Eminent classical dancer Alarmel Valli recalls some dramatic culinary moments

“I would call myself a rasika of good food, but I'm not a gourmand by any stretch of imagination,” says the petite Alarmel Valli. Need she mention it? Slim and ageless, the eminent Bharatanatyam dancer's figure belies her career span of nearly four decades. Words, though, are not everything. Watch her act out her love for the jelly buns she so adored as a school student, and not only she, but the listener too transforms into a gourmand of the highest order. At Patio, the 24-hour multi-cuisine café of The Metropolitan Hotel New Delhi, the Chennai-based dancer is taking a breather during a quick trip to the Capital where she participated in the 12th National Festival of New Choreography. With the performance behind her and a plane to catch later, a cup of Earl Gray tea is just the thing to sooth Delhi-frazzled nerves after a “chaotic” morning.

The dancer, “born a staunch vegetarian,” recalls, “My father says I was ‘corrupted' when he went to America. I used to come here (to Delhi) often in my teens, because my uncle was here. After my corruption, we used to go to Moti Mahal.” She remembers the restaurant for its “rustic charm”. Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine are among her favourites, besides Gujarati, Maharashtrian and Punjabi food (when it's home-cooked), but comfort food is firmly in the domain of vettu kuzhambu and rasam. “I love sweets,” she continues. “Give me sweets and I just guzzle.” But whereas once she worked hard to gain weight, being described as a “really good but pencil-thin” dancer, now she won't even consider Patio's deep fried and sweet options. Back then, says Valli, Spencers' in Chennai had delicious doughnuts. “They called them doughnuts but they were jam buns,” she explains, and proceeds to perform a magnificent cameo of enjoying the bun — soft, sugar sprinkled, melt-in-the-mouth, with warm jam inside. The long years of training under Gurus Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and Subbaraya Pillai, as well as the legendary musician T. Mukta, bring her liquid eyes, her eloquent hands and mobile face together to sculpt that childhood attraction into a work of art. “Oh, it was bliss,” she says. And so it still is! But here she opts for missi roti with mixed vegetables tossed in very little oil. Enjoying the crisp roti, a rarity for a Chennaiite, and the tanginess of the vegetables, she talks of gastronomy, past and present. Her “personal larder” used to contain “the gooiest of soft-centred chocolates, candied ginger, torte de sienna from Italy, special cake from Germany,” not to mention “Beawar ki til patti,” but today that favourite space is reserved for sweets with “95 per cent dark chocolate” content, low-fat crackers and some nuts. “So it's been a real comedown from the juiciness and goodiness of my snacks,” she says regretfully.

Jokes apart, Valli says she was always conscious of her well-being as a dancer. At home, she had “the best of food,” since her mother and others in the family are reputed cooks. She is less complimentary about her own culinary abilities. “I used to have very painful, traumatising experiences of trying to cook. Then I discovered a book called ‘Joy of Cooking'.”

Jelly-jam expert

Eventually — or predictably, Valli became a “jelly-jam expert.” Valli sighs, “Life has changed. I don't enter the kitchen if I can help it, which is a pity.” Busy performing, teaching, travelling across the world, she indulges her interest by visiting different kinds of markets. “The textures and the colours and the fragrances of the markets are a great introduction to a place,” she remarks.

Besides, preparing an artiste is not so different from cooking a dish just right. “There comes a point when a movement is as it should be. Anything more would be too much, anything less would be too little. You have to work and work on it. It is a sadhana. It's the same with cooking.”