Cooking has emerged from the shadows of the kitchen and invaded our living rooms through the small screen
There was a time, how very long ago it seems, when those who could afford two square meals in this country considered themselves blessed. This was before the dawn of the age of plenty post-Green Revolution and much, much before the advent of glitzy recipe shows hosted by celebrity chefs who behave like prima donnas of a ballet troupe at the Bolshoi. That was the time when cooking was considered a chore to be performed by the unsung housewife who toiled day in and day out unseen and preferably unheard. As the Hindi phrase has it: Choolha-chakki se chhutkara mile to kuch kare bechaari!
We have surely traversed a long journey since then. Cooking has undeniably come out of the closet. Muscular macho men aren't ashamed of declaring in public- "Yes, I do!" (Translation not needed but added- "I cook!"). Grand avuncular, magnificently mustachioed chef Imtiaz Qureshi laying on his charm thick to promote the Awadhi culinary heritage, as interpreted by him, at ITC is immensely reassuring to those working on their six packs that stirring a ladle is certainly not emasculating.
There are many who
believe that the fun and games started with that inimitable Pied Piper
Jiggs Kalra, whose charm can't be easily matched by flattering
imitators. Jiggs ruled the roost of gastronomic impressarios for a
generation, before passing on the baton to his son Zorawar, who is
responsible for the phenomenal success of the Punjab Grill. His book Prasaad:
Cooking with Indian Masters was indeed a trendsetter. It was Jiggs
who through his columns highlighted the unsung heroes of nameless
kitchens and in partnership with Major Habib Rahman, then at the helm
in Maurya, inducted Heritage Master Chefs in the system. He also
produced Dawat, the first recipe show in India telecast on DD
national, and anchored Zaike ka Safar, a food-centric
travelogue on Zee. Jiggs bridged the gap — nay chasm — between the
elite five-star hotel "industry" and the mass of newspaper
and magazine readers. With Jiggs, food became entertainment, something
that could at a pinch be enjoyed vicariously.
Camelia Panjabi, who once reigned at the Taj group of hotels, was a kindred soul. She too took immense pains to project Indian cuisines at the high end at fine-dining signature restaurants. 50 Great Curries continues to shine — a gem chiselled by the labour of love. Many pioneers had broken ground before this. Madhur Jaffery the celebrated actress of Merchant-Ivory productions and presenter of many popular BBC radio programmes introduced the world to the taste of India, kindling their interest in more than Mughal or the Raj cuisine. A remarkable achievement but her exertions didn't touch her compatriots and her work was "noticed" until recently only by Indophiles abroad. Mrs Balbir Singh had endeared herself to a number of newly wed brides, eager to please their demanding spouses by her easy-to-read-and-follow cookbook. These pioneers suffered due to the time not being ripe yet for their ideas.
Coming of age
It was in the last decade of the past century that we encountered an unprecedented blooming of a thousand flowers in the kitchen garden. Food writing broke out of shackles of restaurant reviews. Cookbooks emerged as a separate genre, a best-selling category in their own right. Chefs came to be recognised as master craftsmen, temperamental artistes who could petrify you with performance packed with shock and awe. Some basked in the glory of their powerful patrons-promoters, others rode piggyback on sportsmen or filmstars who endorsed their fare. The post-Emergency generation of Indians (born after 1975) came of age in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era. Liberalisation and economic reforms were the flavour of the month and years. Globalisation had fuelled imagination and spawned unprecedented aspirations. Young Indians, more intrepid and adventurous than their parents, were not inhibited about trying out new things to tickle their palate. Better educated and more travelled, they were happy to embark on a culinary discovery of India on their own. Those who comprised the Indian diaspora suffered from pangs of (food-related) homesickness and were propelled towards the rediscovery of ethnic roots.
Revival of interest in regional culinary repertoires and lost recipes of minorities within minority communities (Bohra, Mopla and Shia or Suriani, Chettinadu, Marwadi or Kayastha) marked the next wave. In this domain, Chitrita Banerji's Life and Food in Bengal dazzles without glossy pictures and its plebeian paperback format. Bickoo Manekshaw, the undisputed tsarina of taste, who decided the menu at the IIC in the Capital for decades, and dished out sublime fare at Basil and Thyme at the Santushti Complex near Ashoka Hotel, had trained at Cordon Bleau. But she took great pride in her Indian inheritance. Her book on Parsi food and customs is a classic and it was she who persuaded Penguin Books to publish a series of books on Indian regional cooking. Passage of time didn't slow her down and her love for good food was infectious.
Gone are the days when Indians left native shores to serve as curry cooks and lowly tandooriyas at holes-in-the-wall outlets abroad. Many have won spurs as chefs in charge of Michelin-starred restaurants. We must hasten to add in the same breath that for us this recognition isn't the ultimate accolade. Not to be confused with the Nobel Prize or even Man Booker or Pulitzer. Indian food, classic or avant garde, must pass the test of approval at home. There is no dearth of molecular cooks who are trying to make up for having missed the bus to IITs or AIIMS. The kitchen alas can never become a lab, mimicking the IISc just like the latter cant replicate the hearth at home! But we digress. We live in interesting times. And don't get us wrong — the Chinese curse is far from our present thoughts. Easy availability of and affordability of labour-saving gadgets and pre-packaged ingredients has liberated the women traditionally confined in the kitchen. This has also encouraged the single man and the loving husband to step in what was considered the exclusively feminine domain. Declaring that you are a foodie-rookie or expert doesn't matter — you don't run the risk of being branded a gauche glutton who can’t think beyond his plate.
There are many worthies who have contributed to this delicious revolution. Chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor, who wears many hats with equal aplomb, TV anchor, restaurateur, author, entrepreneur and above all mentor, oozing encouragement and demystifying cooking. There are others of a different vintage, who prefer to avoid the limelight but have published elegant, substantial cookbooks. Manjit Gill of the ITC and Arvind Saraswat, once with the Taj, belong to this category. Chef Devender Kumar of Le Meridiene has treated readers to cookbooks as delectable as his kebabs. These are unpretentious do-it-yourself guides, with delightful pix and helpful tips. And, how can one forget ‘Rocky’ Mohan, bon vivant par excellence and a writer of mouth-watering cookbooks full of fool-proof recipes and beautiful pictures. His Art of Indian Cuisine is a personal favourite. Promod Kapoor of Roli Books may not have yet written a cookbook but he has as loving caring midwife delivered dozens of bonny babies of this kind. (Conflict of interest must be disclosed at once; Roli has published six of the author's cookbooks). Maharajahs, focusing on the royal cuisines of India, is indeed a collector's item.
As these lines are being penned, we have received the sad news that Tarla Dalal has passed away. She was a most remarkable woman-housewife, an exceptionally prolific vegetarian cookbook writer and publisher, entrepreneur and indefatigable till the end. She packed in her life, spanning almost eight decades, more than a team of specialist professionals can aspire to do in generations. Her USP was that she chose to be middlebrow and was happy dishing out
swadeshi fare or desi avtar of tempting phoren stuff. Her readers identified with her as a family member — experienced and affectionate — not at all reluctant about sharing her "trade secrets". This carefully cultivated image helped her food business boom. She has ensured her place in the Hall of Fame by empowering millions of novices to cook with confidence and given them the inspiration so that they are not overawed by reputations.