Char Minar in the City of Qutb!

Saroja Vaidyanathan, a fine cook herself, tries out some vegetarian fare at New Delhi's Jaypee Siddharth Hotel. Photo: S. Subramanium.  

INVITING GURU Saroja Vaidyanathan to savour the delights of the Hyderabadi Food Festival that concluded recently at New Delhi's Jaypee Siddharth Hotel in Rajendra Place drew an interesting response. "But I am not from Hyderabad," she protested, expressing her inability to pass judgement on a medium beyond her expertise. Even so, the invitation is graciously accepted - with the rider that we could have dined as comfortably at home! Yes, as the lady of her house, her kitchen management skills are well honed, despite being a world travelled Bharatanatyam exponent, guru and founder president of Ganesa Natyalaya.

But tonight in the dimly lit restaurant, she is the guest, awaiting a strictly vegetarian meal - Zafrani Paneer, Dal Charminar, Nan, and rice with vegetables - and sipping fresh orange juice in the interim. Foregoing the soup, she only tastes a bit of each, but enough to pronounce it well prepared and fresh. No wonder, when the master chef is specially flown in from Hyderabad for this annual food event. For the non-vegetarians, there is a choice of fish, lamb and succulent chicken, such as the gravy rich Dum ka Murg, and biryani with chicken bits. Though typical desserts such as firni, ras malai, and Double ka Meetha - made of bread soaked in syrup - are available, the veteran dancer opts for the ubiquitous gulab jamun, which too is pronounced superb. With days full of music and dance, teaching, choreographing and administering the institute and - yes - the networking involved, Saroja Vaidyanathan's Sundays are specially for the family. She makes her way to the hearts of the young folks - comprising son Kamesh, daughter-in-law and well-known Bharatanatyam artiste Rama, and granddaughters Dakshina and Sannidhi - through the gastronomic route.

On these mornings, exchanging her dance cymbals for the kitchen utensils, her music system for the mixie and gas stove, she whips up a special breakfast that's on the table before the rest are awake. Since weekday breakfasts usually feature nothing more complicated than toast, `special' for the Vaidyanathans entails South Indian dishes that require prior preparation, such as idlis, dosas, vadas or bondas, with chutney and other condiments.

Recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia where she performed with her troupe, she is all praise for the hospitality provided there. In countries where milk and vegetarian dishes are hard to come by, the organisers made sure fruits and juices, soups, bread and ice cream were in luxuriant supply. For Saroja Vaidyanathan and her disciples, half the fun of the train journeys they undertake for performance tours within India is in sharing their packed meals. By popular demand the guru brings sandwiches containing her trademark spread made by frying tomatoes with onion, then blending this sauce with cheese and curd - a combination of nutrition and taste. But while discussing these domestic delights, we are ignoring the musicians, whose melodies vie with the jovial voices of diners. Settling down to listen to their ghazals and filmi offerings, the guru appreciates their talents, but wonders whether the low ceiling makes the volume louder than necessary.

It's been a friendly t�te-�-t�te, moving from family and food preferences to travel and training, household duties to career compulsions. It's been agreeable - fresh food, fresh juice and music to digest it by, an evening out with the heart still very much at home, a gourmet spread spiced with a little gossip. It's been a feast, in more ways than one.