Vikram Sunderam

F&W Star Chef

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Vikram Sunderam, chef at modern Indian restaurants Rasika Penn Quarter and Rasika West End in Washington, DC, shares holiday tips and five essential places to visit in Mumbai, India.

What’s your favorite holiday gift ideas?
We make our own chutneys here in the restaurant, and we like to pack them in hand-painted chutney jars, which my wife paints herself, in bold Indian designs.

What’s your favorite holiday cocktail?
I generally like something with Champagne, like a mango or peach Bellini. It’s nice and refreshing.

What’s one great entertaining tip?
I think hospitality is the most important thing you can offer—when you entertain at home, you can eat and drink whatever you want, but it will be the atmosphere you create, the welcoming factor that’s really important.

What are the 5 top don’t-miss places on a holiday visit to your hometown, Mumbai?

  1. For hotels, my favorite is my alma mater, the Taj Mahal Palace. I started my cooking career there way back in 1985. The old wing is especially great—there’s a lot of grandeur and color, with lots of detailing. The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai has plenty of great restaurants. There’s Morimoto’s Japanese restaurant called Wasabi, and an Indian restaurant called Masala Kraft. They’re both on par with any international restaurant in London.
  2. There’s a very good restaurant called Mahesh Lunch Home. It has terrific seafood, much of it local to Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra, so it’s very fresh.
  3. Street food in Mumbai is very popular, you can get savory snacks called chaat all around the city. There’s a very famous chaat place called Kailash Parbat, in Colaba, an area within Mumbai. The chaat are made to order, so they’re very fresh and flavorful.
  4. For sightseeing, the Gateway of India has a lot of history—it’s a monument along the waterfront built by the British as a welcome to India. Bombay is a port, a natural harbor, so that gate looks out over the Arabian Sea. It’s also opposite the Taj Mahal Palace where I worked. So I have quite a few fond memories.
  5. Outside of the city, the Elephanta Caves are quite a historic site, with Hindu and Buddhist carvings dating back to the fifth century.

When I go home to Mumbai, mostly I love to eat. There’s so much variety—especially when you’ve been away for so many years, the food tastes so different there because they use more flavorful, local ingredients like goat and mountain lamb. And it’s such a cosmopolitan city. I love it.

What dish are you most famous for?
Palak chaat, a fried spinach dish on the menu at Rasika. The inspiration was an Indian fritter, which is generally very heavy with batter. When we were creating the dish, we wanted to do something light, even though it’s fried. It has a little sweetness and sourness from the date-and-tamarind chutney, a little spice from the red chile powder and the cumin powder, and it has sweet yogurt. I think it’s the lightness and the combination of flavors that make the dish so popular.

What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
The Masala Art, by Hemant Oberoi. Oberoi is my mentor, he’s the corporate executive chef for the Taj Mahal group of hotels. His book is on Indian cuisine, but with a very modern outlook, and that’s where Indian cooking is going today.

One technique everyone should know?
There are a lot of people who always shed tears when they cut onions. If you refrigerate the onion before you chop it or slice it, it definitely doesn’t make you cry as much. And I think we’ve cried enough.