Politics, Poetry and Puri-Bhaji: Atal Bihari Vajpayee and All That He Loved

The former Prime Minister was an uninhibited gastronome who loved trying local and regional cuisine

Priyamvada Kowshik

What is it like cooking for a Prime Minister who loves his food, is curious about cuisines from different lands and never shy of trying something new? Chef Hemant Oberoi, who accompanied former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on a few state visits and cooked for visiting dignitaries at state dinners, remembers the time he worked in the former PM’s kitchen as challenging and gratifying. “Vajpayeeji was a curious foodie, he loved good food. He liked to start the day with a good breakfast, his favourite being the Lucknow-style Puri Bhaji.” The bhaji in this case was a particular one sold at a small shop in Lucknow and Oberoi and his team visited the shop to taste the puri bhaji so they could recreate the recipe for the PM.  

The former Prime Minister who passed away on August 16, 2018 will be remembered for several things: for being the PM who heralded the country into the new millennium; for riding the Dosti bus to Lahore and being the first person to ride the Delhi Metro; for his politics and powerful speeches peppered with poetry. And for being a gastronome with a special fondness for local cuisine.

This was before “eating local” became a global food trend. From Kolkata’s phuchkas to Kerala prawn curry, Hyderabad haleem to Lucknow’s galouti kebabs, former aides and friends recall AB Vajpayee’s curiosity to try dishes typical to the region, whenever he travelled within, or outside India. On a visit to Japan, he sampled Sashimi, and while it was not an instant hit with him, he charmed everyone with his uninhibited love for experimentation, recalls Oberoi.     

Though AB Vajpayee preferred wholesome Indian vegetarian food in most meals, he loved seafood and Indian desserts, recalls Oberoi. The fondness for seafood made visits to Kerala special, the PM relished lobsters and fish, and appams with traditional Kerala curries. “Vajpayeeji not only appreciated good food, he was also generous with praise. When he enjoyed his meal, he’d send a word, or call the chef. It felt great!” says Oberoi, who was the grand executive chef at Taj Hotels at that time.

When visiting a foreign state, the chefs accompanying the former PM quickly learnt to carry basic ingredients like lentils and spices from India. Local ingredients, especially in a foreign country, can have varying properties, cooking time and consistency. “Certain potatoes would cook too fast. Once on a visit to Moscow, the lentils just didn’t cook!” recalls Oberoi, who travelled with the former PM to the US, UK, Tokyo and Russia, among other places. The former PM had a penchant for Indian sweets, “a nice rabri, malpua and laddus,” were his favourites.  

The obituaries pouring in for AB Vajpayee—from former aides, journalists and his fellow politicians—are fond recollections of the many shades of a towering politician, who was also an uninhibited foodie. Who, in the years before he became PM, enjoyed donning the chef’s hat to cook a special dish for his close friends; and as a political prisoner lodged in the Chandigarh jail during Emergency, cooked Khichri for his fellow political prisoners. 

A story by PTI has senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai recalling an incident where Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s aides deployed a plan to draw him away from gulab jamuns at an official lunch, given that the PM was on a strict diet. They introduced him to Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit and Vajpayee’s love for cinema distracted him long enough for the aides to move the sweet balls of mawa swimming in sugar syrup and other such desserts with the potential to derail his diet, away from his line of vision. The story also talks of friends being tasked to bring in his favourite foods—Lalji Tandon, known as his protege, got kebabs from the Chowk area in Lucknow, former Union Minister and MP from Old Delhi, Vijay Goel, brought the famed bedmi aloo and chaat from the old city and Vice President Venkaiah Naidu brought for him his favourite prawns from Andhra Pradesh.

Politics, poetry, puri-bhaji and pakoras, with an extra dusting of chaat masala and hot chai—AB Vajpayee will be remembered for his uninhibited approach to all things he loved. 


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