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Goddess of Gourmet

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April 2003
Goddess of Gourmet

By LALITHA SHRIDHAR

Today?s liberated Indian lass would surely scoff at the traditional Indian mold that commits the wife to the kitchen. It is precisely this tendency, however, of pleasing the pati through his palette that is credited for the sprawling culinary empire of Tarla Dalal - the author of 40 cookbooks that have collectively sold over a million copies, the writer who has been translated to several national and international languages, the entrepreneur behind the successful instant food brand which carries her signature, and the famous name behind the largest Indian food website.

Just in case that unexpected revelation has the same speechless effect on you as her Fresh Corn & Spinach Enchiladas, Tarla Dalal will disarm you with some grandmotherly nostalgia, ?Nobody is born a cook. We all have to learn. I did! I was married when I was twenty. All I knew was Gujarati food! And my husband? He was interested in all kinds of food - not only Indian but also international dishes. I didn?t know the meaning of food. I didn?t know the meaning of dessert, I didn?t know the meaning of - what do you call it - - starters and soups? I knew only tamaatar and pyaaz. Luckily though, when I was newly married I had all the time with nothing better to do but cook. Yeah, I wanted to please my husband. Then husband is happy and children feel so great. That?s how it started for me.?

She looks exactly like that ageless picture which introduces her in all famous cookbooks. At 67, Tarla Dalal looks like she forgot to grow older more than a few years ago. Alongside her trademark embroidered chiffons and double string of pearls, she carries her matronly pounds with a twinkle in her eye and a guffaw just waiting to be laughed.

In Chennai to lead the demo of a low cal cookery show, Tarla Dalal arrived to a sold-out audience. With the banquet hall at Park Sheraton eventually accommodating thrice the number of its original guest list of ?about 200?, there was something in the air and it wasn?t just the aroma of the bubbling pumpkin and dill soup.

Later, while we converse for this article, she recalls, ?I have held cookery shows for over 30 years. I stopped only after it simply became too difficult for me with all the other work. I love interacting with those who are keen to learn. Once, a woman came to me and told me her marriage was a happy one because of my classes. She said I had given her so much confidence, and everybody - most of all her husband - appreciated her more now. At another time a man told me that the best investment he had ever made was to send his wife to my cookery classes! Now both he and his wife were happy. That touched me very much.?

?In the old days things were very different. Women did not have the kind of freedom they do now - they did not even know that cooking could be a simple activity which gives so much joy. They were all the time slogging in the kitchen, all the time taken for granted. I am so glad girls are bolder and more aware of themselves now. Time has also come for man to start cooking. Mothers-in-law have become very good. Men have become more helpful in the kitchen. When the woman returns running from the office, the vegetables are cooked and the pressure cooking is done. I am not saying everybody is born with the knowledge of cooking. Good cooks are made. Good cooks enjoy cooking.?

It was not all sugar and honey always. Her culinary journey began when she attempted to - and succeeded in - conquering the kitchen of her marital home, in the afternoons, while the family rested. Soon, her divine dishes were generating much discussion. Then came her legendary cookery classes. These met with some disapproval since her mother-in-law did not particularly appreciate the bahu donning the apron of a maharaj (cook). But all this disapproval melted before anyone could pronounce souffl� - her classes were soon being booked up two years in advance.

Tarla explains, ?I read a lot of books, and I asked people who knew more than me. Forty to forty-five years ago, in Bombay, nobody knew anything about variety in food. Everything - baked dishes, stir fried, Continental, low cal, whatever, was unknown. So the whole scenario was different. The only thing in ?Western? food was tomato soup and chips (fries). Also, all the recipe books had only non-vegetarian dishes. I am a born vegetarian. So I started with the idea of converting all the famous non-vegetarian dishes and started presenting them with vegetarian ingredients. This became very popular. Then I wrote my first book. It came about because everybody started writing my recipes in their name. My friend told me, ?Tarla, you better write your own recipes and publish.? I said, no, no, I?m too scared. But he said, ?Come on, I?ll print it for you.? I never realized my recipes would do so well. I was shocked.? That, then, is the taste of success.

