Yummy Uganda interviewed Khana Khazana’s Head Chef Lok Bahadur to learn about his journey from the world’s highest mountain range to the city of seven hills.
Forty-eight-year-old Head Chef Lok Bahadur was born in Nepal and lived most of his life in India, until Sarika Kapur, the owner of Khana Khazana and the recently opened Khana the Verandah in Muyenga, sampled his food at one of the Sheraton-owned restaurants in New Delhi. That was 10 years ago and they have been working together ever since.
According to Kapur: “Chef Lok is one of several expert chefs at Khana Khazana. Each one excels in a different style, whether it is Punjabi or Tandoor (clay oven) style cooking, curries or the griddle. Chef Lok is very good at cooking North Indian flavours, food cooked on the griddle and Mughlai flavours, which are creamy, saffron and tomato-based dishes. Chef Lok’s flavours are consistent and his experience working in large restaurants in New Delhi means he is quick at preparing dishes.”
Like many young Nepalese, Chef Lok moved to India in search of opportunity. However, unlike those who learn to cook to make a living, the young Lok had developed a passion for the trade, an unusual hobby for a young Nepalese boy. He started his cooking career in a small (by New Delhi standards) 100-seater restaurant. During the day he trained at the National Food Institute, working in the restaurant at night. Today, Chef Lok still clearly remembers the first meal he cooked for his first boss: dahl makhani and shahi paneer.
Through word-of-mouth recommendations, Chef Lok graduated to work in various kitchens across Delhi. At Dumpukht, at the Maurya Sheraton, he trained in cooking Kashmiri food, ‘sealed food’, or dum-style food. It was here at Dumpukht that he met Sarika Kapur, who invited him to come and work for her in Kampala at the Khana Khazana restaurant. Opened in 1997, Khana Khazana is a restaurant that prides itself on serving dishes to the exact
taste of the customer. ‘Khana’ being Hindi for food and ‘Khazana’ meaning treasure.
Chef Lok has helped train the chefs at Khazana the Verandah in Muyenga and worked at the Khana Khazana restaurant in Dar es Salaam. “Although we bring in fully trained chefs from India, we continue to train them when they get to Kampala. We serve a wide variety of clientele in Kampala and all of our chefs have learned to adapt to local tastes. Although Indians love spices, the chefs have been taught how to monitor the amount of spices,
chilli and oil they put in their different dishes, to suit local and expat palates too.”
Of the dishes served here in Kampala at Khana Khazana, a very popular dish is Chicken Makhani (Butter Chicken). One of Chef Lok’s expertly crafted dishes is Dum aloo Kashmiri (stuffed potatoes with cheese and cashew nuts, cooked in yoghurt and special Kashmiri spices). Another of his specialities is Dum Biryani (rice steamed with saffron and cardamom, sealed with dough and allowed to cook on a cool charcoal fire. “When you break open the dough, beautiful fragrances are released.”)
During his career, Lok has worked alongside celebrity chefs including Sanjeev Kapoor and Sem Patel. They remain his role models. Famous Khana Khazana customers include Winnie Mandela, the Kabaka of Buganda and the Nnabagereka and “Last King of Scotland” actor Forest Whitaker. Needless to say, many well-known Indian movie stars have dined at the restaurant as well.
On Mondays Khana Khazana is closed. Away from the restaurant, Lok watches TV and chats with the chefs with whom he shares a Kampala home. During the year, whenever he is able to, Chef Lok also returns to India to visit his family.
Since they are cooking and tasting food all day, most chefs eat the simplest of foods to stay healthy. Lok says “I drink a traditional salt lassi, a mixture of lemon juice and yoghurt mixed with water.” It’s an antidote to the rich spicy food and helps him to cope with the heat of the ovens. When asked if he likes Ugandan food, Chef Lok answers with a big smile and says “matooke” and “rolex!” The versatile Khana Khazana chefs have even developed North Indian versions of traditional Ugandan foods. (When served masala matooke at a wedding, President Museveni asked “why haven’t Ugandans made this?”) If African Indian fusion cuisine has produced masala matooke, perhaps one day when he retires Chef Lok will even introduce it to the Indian sub-continent!