Actor Pankaj Tripathi can breathe life into reel characters of all shades and hues, lengths, language, and genres with his measured and nuanced approach. He manages to woo the audience with power-packed performance, warm their hearts with his simplicity, and win them over with his humility. In real life, he often uses the same methods to indulge in his culinary skills. And once in a while, he likes to be footloose and fancy-free. In a freewheeling conversation with Shillpi A Singh he opens up about his indulgences.
“I sincerely believe that travel is for everyone, just that it may mean something different for each one of us. But one reason remains the same — our desire to experience new things. Here I must confess that I always yearned to become an actor because I wanted to travel the world. And it was my love for travel that made me move out from Belsand, a nondescript village in Bihar, first to Patna, Delhi and then Mumbai. Or I can say that one passion of mine fuelled another, and here I am. I love to see new places, taste new flavours, learn new cultures, meet new people, and enrich my life with all these small joys that come along.
Thankfully, my job allows me to be footloose and fancy-free, and I couldn’t ask for more. In all these years, I have had the pleasure of seeing all the places across the globe that I secretly wished to visit one day. Benjamin Disraeli famously said that like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. I couldn’t agree more with him. At times, I travel for business, and in between my hectic work schedule, I try and steal a few days to travel for pleasure too. And those moments spend with my family on holiday are enough to keep me on my toes till I get another opportunity to sneak out and enjoy. I got a taste of the English summer, and its beautiful countryside this year as a significant portion of my film, 83, was shot in the United Kingdom. It was an unforgettable experience. My family — wife Mridula and daughter Aashi — shares my passion for exploring new places, and that I would say is a great advantage.
The English getaway sounds like an exotic vacay, but trust me, I enjoy visiting far-off, and unseen cities, towns and even villages across India as well. The experience brings forth something that I can never discover otherwise. I get to know how other people live, eat and cook. It widens my learning horizon. So I earnestly look forward to packing my bags and heading to some faraway place to gather knowledge from people I stumble upon during my journey and stay. That remains a significant takeaway for me. But some places remain my all-time favourite like Leh and Ladakh, villages in and around Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Bikaner in Rajasthan, villages of Himachal Pradesh, and Kerala. It has been long since I visited Jaisalmer Fort, popularly known as Sonar Quila, or wandered aimlessly in Kuldhara village in Jaisalmer, or enjoyed a taste of rural life in Sam village, also in Jaisalmer. Other offbeat destinations in Himachal Pradesh that remain memorable for an awesome vacay are Tirthan Valley in the Kullu district where Tirthan river meanders along, and Jibhi, a scenic, unpretentious and old Himalayan village in the Banjar Valley. I choose to visit them over and over again because they are still pristine and breathtakingly beautiful. They soothe my frayed nerves and provide solace to my soul, and leave me refreshed and rejuvenated to carry on with the humdrum affairs of my life with greater vigour.
The other best part of travelling remains food. Once we were on our way to Jodhpur from Jaisalmer, and there was an eatery in sight. I asked my cab driver if we were going to stop for food? I could eat a horse, I told him. He said, “we will stop at a good one, some kilometres away.” But I spotted a hut that doubled up as a makeshift roadside eatery catering to the rural populace and asked him to stop the car. He was reluctant though saying we might not like the traditional Rajasthani food served there. I somehow had my way and went inside. The woman manning the Dhaba said that she had bajre ki roti and Kair Sangri for us, but if we could wait, she would prepare mirchi ki sabji too. Well, I was already salivating at the mere mention of these delicacies. The woman quickly went to her farm, plucked some green chillies, cooked the yummiest chilly curry that I have ever had in my life, dipped hot bajre ki rotis in ghee and served a meal in no time. It was way above our humble expectations, and perhaps the taste still lingers on in my mouth as I write about that meal at a roadside eatery many moons ago.
Such is the power of food that we eat. It conjures memories, often good ones that flash before your eyes as you think about what your mother cooking for you or anything that you once relished. For me, it is of the food cooked by my Ma, served with dollops of love and care, and the satiated look on my face and one of satisfaction on Ma’s after I polished my plate. I fondly remember the grinding of raw spices — cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilly — in sil-batta back at home that lent food its distinct taste, especially coriander leaf chutney. Long before entering the house, one could figure out that chutney had been prepared at home. Such was its aroma. I still prefer to go the traditional way and not much in favour of readymade spices or those ground in mixers for my cooking.
While travelling, I often prefer local food, be it in India or abroad. Food in any part of the world has its history, as old and as unique as our civilisations. I advise people to eat food slowly and chew it properly to get a clear understanding of the ingredients and the processes used in cooking that food.
Also, not many know that I was, at one point in time, a professional cook at a top-notch hotel in Patna. As a trainee there, I was made to peel vegetables for a week, and in reasonable amounts — 30 kg of onions, 50 kg of boiled potatoes, and 500 eggs in a day. There was no respite. It was a test of my patience and a way to check suitability for the job. Thankfully, I fared well.
I also remember having some of the best meals in the hotel kitchen. Many wouldn’t know, but the kitchen prepares two sets of food, one for the guests, and another one for its staff. There were 52 of us in the kitchen. Daily, the staff used to prepare 10-12 different types of meals for themselves. Like others, our gang of four too used to do cook food in a hurry with no or minimal cutting of vegetables, and use of a few spices and but still we had the yummiest food in those days. Those were the good, old days.
Back in Mumbai, I am always on the lookout for the vegetables that we get in our part of world — nenua (sponge gourd), arbi (colocasia), ole (yam), etc. These are the rare ones to find as there are few takers for them. My all-time comfort food remains litti-chokha, sattu ka paratha, makai-sattu (corn-roasted gram) powder, and chawal-teesi (rice and roasted flaxseed powder).
In the parting, I would say that cooking is an art, akin to acting where one has to use imagination and attention in abundance. One has to use ingredients in the right proportion and use them creatively. Similarly in acting, if one overdoes it or leaves it undone by even one per cent, then it shows. Like when we buy okra, we prepare a mental map of how we intend to cook it, whether it would be a dry preparation or a gravy one. In acting too, we visualise the role mostly according to the script and to some extent on imagination and instinct, and then enact the same onscreen.
By the way, don’t be surprised if you hear that I have opened a restaurant serving Purvanchali food.