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The art of fine dining

A child's lifestyle is unhealthy to begin with: Going to school on an empty stomach, returning to cold or junk food, then watching TV for an hour.

ITALIAN FARE IN DELHI: Sonal Mansingh shares a thing or two over food at Radisson's Italianni restaurant in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium.

SONAL MANSINGH may be seen at the glittering gatherings of the Capital's who's who, but she is more than your trademark celebrity face, better seen than heard. Not only is she capable of forcefully articulating her opinion on a variety of topics, besides her own field of classical dance, she is not even easily approachable - with her packed performance schedules and her presence on a range of committees - for every star-studded do. But an appointment once given is honoured, even if it pinches her to spend so much time.

"I think it was a mistake," she murmurs, "to agree to lunch. The logistics. It is a waste of time." From her South Delhi residence to Radisson Hotel, located on the airport road, the danseuse with four decades of show biz behind her betrays back seat driving symptoms of the seasoned Delhiite. She has to be back in time for a 4 o'clock appointment, and the driver is not spared. But the traffic better than expected, so it takes only half an hour to reach Radisson Hotel, which houses Italianni's, the restaurant that prides itself on its Italian-American flavours.

In come slices of fresh bread to be eaten dipped in olive oil and black vinegar. Sonal pours the coloured liquids into the little oval plates like a pro; the judgement pronounced is, "mmmmmm... ".

As mocktails make their appearance - she chooses Rising Sun from an enticingly colourful and cool range - the talk turns to colas and their war against nutrition. Youngsters these days and their food habits are a strong point with this performer and teacher. The dull skin, the limp hair, the energy levels, she points out, all point to an inadequate diet. "Seventeen, 18-year-olds, they look so dull! Where is the zing?" she wonders. One of the major problems is that they don't drink water - all Coke and Pepsi!

The next course is salad. From a choice including spinach and artichoke formaggio (cheese dip with artichokes served with garlic ciabata bread) and chopped salad, which contains lettuce and marinated vegetables, olives, feta cheese and tomato dressing, she chooses the latter, though somewhat sceptical about whether the pieces of cheese are actually feta or not. The star exponent of Odissi, Bharatanatyam and Chhau, not used to mincing words, concedes the salad is nice, though a little "too wet", probably adapted to suit the Delhi palate. In Italy - and the danseuse is well versed with the Continent and its ways - the salad leaves would never be allowed to change colour. As for fresh vegetables, the conversation veers back to the popular diet. She can always spot dance students who survive on a diet of potatoes, bhindi and other stodgy foods, because they get out of breath faster. "I make it a point to tell students that to join my class, they have to follow the food regimen too. Three glasses of milk a day, green vegetables, fresh fruits."

Of course, the children can't always be blamed. "Sometimes I scold the mothers," she continues, emphasising the importance of parents setting an example and being present when the children eat. She doesn't believe in the "apne aap fridge se nikaal ke khaa lo" attitude. A child's lifestyle is unhealthy to begin with: Going to school on an empty stomach, returning to cold or junk food, then watching TV for an hour - here Sonal's abhinaya skills come in handy as she shows through gestures a child lying on her stomach eating chips from a packet - before settling down to homework, or trotting off to dance class.

Pasta as the main course makes its entry - spaghetti aglio olio pepperoncini. Sonal, who is vegetarian by preference, instructs that no cheese should be sprinkled, since this drowns the flavours. "Pasta should be fragrant with garlic, oregano and other spices." Among the supporting cast are Italianni's specialty - garlic bread with cheese spread, a rather typical American concoction - and pizza Provancale. It is not just Italian food Sonal Mansingh is knowledgeable about. Though she doesn't get much time to cook herself, she likes to teach her staff the proper way of serving and the food traditions that go with festivals. These traditions add a welcome structure to life, she feels.

As for keeping fit, it is through dance, walking, Yoga and the occasional swim. "I am not a gym kind of person," she submits, adding, "There were no gyms when we were small." And as with most artistes, routines are not very popular either, except dance rehearsals. "I can't get up every day at six in the morning to do Yoga. If I want to sleep, I sleep," she says simply. But whether it is a case of counting calories or simply being full of the numerous dishes sampled, Sonal foregoes the dessert, preferring coffee instead.

Indian fast foods were around long before the junk food came from abroad, and a cultural ambassador like Sonal Mansingh need hardly be reminded of that. But it is not fashionable, she points out, asking wryly, who is to add the pizzazz associated with McDonalds and Coke?

Right now, though, all the pizzazz is with Sonal Mansingh, graciously posing for photographs the Radisson is pleased to add to its celebrity album. After fine dining it's back to fierce driving, in time for that 4 o'clock appointment. But as a seasoned performer, she knows how to switch roles with ease.


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