Kamlesh Patel ~ Family Where Men Cook Across Generations

by on April 13, 2015

He laughingly remembers how his mother would half listen to the radio in the evenings and comment on the sounds and flavours emanating from the kitchen where his father would be cooking away. He has kept the tradition alive with being active in his own kitchen, and happily describes his sons’ experiments with cooking as well. In India, where the kitchen has long thought to be a woman’s domain, the Patel family believes otherwise. I met up with Kamlesh Patel (60), at his beautiful home in Chennai, to chat about family, food and fun.


Kamlesh Patel

Hello Kamlesh. Having heard much from your cousin, Jigyasa Giri, about your love for cooking, I have been looking forward to meeting you. To begin with, what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of food and family?
Dinners! I remember growing up with a rule that we must all be present at the dinner table at 7.30 pm sharp. Actually, it was not a rule but a law. An unspoken law! It was not explicitly stated but simply understood that dinner time is family time.


What did the dinner usually consist of?
It was delicious food cooked by my father. He prepared the dinner almost every day. He was an awesome cook and I would hang around in the kitchen with him.
What brought him into the kitchen? A little strange, considering that in most Indian families, men are only seen at the dining table and not near the gas stove.
I agree, but our family is perhaps an exception. I don’t know what started it, but we are a family where men enjoy cooking.


What did your parents do?
My father, Suresh Patel, was in the construction business while my mother, Rashmi Patel, was a content housewife. She cooked simple Gujarati food, while Pappa was like a chef with a flourish. We thought of Mummy’s food as something that we simply had to eat, while Pappa experimented with exotic flavours. He used to travel and brought back recipes of spaghetti and pizza – dishes that most of my friends had not tasted back then.


Did you grow up in a joint family?
Not really. But we all met up on Sundays at my uncle, Jayendra Kaka’s place. He was also an awesome cook. Sundays were called ‘Pizza days’. Relatives and friends would just join in. Some would bring dishes from home while some of us would cook whatever took our fancy. A huge display of food and lots of fun – unforgettable memories!


So what are your family’s specialties?
Pappa specialized in one-dish items, which we called the singleton items. He also made the best Gujarati dal. My brother, Sirish, cooks rich food like Moghlai dishes. I like experimenting with Italian, Continental and Chinese cuisines. In Indian food, I enjoy preparing Andhra recipes as taught by a friend. I also do lots of barbecuing when there are guests.


Food is one passion known to family and friends. Tell me about your other one – racing!
I raced and rallied from the age of 18 to 48. In 2002, I became the National Motor Racing Champion. Strangely, that was also when I quit. Actually, I studied to be a civil engineer, but finally ended up running an automobile service centre.


So your son Aditya Patel has inherited his love for racing from you?
I think so. He has also inherited the joy of cooking (laughs). He is always pottering around the kitchen while I am cooking. When he travels abroad and visits his cousins, he cooks for them. My younger son, Akshay, also seems to have a culinary inclination.


And has the dinner ritual continued in your house?
Yes, when we are all in the same city. On Sundays, we go to our beach house and cook over there.


Do you eat out a lot?
Hardly; not within the city! As a family, we like experimenting in our own kitchen. Unless it is Rava dosa at Sangeetha hotel or Masala dosa at Saravana Bhavan – dishes we don’t generally prepare at home.


What is it that fascinates you about food?
I am very intrigued by the methodology and sequence of food. I also like travelling to other countries and bringing back unique ingredients. During my recent trip to Italy with the family, we found this mega food store of fresh Italian ingredients – Eataly. I packed a suitcase full of stuff from there. I also enjoy guessing the ingredients in any dish. Once in a Chinese restaurant, they served us tofu topped with a sauce. It was so delicious that when we returned to India, I tried a few variations until the taste was captured.


Tell me about your discovery of the nuances of this dish!
My wife Amita does not like tofu, so I use panner – a quarter inch thick slice of paneer. I roast this until it browns slightly. Next I prepare a mixture of red chilli paste, chopped ginger and garlic, dark soya sauce, vegetarian oyster sauce and vinegar. I stir this mixture in a little oil on high flame for a minute and use it as a topping for the roasted paneer. That’s it. It is now one of our favourites.


Since you prepare a lot of Chinese dishes, do you use Ajinomoto?
No, I don’t. But I don’t think it does greater harm than refined salt. Whenever I travel, I try and get sea salt. Apart from being a healthier option, it also transforms the taste of any dish.


So which Chinese vegetarian dish are you going to share with me today?
Once while we were travelling within Spain, eating Spanish food for all the three meals, we chanced upon a Chinese restaurant. They served us an amazing dish of thin noodles. I had never tasted anything like that. I came back to India and searched for the noodles. Finally, I decided to make the dish with vermicelli. It simply worked. That is the recipe I am going to share with you.


First published in January 2015 in Harmony – the Indian magazine for silvers for the column – ‘His Ladle Love’. A series about men who experience the joy of cooking and can weild a deft ladle in the kitchen. Part-2 of this post is the recipe of Chinese Noodles to be published soon.
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