Cooking has never been more ostentatious. Today’s chefs aspire to be seductive, multi-faceted renegades. As for Tarla Dalal? She was simply pragmatic. Practicality might not make for riveting television. In theory. Yet, Twitter has been abuzz with the news of her passing away on Wednesday. Just the day before, social networking sites were filled with news of the death of Chef Charlie Trotter from Chicago, whose eponymous trail-blazing restaurant introduced America to the idea of organic, seasonal and vegetarian food in the late 1980s.
Given this is the age of experimental cooking, with complex equipment, exotic ingredients and convoluted techniques, it’s interesting that these self-taught, no-nonsense, old-style chefs have made such an impact on the Twitter generation. But then Dalal’s strength was her realistic approach to everyday cooking. Despite her unassuming manner and unpretentious recipes she made such a powerful impact that home cooking in India can be divided into pre and post-Dalal. After all, this was a country where women did the everyday cooking, learning traditional recipes from their mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers. Which meant home-cooked food was always the food of your own region, community and culture. Dalal’s books changed that by bringing together popular recipes from the North, South, East and West in a seductively simple format, encouraging readers to experiment with new spices, flavours and ideas. Her first book, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, published in 1974, was instantly successful with Indian housewives who went on to become her biggest market over the next four decades. It sold a record 1,50,000 copies in total.
I met her for the first time in 2007, soon after she got a Padma Shri. Faintly bewildered by all the attention, (our conversation was interrupted every few minutes by excited women brandishing their old, yellowing, spice-stained copies of her books, asking for autographs) she said the award astonished her. “When someone told me on the phone, I said ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ I was surprised,” she said, shaking her head incredulously, “But it gave me great happiness. Nobody has been given a Padma Shri for cooking before!”
Despite having written over 100 books, which have been translated into various languages from Marathi to Russian, selling more than 3 million copies around the world, she insisted that she never intended to build an empire. “After the first book I told myself… that’s more than enough. I can’t write more than one book. Never in my life did I think I would end up writing so many.”
Staunchly old fashioned, she maintained that girls should learn to cook to please the men in her lives. Coming from her, it sounded more endearing than anti-feminist because she so earnestly believed in food as an expression of love. When she was engaged her husband, who was then studying Chemical Engineering at Michigan University in the U.S. would write to her about food. She said, “He used to write saying he wanted to eat this and that; all complicated things I had never heard of… I was 20 years old and could cook only DBRS.” (This, by the way, is where I first learnt that old-fashioned acronym for ‘Dal Bhat Roti Sabzi’.)
When they got married in 1960, she moved to Mumbai. By 1966, she was teaching cooking from home. Once the first book launched, her career began snowballing. She went on to host a cooking show, publish a bi-monthly magazine and run one of India’s largest food websites.
Astutely choosing to cater to a mass market, she standardised and simplified recipes, using local ingredients and simple techniques. I once watched her teach a crowd of women how to make a cheesecake, which started out as a mousse. “Add more cocoa and that’s one variation,” she said. Then, she told the audience to add flour and baking powder to turn it into a hot chocolate pudding. Finally, she mixed in a couple of spoons of supermarket cheese spread then poured it over a base of crushed digestive biscuits. For the cream, she suggested soya cream, telling people, “buy two litres and keep it in the freezer. It stays for a year.”
Are the food snobs horrified? Well, yes, her recipes are not high-brow, astonishing or even particularly challenging. But they are always economical, flexible and forgiving. Dalal was smart enough to figure one unchanging fact of life: even flamboyant cooks sometimes just want to make kichadi for dinner. In the end, it’s the DBRS that keeps us going.