Halekulani chef presents the many flavors of India

Feb 28, 2015


“I enjoy eating food,” said Vikram Garg in a cellphone text that included a digital icon of a wide smile. “I really don’t have a favorite. It changes from day to day and totally depends on the place, the weather, the people I’m with.”

As executive chef of the Halekulani hotel, Garg can cook up the best of French, American, Mediterranean and Southeast Asian cuisine, catering to the international clientele of the resort. But his roots are in the Indian cuisine he grew up on, which also explains his worldly taste buds and palate.


A benefit for Hawaii Culinary Education Foundation:
» When: 6 p.m. Jan. 25

» Where: Halekulani hotel

» Tickets: $160

» Reservations: Call 941-9088 or visit


Garg was born and raised in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar. Port Blair was a penal colony for political prisoners during the time of the British Raj. Garg’s parents were educators in this island community where, he says, the flora and fauna were similar to Hawaii.

In terms of food, “Port Blair was a mini-India, a potpourri of different cultures of India,” said Garg, who has been at the hotel since 2008. “It was a mix of everyone, similar to the potpourri of Hawaii. I was exposed to so many different cuisines.”

It is this mix of cuisines that Garg will feature in “Chef Vikram Cooks: The Cuisines of India,” a special dinner Jan. 25 at the Halekulani. More than a dozen vegetarian dishes from all parts of India will be presented in a benefit for the Hawaii Culinary Education Foundation.

The foundation provides programs for culinary students across the state, with local, national and international chefs, cookbook authors and food and wine experts providing cutting-edge and out-of-the-classroom culinary experiences that broaden students’ awareness of the culinary world. (Visit

The vastness of India dictates that distinct regional ingredients and flavors would emerge.

“Every 100 kilometers the cuisine changes,” said Garg. “There are extremes from the four corners, and each region is not often exposed to other areas.”

The chef’s culinary skills were formally developed at Delhi’s Oberoi School of Hotel Management and honed at five-star hotels and restaurants in India.

“But most of my learning comes from family cooks,” he said. “That’s where you learn how much of a spice to add, how to balance spices and flavors.”

Spices, of course, are the soul of Indian food.

“Spice is a sensation, not a taste,” noted Garg. “Salty, sweet, sour and bitter are tastes. In the different regions of India, the spices are the same but the blends and ratios change.

“To the east of India, there is the influence of China, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh. There’s a lot of Chinese influence like dim sum.”

So it’s no surprise that steamed dumpling momos will be served at the dinner, topped with fresh tomato, cilantro and chili chutney.

“These ingredients are always chopped and used fresh; the east is known for spicy foods.”

Bombay to the west is known for its street food.

“Snacking and pupu are popular, like Pau Bhaji, an Indian version of a sloppy Joe,” he said, referring to another item on the menu. “In Bombay there’s a sourness to the food often from raw mango and tamarind. Coriander powder is also used to add sweetness.”

In the north, wheat, cream, butter and ghee characterize the food. Representing that region are Paneer Subz Tikka, a spicy yogurt-marinated and grilled Indian cottage cheese, and Daal Makhani, a dish of black lentils stewed for 72 hours with butter and ginger.

Rice, coconut milk and coconut oil are evident in southern dishes such as Chettinaad Ulu, breadfruit cooked with coconut and sweet and hot spices. Aromatic curry leaves are prominent as well, and they will be featured in a dish of sauteed long beans with coconut. Idli, steamed rice and lentil cake, is a classic of Kerala.

Many more vegetarian dishes will be served, accompanied by naan and papadums, the popular breads of India.

While alcohol is not a traditional accompaniment to an Indian meal, David Gochros and Patrick Okubo, sommeliers with Young’s Market Co. of Hawaii, are pairing wines with key flavors of the varied menu.

“The menu consists of dishes I enjoy eating myself,” said Garg. “It’s a true reflection of each area of India.”

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