Millenia-old recipes of India’s rich culinary heritage are entering the blockchain world today to be secured for generations to come. Michelin-starred chef, restaurateur, filmmaker and writer Vikas Khanna has launched his 38th book and magnum opus, ‘Sacred Foods of India’ as a ‘phygital’ work in Dubai.
The majestic 420-page tome is gilded in gold, adorned with gemstones and Swarovski crystals, with every page printed in natural vegetable dye as a work of art. But it has a secret – a chip embedded that connects you to the non-fungible token (NFT) of the limited-edition luxury asset on the Ethereum blockchain. It is India’s first phygital book, where the physical and NFT versions of the work are linked and only sold together on the world’s first purely ‘phygital’ platform, Akshaya.io.
Sacred Foods of India’ is about heritage, about … kitchens, and it’s about pilgrimage. It talks about how you understand faith though food.
Ahead of the grand launch at his restaurant, Kinara, housed in the Jebel Ali Lake View Hotel, Vikas Khanna had sat down with Gulf News for an exclusive interview.
“’Sacred Foods of India’ is about heritage, about … kitchens, and it’s about pilgrimage. It talks about how you understand faith though food,” says Khanna. He recounts the success of his earlier documentary series ‘Holy Kitchens’, which had chronicled the community kitchens of places of worship, from mosques during Ramadan to the Sikh practice of ‘langar’ at the Golden Temple in India, and was shown in Ivy league universities and the White House. “In India there are so many institutions where everybody is serving food to people, not just poor people but to everyone, for many people it’s about soul food. Publishing houses in the US took notice of the series, and asked, ‘What are they cooking?’”
And so began his eight-year journey in writing the book. He says, “I felt that writing this book was about continuity. As India is becoming a country with such a massive diaspora, people like us should be able to tell our kids or the next generation about the true fabric of India. For me, ‘Sacred Foods of India’ had to be created for that.”
Charting the heritage of India’s holy food
“At any given time, somewhere on Earth, people are gathering to share food in the name of God. This food is spiritual nourishment… it brings the community together with a sense of shared identity and purpose,” a quote from Holy Kitchens’ Episode ‘True Business’.
The magnum opus work tells the ancient stories of the holy place and its culture, along with the treasured recipe from it – a grand total of 108 recipes, picked as an auspicious number. “We talk about everything – East, West, North, South , what foods are cooked where, the significance of these dishes, when they were cooked and what they were cooked for,” says Khanna.
He had shared on his Instagram account, earlier this month the vision for ‘Sacred Foods of India’: “A simple idea of representing holy foods from temples, gurudwaras, dargahs, Mother Teresa’s kitchen, Jain temples, synagogues, monasteries and Fire Temple. These are foods for the soul that also built communities.” It took almost 100 artists over eight years to bring this special work to life, Khanna tells us.
In his journey across the vast culinary expanse of India however, he rarely found any exact measurements for recipes. “Have you tried to get a recipe from your grandmum? A handful or this, pinch of that. What kind? They never give an exact amount,” Even after passing the barrier of entering the kitchens of these holy places with the massive volumes they cooked in, it was a challenge to make a recipe for four in the cookbook.
“Many cultures have this thing that - if you measure, it is not infinite. Food doesn’t only have physical form, but spiritual form. I think that is so beautiful, in stories but how do I write that in a cookbook,” says Khanna. He says that he felt conflicted about whether he should be measuring these ingredients at all. “Is this the right thing to do, measuring this out, but that’s the only way it’ll reach many more people honouring what they’ve been doing for centuries,” adds Khanna.
At the Sikh Golden Temple in Khanna’s hometown, Amritsar, the largest free kitchen in the world serves around a 100,000 people every single day, as per a 2021 report by Insider. He has often spoken about his inspiration from there and credits his grandmother for instilling the values of sharing, and kindness in him, saying, “My personal experience comes from my grandma, and she believed in ‘langar’ a lot.”
Bringing food into the NFT and ‘phygital’ world
The term ‘phygital’ refers to a hybrid, inextricably linked fusion of the digital and physical worlds, and has become part of our retail, gaming and art experiences as well.
For ‘Sacred Foods of India’, you can own not only the grand work at home but also own an original NFTs of the book created by Akshaya.io that will fully authenticate your ownership of the book. On the platform, customers can own a digital and physical version of every single asset – in a sense obtaining universal ownership. You own a unique, specific copy both physically and digitally.
Khanna says this transition was natural consequence of his aim of reaching the younger generations. “For me, it is very important to reach the diaspora. As one of the most prominent voices in the diaspora in America, I feel there are millions of Indians who have their kids right now – next generation, something has to be in their homes that celebrates India.
“The only way I can communicate with those kids is with their language. It cannot be through heavy duty books which they might not have access to, it’s too alien for them. So we felt, let’s go digital, NFTs, and now what they call ‘phygital’.”
Ganesh Raju, CEO of Akshaya.io, explains that this is to create real value for the NFT, while ensuring that your ownership of the physical book remains indisputable in the digital world for the future. “Pictures of monkeys, and cats are selling for $69 million, some $2 million as NFTs, and things like that, then you can also question, Is there a real value for that much money?” From the physical book point of views, he says, “As the owner, what happens if you lose the certificate generations down the line? If you misplace it?”
NFTs are secure, indisputable authentication of ownership directly between you and the creator, and does not depend on any external platform. The proof of ownership is sealed in the blockchain ledger worldwide for the future.
From the chip embedded in the book, you will not only gain access to the digital NFT version on Ethereum, but also an Augmented Reality version – like a filter, where you can interact with the book on the screen, but it’s set on the table in front of you within it.
“Web 3.0 is all set to transform utility of internet to unimaginable levels, and this is the right period to create phygital (physical + digital) assets that will gain prominence with time. Considering Chef Vikas Khanna’s popularity and the uniqueness of this book, we expect the NFTs of this work will acquire great eminence as time passes.
Raju says, “Each buyer will have a NFT, they will have a digital twin, they'll have an AR version. So say, I’ve bought the book, but I’m traveling. I’m so proud of it, that I want to show it to my friend. I can open my phone, show the digital version. I can also see the Augmented Reality version – the book comes as a digital version of it as a screen in the physical world.”
Raju had also said in a statement earlier this week, “Web 3.0 is all set to transform utility of internet to unimaginable levels, and this is the right period to create phygital (physical + digital) assets that will gain prominence with time. Considering Chef Vikas Khanna’s popularity and the uniqueness of this book, we expect the NFTs of this work will acquire great eminence as time passes.”
A ‘phygital’ future?
This is the first-ever collaboration for Chef Vikas Khanna with a Web 3.0 enterprise, and in the times ahead, he intends to create more augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) assets of his works and creations.
“The world is changing now, post pandemic, there’ll be new ways to communicate – and it is going to lead to more avenues and opportunities. A lot of people are skeptical about this medium, but so were people skeptical about the internet, but see it has already taken over us,” says Khanna.
At the centre of these advancements into the phygital world is Dubai, and Khanna emphasises Dubai’s central role in areas such as trade, art, investing that inspired this launch here. He adds, “There’s no other city or platform which is so immersed into the world cultures , and still has an identity.”
Raju adds that the next in line for his work with Vikas Khanna is creating a custom, metaverse space for the Michelin star chef.