Tarla Dalal’s great talent was to take the daily drudgery out of cooking and turn it into something immensely enjoyable and socially enhancing.
As everyone knows, for a lasting celebrity status, timing matters. Exits should be quick and slick, willows held high in the hand, fist pumping the air preferably without an IV line trailing by the side.
Timing was Tarla Dalal’s forte. And even as her legions of fans mourn the sudden exit of the nation’s favourite veggie wonder and cookbook messiah, we have to pause and marvel at her legacy. She left with her velan (spindle-shaped Gujarati rolling pin) held aloft, clutching one hopes the 2007 Padma Shri that was awarded, for the first time perhaps, to a desi- grown kitchen goddess.
Timing was what brought Tarla Dalal her first students. After coming to Mumbai from Pune, after her marriage to Naveen Dalal, in the early 1960s, she caught on to the popular trend of starting cooking classes at home. For the Indian middle class, moving slowly from the joint family model to the nuclear one, where the newly-married young women had to cook for the first time, these informal lessons in etiquette and home cooking were the equivalent of finishing schools. Dalal has been right there at the edge of every new kitchen gadget, daring her students to microwave, whizz, chop and stir like the best of them.
There were cooks, of course, and cookbooks, such as the ubiquitous Dalda Cook Book and pamphlets by Nestles on how to use their condensed milk. There were splendidly illustrated coffee table spreads written in the grand manner by Santha Rama Rau for Time-Life, and magisterial tomes produced by Thangam Philip, who also wrote a regular column in the women’s magazines. In a more friendly style, there were pocket books written by the likes of Premila Lal and later by the ever-charming Madhur Jaffrey, who combined travel with food in a toothsome way that she would later translate for the television.
Of course the most memorable were books by earnest cooks, who could not write at all but who would advise their readers “Stand on the fire and stir briskly!” Or “Procure two dozen eggs and separate by hand.” When Dalal began, there was no television at all and — while she might have started with the basics of Khadi-shaak-dal-bhaat, Gujarati-style vegetables, gravies and rice — what students really wanted to know was how to fold a serviette, where to place a fork and where a dessert spoon.
She graduated from being a kitchen goddess to a published one with the enormous success of The Pleasure of Vegetarian Cooking (1975), her first book. The title itself is a sign of the times — cooking can be and must be entertaining. Tarla Dalal’s great talent was to take the daily drudgery out of cooking and turn into something immensely enjoyable and socially enhancing. If you could whip up a pineapple upside-down cake and that too without eggs, or as she underlined, a creamy soufflé without gelatine, you would soon be walking with the gods. Or at least, your husband. In the Tarla Dalal world, the first person to impress is your husband, followed by the dreaded mother-in-law.
Desserts have always defined the upwardly mobile hostess. It’s in this department that Dalal is at her most inventive. As she asks in one of her chapters on desserts: “If your mother-in-law drops by all of a sudden, wouldn’t your heart miss a beat?” She then goes on to suggest an “Ice-cream pie on a coconut crust”. It takes all of 10 minutes to whip up; so again, it’s timing that matters.
Dalal was no slouch when it came to trends. Her books define the taste of the times. The titles range with recipes for every passing fad, fashion, age-group, and country, from organic, diabetic, saatvik, athletic to niche categories such as pizzas and pastas; or as one title has it: “A new world of Idlis and Dosas”.
South Indians might well curl a lip and ask: does a dosai become a dosa when it travels northwards? Just as Mexicans and Italians, not to mention Hawaiians, might be appalled at the way some of their national dishes, or drinks such as the famous Pina Colada have been morphed into something more familiar to the Gujarati palate. What can one say when a Pina Colada becomes a Caribbean Crepe, or pancake filled with sweetened coconut and pineapple, the whole blanketed with an eggless custard sauce, except Arre, bapre baap!