In the olden days, the Christian nuns in Goa used egg whites to starch their clothes. They did not know what to do with the yolks, so they used them to make a sweet dish. Over time the instinctive cuisine evolved into a seven-layer dessert that came to be known as Bebinca, ostensibly named after a Portuguese desert.
If only those nuns of yore could have known this: on Wednesday, Pope Francis, for his dinner at the Vatican, was served the Bebinca, along with 12 other dishes, all cooked by Indian chef Vikas Khanna. “I used a pizza oven to make the Bebinca. I could not make all seven layers, I made only four,” Khanna told HT over the phone from the Vatican. “It has not sunk in yet that I served the Pope a dish created by the Christians in Goa.”
The other 12 dishes were also taken from the cuisines developed by Indian Christians in the catholic regions. Khanna’s favourite among them is the vegetable stew made at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. It is made in mustard oil with paanch phoran, a mix of five spieces. Vikas personally dried, roasted, and powdered the five spices.
After handing over the 13 dishes to the office of the Pontiff, which alone serves food to the Pope, Khanna got to spend seven to eight minutes with Pope Francis and gave him his book, Utsav. It is a 1,200-page, 15-kg tome that brings together dishes of 26 festivals and 50 ceremonies from different parts of the country. The book is organised according to the calendar; Christmas, therefore, comes in the end.
The Pope rifled through the pages right down to the Christmas section, which also has a photo of a woman in a burkha carrying a child in her lap and holding another’s hand. Both the children are dressed as Santa Claus. The Pope, who often talks about the importance of pluralism in society, spent time looking at the photo. “He said it is really beautiful,” said Khanna.
The chef spent three days preparing the Pope’s dinner, with a crew that only spoke Italian. Khanna therefore downloaded a new Google app, which did the trick for him. Everything you speak into that app gets spoken back in Italian. “Meri to vaat lag gai (I got screwed),” said Khanna with a chuckle, “but it’s been the most awesome three days of my life.”
The dinner was a culmination of a discussion Khanna started years ago with the Vatican about the hunger initiative, which is close to the Pope’s heart. His people were delighted that a chef was talking about hunger. At the end of their meeting, the Pope gave Khanna a rose ring. “I’m going to savour it the rest of life,” says Khanna, who attended the mass before leaving the Vatican.
1. Mother Teresa’s Holy breakfast vegetable stew: Kolkata
2. Amitar Khar: spiced green papaya from Assam
3. Fish Paturi in banana leaf: West Bengal
4. Chicken Shagoti: Goa
5. Mutton Ishtew with appams: Kerala
6. Lamb Vindaloo with sannas: Goa
7. Green papaya chutney: West Bengal
8. Prawn Pulao: Goa
9. Dodol: Goa