about to launch a TV food network channel in India...
That’s right. Actually, I started thinking about it about five or six years ago. In India people looked at me as if I’d gone mad. People could not believe that we could do something like this, but I was making plans and talking to different people. I talked to the BBC, I tried speaking to Food Network in the US, and they could not believe that in India there could be something like this. It was something that I had to do, and now the launch will be in the next few months. We have our submissions, we have our content that we’ve started producing. For us it has already become a reality because we have already started everything, but for people to see it will be a few more months.
What kind of food television do people in India want to see?
I think they want to see all kinds of themed shows. The kind of shows that I do are more instruction-based. It’s a “how to” kind of show. But I think that people are ready for more experimental, more reality-based shows - “song and drama” shows. People are thinking what else can be done with food? They are waiting for that. There are a few things that have been tried internationally, like travel and food, we’ll do that. We’re looking at contests, reality-based shows, talent hunts... So I think as we launch the kind of shows we’ll have will be shaped by the reaction we get from viewers. We will learn, and we’ll come to know what will work and what will not. I think we’ll learn from our mistakes.
Perhaps a reality-show to find the best regional cuisine in India, from Goa, to Kerala, the north...
Yeah, I think it would be good to find out how much interest Indian people have in Indian food, but also how much they’re interested in foreign food. You don’t know. That’s what we learn from the restaurants also. Of the top end restaurants in India, not all of them are Indian.
How do you think the emerging middle class in India has affected people’s attitudes to food?
It’s interesting what is happening in India. For the first time the middle class is spending money. They are comfortable spending money. I think, if I look at my parents, they were looking at saving because they started with nothing. People of our generation, and subsequent generations, they have income which they are comfortable spending. They do not have the insecurities that our parents had - they are more comfortable and more confident. That has changed the whole perception and opened a gap in the economy.
Remnants of Kapoor's signature dish of shaam saveera, or spinach koftas in tomato gravy, have been photographed by NASA's exploration rover on the planet Mars.
Why is Indian food so popular in the rest of the world?
I think it’s the fullness it has, the unique blends it offers. I think one of the basic things with Indian food is the tastes are not subtle - our sweet things are more sweet, our savoury things are more salty, our hot things are more chilli-hot - so even a palate that’s not too refined can easily relate to Indian food. You cannot ignore it - you may even hate it because it’s too strong - but you cannot ignore it. When people get the chance to try it, they talk about it more and they become exposed to something that’s radically different to what they’ve had before. If you look at other cuisines - like Italian and French - when they work with spices and herbs they work in isolation. Whereas with Indian food, in a single dish we could use up to 20 different contrasting spices and herbs. I think that works like magic - it works like modern doctors who for a simple illness might give you eight or ten different medicines in the hope that it would work. I think it’s the same with Indian food.
It’s like chemistry - all the different ingredients work together...
Yes, that’s right.
Which ingredients couldn’t you live without?
There’s nothing that’s so essential that I couldn’t live without. I’m not that fussy. Of course I have my personal preferences to eat, but first I have to know who I am cooking for. I may like more cumin, more garlic, more mint, more lime, but when I’m cooking that’s not important.
What are the latest trends in Indian food?
I think recently that the kind of food available in Indian restaurants resembles the kind of food we eat at home. I think now more people are trying to bring the taste of home into restaurants, and that’s happening in India also. Also, we have food from different regions in India that hasn’t been exposed to people who live in other regions. There is more interest now in those foods.
Khazana Restaurant, Dubai, 04 336 0061; Options Restaurant, Dubai, 04 329 3293. Sanjeev Kapoor's 24-hour TV channel is set to launch in India, and in a solar system near you soon...