Even food enthusiasts are unlikely to know that the first episode of Khana Khazana, the cooking show that kick-started Indian television's obsession with cooking, was actually hosted by Harpal Singh Sokhi, the almost-engineer who found his calling in the kitchen.
"I learned to pronounce the word chef for the first time after I entered the doors of the Institute of Hotel Management in Bhubaneswar in 1984," says the affable Sokhi, moments before joining a TV crew to shoot for Zee News's road food show Desh da Swaad in Delhi's Mayur Vihar. "Before that, I had no idea that you could learn to cook professionally."
Sokhi, who is from Kharagpur in West Bengal, grew up in an environment where children around him crammed tomes on engineering with the aim of entering the Indian Institute of Technology, the town's most famous export. "Given the brouhaha over engineering, I, too, decided to pursue it. I wanted to be an engineer, but was never keen on it. Then, one day, my brother told me excitedly about a new course where one could learn how to cook in a college." And, there has been no looking back.
With almost 25 years of experience in the kitchen under his belt, Sokhi started his career as a trainee cook at The Oberoi in Bhubaneswar. At 27, he became an executive chef. In 1993, he was a part of Khana Khazana. He launched his first solo show, Harpal ki Rasoi, on Nagpur's local Siti Cable TV. It was a promising start but not the solid break he might have wished for. That came in the form of FOOD FOOD channel's Turban Tadka, which made him a household name.
"Many of my fans are young men. I emphasise on simplicity, and these men find it surprising that cooking could be so simple," says Sokhi.
During the shoot of his new show in Mayur Vihar's Samachar market, many people turn up to interact with Sokhi. Like Anisha, a college student, who hangs around hoping to shake hands with the chef. "He brings forth an element of fun to cooking. I rarely cooked, but I have tried some of his recipes and they are quite easy to execute," she says.
Sokhi, who is also a singer and can speak five Indian languages, feels that Indian food has a huge variety to offer. "Cooking is a simple job. I try and not define Indian food regionally. Even though a person will add his own bit to a dish, we must be able to cook anything from any part of the country in our homes," he says.
"Also, I feel that a family must pool in their resources while cooking. Why should a woman cook alone? My father taught me some of the best food I know of," he adds.
Sokhi is also thankful that the Indian cooking show has moved from the afternoon slot to the prime time slot. "There are wholesome opportunities for people who know food well. Food is exciting today; it drives TRPs," he says. Newer shows have drummed up a healthy curiosity for Indian food. "Previously, Indian food was synonymous with Punjabi food. But it is today no longer tandoori chicken or butter chicken alone.
Our palate is a balanced one and there is a huge demand to explore that," he says.
Sokhi cooks at home, at the demand of his two daughters. He studied Hyderabadi food extensively, under Ustad Habib Pasha and Begum Mumtaz Khan, and researched the underlying link between Ayurveda and food. Ustad Habib Pasha is a well-known cook of Hyderabadi cuisine, and is one of the city's most famous cooks. Begum Mumtaz Khan is a living legend of Hyderabadi cuisine, "Contrary to popular belief, the Indian thali is quite healthy. That is when you are not ordering from a restaurant that emphasies on spices and oil," says Sokhi.