Thursday, 7 November 2013

RIP: India Loses Her Sunny Granny of Comfort Food

This obituary first appeared in the 7 November 2013 edition of Mail Today, Delhi/NCR. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers


By Sourish Bhattacharyya

FROM Narendra Modi to India's first television chef Sanjeev Kapoor, all of India is mourning the passing away of Tarla Dalal after a heart attack at 77, for her cookbooks have been an essential ingredient of our national life, and a rite of passage for the pre-internet generation, for four decades since she was first published in 1974.
Tarla Dalal lifted home cooking from its
cycle of predictability and affected the
lives of millions in the pre-internet age
A chatty Mumbai homemaker with a sunny temperament and halting command over English, who'd gained a considerable following for the cooking classes she was running at her Napean Sea Road home since 1966, Tarla Dalal (with her husband taking dictations) spent 18 months writing The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking. It became a runaway best-seller after its debut in 1974 and a mandatory gift for brides in an age when cookbooks and Eve's Weekly were the only sources of recipes, and it was eventually translated into six languages (including Dutch and Russian).
With the cookbook, Dalal took home cooking with everyday ingredients to a new level of replicable creativity, lifting it out of its self-limiting cycle of predictability with her brand of accessible excitement. She was the grandmother of comfort food even before the term became fashionable. Betty Crocker was a figment of a publisher's imagination; Tarla Dalal was real. Her constituency was the country's mushrooming middle-class trying hard to bring some excitement to its table. And she achieved the impossible: to quote Atul Sikand, founder of Facebook's most vibrant Indian recipe-sharing community, Sikandalous Cuisine, "she made simple recipes, which are the toughest to get right, seem so easy to do".
Inspired to become a hobby chef by Dalal's cookbooks, Sikand remembers meeting his idol when he was 23-24, fresh out of his development economics master's programme at the University of Sussex, and asking her about how to get his kadhi right. She explained the intricacies of her recipe with the patience of an indulgent aunt and even said how he would become a great chef one day. Of course, he never became one!
Even chefs are proud to admit that they have liberally borrowed from Dalal's cookbooks. She authored 170 of them, which have sold more than four million copies, and her TV show,  Cook It Up with Tarla Dalal, ran on Sony Entertainment Television for three years. Yet, she was candid enough to announce in Harmony magazine some years back that she had stopped cooking, leaving the job of creating recipes to a team of chefs and nutritionists guided by her. The pre-internet diva's website, www.tarladalal.com, which is run by her son Sanjay, now has 17,500-plus recipes that people pay to access.
Sabyasachi 'Saby' Gorai, whom Dalal had ranked in 2003 as one of India's top 10 chefs in the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways, says he dipped into these cookbooks to sex up the vegetarian fare served to the 25,000 people who ate daily at the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge Centre cafeteria. "Where else but in Tarla Dalal's cookbooks could I have found recipes for vegetarian dishes with a Mexican twist?" asks Gorai, adding that when he was working in Australia, chefs at Indian restaurants liberally borrowed from Dalal.
Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal, corporate food consultant, blogger and modern-day Tarla Dalal, says her icon was special because she touched the everyday lives of ordinary people. Her Gujarati parents gifted her Tarla Dalal's cookbooks when she got married and, Rushina recalls, she got addicted to 'Spanish Rice' (a desi version of a vegetarian paella), a recipe she had picked up from one of the books, when she was pregnant.
Few middle-class Indians who grew up in the pre-internet age can say they haven't had a Tarla Dalal moment in their lives. She taught us how to cook at home and make our next meal a little more exciting.