Doyen of vegetarian cooking

Rupa Kothari
The passing away of Tarla Dalal, the undisputed doyen of vegetarian cooking in India, marks the end of an era in the narrative of food preparation in the country.
In the pre-Tarla Dalal days, in Gujarati homes, undhiyu, puri, shrikhand, et al, were the pride of the menu whenever guests were entertained. But appetising as these dishes were, they were also, well, a tad predictable, a ‘Gujju’ staple, as it were. So, social climbing (through food) was essentially limited to whether the Shahs served better undhiyu (mixed vegetable preparation that is a winter speciality) than the Mehtas or whether Nilaben’s dhoklas (a steamed savoury snack) were softer than Sandhyaben’s! But once Tarla Dalal burst on the food scene, just undhiyu and puri never sufficed! Every Gujju homemaker worth her thepla made sure that she put at least one ‘baak dish’ (baked dish) on the table to impress her guests. Vegetable au gratin, baked corn, baked spaghetti, potato corn bakes – the foreign ‘bakes’ suddenly became the showstoppers on the table.

Dalal was a game changer on the Indian food scene on many counts. Firstly, she glamourised cooking. Under her benign guidance the non-descript Indian homemaker, with her limited repertoire of mundane culinary knowledge and skills, metamorphosed into a smart and accomplished hostess, who dished out innovative and fancy food in her home. Her cookbooks introduced the average desi vegetarian palate to global food made with exotic (by then standards) vegetables, fruits, seasonings and sauces and novel cooking methods. Those pleasures were no longer the exclusive prerogative of the well-heeled and the much travelled. Thanks to her, a whole generation of homegrown Indians learnt how to bake pineapple upside-down cake, distinguish their plum parfaits from peach gateaux, and relish their fondue, cannelonis and chop suey – all vegetarian!
Simultaneously, she also popularised regional Indian cuisines. So, apart from fried rice and tacos, ‘amma’ and ‘kaki’ learnt to make the most succulent paneer (cottage cheese) and tasty rajma (kidney beans stew), while ‘biji’ and ‘didi’ mastered the art of making mouth-watering dhoklas and fragrant lemon rice, a south Indian favourite.
The accurately put together recipes confidently debunked the time-honoured pretension of traditional Indian cooks (Maharaj as well as Mummy) – that cooking was all about ‘andaaz’ (approximation) and that expertise came only with years of experience. Followed to the last dash and dot, Dalal’s recipes are a sure-fire shot even for first timers! The secret of this success lies in the practical, easy-to-follow format, with a precise listing of ingredients, exact measurements, clear instructions and relevant dos and don’ts.
Many of her books were prefaced by simple guides to measures, oven temperatures, and glossary of ingredients, techniques and terms used in cooking. Along with some prudent tips on how to approach the recipes she also proffered wise advice on how to plan menus and cooking schedules when entertaining. A great boon for all cooks, and novices in particular! For the newly initiated she put in some inspiring words – “Good cooking is not difficult technically. With some guidance and encouragement, any person with a liking for food, interest in cooking and a little patience can, instead of being an ordinary cook, become an exceptional one…”
Everything vegetarian was her forte and this included adapting non-vegetarian recipes to suit vegetarian sensibilities. In her very first book, ‘The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking’ (now in its 25th reprint), she makes a strong case for vegetarians by declaring that “it is not as if vegetarians are problem people”… and goes on to state that the book is meant to be a discovery of new horizons in good eating for vegetarian families. Importantly, she also established the raison d’etre for the recipe selection in the compilation – simple, quick, reproducible (tried and tested) and economical. The last point was open to debate but these criteria have largely passed muster in this book and every single one that followed.
Her initial books were a fusion of a variety of cuisines, both Indian and international, with recipes for malai kofta and Goanese potato sharing space with the very Italian pizza and risotto. Graduating to theme books, she covered almost every topic under the sun, from aachar (pickles), parathas, mithais (sweetmeats) and Mexican and Lebanese, to microwave cooking, pregnancy, and yummy eats for toddlers and growing kids.
Nutrition was also a pet concern. She made soup and salad fashionable long before the dieticians of today. Her book, ‘Eat Your way to Good Health’ (1992), co-authored with Dr Swati Piramal is a forerunner in its genre – basic nutritional knowledge supplemented with healthy recipes. Others in her health series includes ‘Cooking with 1 Teaspoon of Oil’, ‘100 Calorie Snacks’, ‘Forever Young’, ‘Fast Foods made Healthy’, as well as books on acidity, diabetes, gluten-free and protein rich foods among a dozen others.
Her books on quick cooking, like ‘Cooking under 10 Minutes’, ‘Quick and Easy Vegetarian Cooking’, and ‘Desserts under 10 Minutes’ are a godsend for the time-challenged home cooks. It would be safe to surmise that most households in India today have incorporated at least a few of her recipes as part of their regular family fare.
Starting out as an enthusiastic wife, who took pleasure in reproducing in her home kitchen the gourmet indulgences that her husband, Nalin Dalal, enjoyed, she commenced on an extraordinary culinary career evolving into a popular celebrity chef and cooking diva who donned many hats.
A stalwart in her field, Dalal authored over 100 cook books, most of which are now published in-house by Sanjay & Co, managed by her son Sanjay Dalal. It is said that her husband not only encouraged her but actively guided her regarding the meticulous presentation of the recipes in her early books. Her recipe compilations have been translated into several regional languages as well as into Dutch and Russian! Even her cooking classes were hugely popular and a must for all matrimonially eligible girls of that time.
Later, she forayed into ready-to-eat food mixes – cakes and dhoklas being two of them – with her company, Tarla Dalal Foods eventually being acquired by Unilever Food Products. Expanding her platform further, she hosted two popular television shows -‘The Tarla Dalal Show’ and ‘Cook it up with Tarla Dalal’ delighting viewers, equally, with her recipes and her Gujarati accented Hindi! Her bi-monthly food magazine, ‘Cooking and More’ is a treasure trove of not just recipes but general information on food and nutrition.
As is the wont of the day, her recipes are accessible on the World Wide Web as well. In fact, her website is said to be the largest Indian food portal. Moreover, in keeping with the current technology, an iOS app of Tarla Dalal recipes is now available on the iphone! The crowning glory, of course, has been winning the Padma Shri award in 2007 – the first Indian to have been awarded in this category!
In the final ‘plating’, if one were to make a distinctive ‘reduction’ of the heady cocktail of accolades, acclaim and glory that made up Tarla Dalal’s life, it would leave you with a delightful, natural flavour of a simple, gutsy Gujju woman who dared many firsts and, with a natural flair for business, single-handedly built an empire around food.