?Look at me,? she orders with not a hint of arrogance, ?I am just as interested as everybody else in feeling young and healthy. Of course, I am too old to look like a model and besides, the human body needs some amount of fat. But good food is not only about being thin. It is about feeling good about yourself, feeling light and energetic. This afternoon I had a heavy lunch full of masala and oil. It was horrible. I feel like I weigh a ton. You see, there is a definite change in attitude towards food now. There is also a definite trend towards vegetarian food. It has been proved to be good for your heart, it?s good for your cholesterol, blood pressure, nerves. It is soothing, very soothing - if it is cooked properly. If it is very oily and full of chilies and masala, then it?s not good. But even then, even if it is oily and spicy, vegetarian food is lighter to digest.?

She elaborates, ?My book which showed how everything could be cooked in 1 teaspoon of oil has done very well - it shows how even a kofta curry can be made with a teaspoon of oil. It has sold very well in India and abroad. I have many readers in the United States as well. You can make great Panju khana in 1 teaspoon of oil and it will taste fabulous. But it is a myth that you don?t need oil or fat at all - talking about ?no oil? food has no meaning. It?s nonsense! Your knees, elbows and skin need some amount of fat. You should eat light food. But khana is important. So many people are suffering from diabetes and blood pressure nowadays, and so all you hear is, ?Don?t eat this, don?t eat that.? I say eat all you want! Just eat healthy! You live longer and better. You don?t feel heavy and your body feels agile. In life, you have to change and improve yourself. You can really feel the difference.?

Her three children have, unfortunately, not inherited their mother?s incredible felicity in preparing food. Her daughter is a lawyer while her sons are variously involved in publishing. Deepak is the author of children?s books and Sanjay publishes her books through the company run in his name. She finds this results in ?better control? because, ?there is more involvement jab ghar ka hota hai. For Sanjay, nothing less than the best quality will do.?

With a reputation for hiring the best talent and embellishing their bestsellers with splendid production values, Tarla believes, ?presentation is very important. See the difference in our books and those of others. Another thing is that some books ask for forty ingredients, and then people become fed up. I try to avoid it, as much as possible. I prefer to keep the instructions simple.?

Her average day involves working at her office by trying out new recipes with the three girls who assist her, from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon. ?Everything is computerized and neatly organized. I enjoy cooking at home but do it only twice or thrice a week because it is difficult with all the office work,? she admits candidly. Post lunch she works out for an hour at a gym and then attends to other work. She travels occasionally and has tried her hand at running a restaurant named after her, but she found it to be an unpalatable exercise.

She has a great fondness for Italian pastas and South Indian idlis and dosas, the latter being particularly appreciated for their nutritive content and light calories. In Gujju khana her all time favorite is dal dhokli. She loves Bombay?s cosmopolitan, adventurous attitude towards food but qualifies, ?Whatever people eat, they will always want to come back to dal roti and home cooked food. Personally, I love my simple khichdi and alu bhaji.?

She is happy that Indian food has found universal acceptance but disagrees that everything is as perfect as it could be. The success of Indian cuisine abroad is limited in the sense that, ?They want our curries all the time. It?s not real food. The way they cook their curry is not the Indian way. They turn it into a very funny concoction with their ?curry powders?. We grind the masalas fresh and there is a world of difference between the real thing and their Indian curries. We have North Indian curries and South Indian curries and Gujarati curries and so on, and we have an endless variety of vegetables. They have the same stupid curry with curry powder.?

Tarla is brimming with many more ideas. In the cooker are books on Barbecues & Sizzlers (just round the table corner), healthy cuisine in ?Heart to Heart?, recipes for a new mother, a book on baby food and one on ?fast food made healthy? which has charts explaining how your favorite, sinful indulgence can be turned into your favorite, nutritious, low cal alternative indulgence.

Her advice to budding Tarlas? ?If you have variety in cooking, it is fun. I love cooking. I love to experiment with food. You try something out of curiosity, do a variation of a standard dish and you come up with something new and enjoyable. There is only one answer to all cooking problems and that is variety. All the time vahi dal and vahi sabzi, then koi bhi mad ho jayega. It only means you are not studying food. You can be making a whole lot of things which are easier to turn out than dal chaval. But no one bothers. Variety will make it so exciting. You need it. Your children will love it. It?s too simple! There is no magic. I always say in my classes, let?s do it hanste khelte. I?m not special. You can do it!?


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