What is India's first phygital cookbook all about? Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna and Akshaya.io's Ganesh Raju explain

Dubai - Michelin Star Chef Vikas Khanna and Akshaya.io CEO Ganesh Raju on the launch of India’s first-ever phygital cookbook Sacred Foods of India

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Somya Mehta

Published: Thu 30 Jun 2022, 7:06 PM

On June 23, Indian-American Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna unveiled his latest cookbook Sacred Foods of India in partnership with Akshaya.io, India’s first-ever platform to bring the Metaverse, NFT and Digital Twin together under one virtual marketplace. The celebrity chef joined forces with the CEO of Akshaya.io, Ganesh Raju, to launch the first-of-its-kind phygital cookbook at Khanna’s homegrown Indian restaurant Kinara, Dubai. Launched as an NFT, Sacred Foods of India is a limited-edition, rare collectible asset that pays homage to the age-old culinary heritage and wisdom of India. In a conversation with wknd., the chef and Akshaya.io CEO talk about their latest collaboration, the future of Web 3 and why Sacred Foods of India was the ideal choice to be launched as the world’s first-ever phygital cookbook.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What led you to launch the Sacred Foods of India as a phygital cookbook?

Vikas Khanna: The content of the book was such. It is something we want our kids to read. The kids of today aren’t into cooking, let alone Indian cooking. We want them to read not just about the recipes, but also the heritage and traditions of Indian history and food. This book was my way of bringing geography and the culinary world together. But we were unable to find the right way to get to those kids. They might not be speaking the traditional languages, might not want to own conventional cookbooks. So, how do you reach such an audience? That is when Mr Ganesh Raju and Akshaya.io came into the picture. He said it’s great content, which also captures the essence of India celebrating 75 years, honouring people who’ve been cooking these meals for generations. And the kids, who speak a digital language, will also find it accessible.

Ganesh Raju: We’ve been in the US for 24 years, working with all the top companies, including Google, Amazon, Microsoft. We’ve seen first-hand how Web 3 is taking over the e-commerce market. While we’ve been doing a lot of work in that domain, our heart still goes back to our roots, in India. We wanted to build a platform that is focused on India and highlights the thousands of years of history and heritage across the globe. That’s when we started scouting for our launch project and found out that Mr Vikas Khanna is working on this book, which talks about ‘sacred foods’ of India, food that touches souls and hearts of people. Instantly, we knew it’d be a great partnership to have and have as our first launch of a phygital NFT. Akshaya.io is the first ever marketplace for purchasing a phygital version rather than just a digital version of assets.

Is that its main difference when compared to existing marketplaces like Rarible and OpenSea?

Ganesh Raju: Yes, the other places focus mostly on digital images. There are digital pictures of monkeys and cats selling for millions of dollars and people resell it. There’s a new economy that has opened up but at the same time, it is also raising questions. Are these assets really worth that much? NFTs should be of true value and utility. So, we thought of bringing a real collector’s item. And this cookbook is a true collector’s item that will be held on for generations. When people buy this, we give them the NFT along with a digital twin. The digital twin version is a replica of the actual physical book and NFT is a record that goes in the blockchain, recording who the owner is and the validity of the book’s authenticity.

Vikas Khanna: I’m totally new to this concept so I felt like a kid in candy store. The 3D version of the book is insanely beautiful. I really hope this reaches the kids. We are NRIs living in different countries and it is getting exceedingly difficult to pass on the cultural values to the kids who are growing in very different environments. And culture is continuity. You constantly repeat things and that repetition, it becomes a culture. When I see my friends’ kids and kids all around, my heart bleeds because they’re studying in American schools, adapting to the Western culture. It can lead you to forget your own roots. When I moved to the US, it happened to me as well. I kept being pushed as an Indian chef, which made me want to change the dishes and cuisine I was cooking. Until I finally realised what makes me incomparable is that I am myself. That is what boosted my career. People in the US didn’t know much about India. It became my mission to introduce not only the food but also the Indian culture along with it. So, I understand the turmoil. Kids can get insecure. So, we’re hoping this reaches them. The digital version is made to be very playful, it will be fun for them to read about their cultures and traditions in a playful manner.

The focus till now has been primarily on NFTs. Are phygital assets the way going forward?

Vikas Khanna: I think this is going to revolutionise how artists are going to create art. Yes, my regular books have been going online for a while now and do more sales online but with such large-scale artistic projects, an online version will not do justice. It needs something more and phygital is the only answer to that.

Ganesh Raju: Phygital is a word made from physical and digital. Since it is also physical, you retain the touch and feel of the asset, as you own a physical version too. It can become a true collectible item, whilst also having an NFT and a digital twin.

There are still cynics out there who may not see the value in creating digital assets. What are some of the benefits of going phygital, rather than just having a physical asset?

Ganesh Raju: In simple terms, when you purchase a high-value diamond, they give a paper certificate to you to confirm its authenticity. Generations later, you may lose the paper certificate. So, how will you know it’s a high-value diamond? The NFT, which is stored in blockchain, will bring the authenticity of that ownership. It’s immutable. And with rare collectible items, you’re the only one in the world owning it. So, the value can go up drastically.

Vikas Khanna: We just sold the first copy of the book for 50,000 USD. Can it happen to regular cookbooks? It just shows the amount of potential. Whenever I’ve been the first in my profession to do anything, it also opens way for many artists because the relatability factor is so high. So, this allows people to purchase assets as an investment. People were not buying cookbooks as an investment before. But Sacred Foods of India is an investment. A lot of chefs are cooking already on YouTube. There’s nothing unique about it. Today’s Paneer Makhni is tomorrow’s Makhni Paneer and that’s about it. You’re talking for 10 minutes, cooking something you know on camera and monetising it. But for artists, there are more avenues to express yourself, to reach new audiences and create assets for people.

There’s a common thread of spiritual concepts in your last few works as well as Sacred Foods of India. Is cooking a spiritual process for you?

Vikas Khanna: Of course. Cooking is a spiritual expression for me. When you’re making a dish, even if you’re modifying how it looks, you have to understand that it is coming from deep history of traditions. Over the years, these dishes have survived the test. They are the real heroes. And now it’s come into our hands, so we have an obligation to it. Whenever I’m talking to Indian chefs who are aspiring to earn Michelin stars, I always say, ‘Just remember one thing, the dish which you’re presenting, is not yours. Putting a parsley instead of coriander doesn’t make it yours’. These dishes actually belong back home, to a lot of kitchens, streets and temples. It belongs to them because they are the ones who preserved it.

Lastly, will this cookbook also be launched into the Metaverse?

Ganesh Raju: Yes, Sacred Foods of India will soon be in the Metaverse. There are headsets you can wear and you will feel transported into a whole new virtual realm. We are working on creating a Metaverse that will be India-focused, highlighting the heritage, traditions and culture of the place. Buyers of the cookbook will have exclusive rights.


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