The woman who revolutionised home cooking in India through her recipes, Tarla Dalal was arguably ahead of her time. The ‘inventor’ of hundreds of vegetarian dishes, Dalal started her career conducting cooking classes at home and went on to publish 170 books and have her own cookery shows on TV. The chef, originally from Pune and an alumnus of Fergusson College, described herself as, “a typical Indian housewife, firstly a great grandma” and loved to spend time with her family. At the same time, she was practically extended family for at least two generations of Indian women who turned to The Tarla Dalal Show, Cook It Up With Tarla Dalal and Dalal’s website for recipes.
The film Tarla (2023), now streaming on Zee 5, shows Tarla (played by Huma Qureshi) change the lives of a number of women by teaching them how to cook. We spoke to 10 people who didn’t know Dalal, but whose lives — and meals — were changed by the food she introduced them to.
Renuka Dhawan: “It was in the Eighties. Papa was working for Pfizer as a General Manager and we had American delegates coming over for dinner. Mama made salad and American chop suey by following Tarla Dalal’s recipes to the t. We had ordered non-veg from a restaurant because we were vegetarian. Everybody loved the salad and the chop suey and funnily, nobody touched the non-veg. After that, we all have been real followers of her recipes. They're very easy to make. The American chop suey is my favourite.”
Dalal was always conscious of how vegetarians were perceived as people who get the less exciting dishes. “People believed that vegetarian food lacked in proteins and vitamins,” she said in an interview with Arab Times. “But now we have realised that vegetarian food has more protein, vitamins and minerals and is more easily digestible than non-vegetarian food.” Her own contribution to Indian vegetarian cuisine was to take recipes from all over the world, and adapt them so that they could be made easily with ingredients that were readily available. She did this at a time when imported and artisanal ingredients were hard to come by and for many, these recipes made foreign foods feel more approachable.
Mona Vora: “Tarla Dalal has made a big impact in my life because my mom used to follow all her recipes. I have grown up making food from her books. My mom was not that adept at making Chinese so I have learnt a lot of Chinese from Tarla Dalal. I must have made everything possible from her earlier books when I was in school and early college. Fried rice and Manchurian are my favourite recipes by her.”
In an interview with Punecity.com following the release of her book Chaat (2003), Dalal described her success as a “miracle of sorts”. That’s underplaying how prescient she was to have realised that there was both need and demand for recipes that were considered too everyday to be recorded. She put together recipes for everything from streetside snacks to the homecooking basics like dal, which would go on to become invaluable to those attempting to cook Indian food for the first time. By the time Chaat was published, Dalal’s first cookbook, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, had been reprinted in its 25th edition. “Thanks to the Indian housewives in particular and other readers in general, the journey has been simply great,” Dalal said.
Bhairavi Belapurkar: “I moved to Bombay from a small city after I got married. I was always a good cook, but I only made regional, traditional dishes. My husband was a well-travelled man who was extremely fond of continental food but couldn’t share his favourite dishes with me as I was a pure vegetarian. Over the years, we tried to use vegetarian substitutes, but they rarely came together. One day, he found a Tarla Dalal book at the airport in which she had given simplified recipes for continental dishes. Humari to lottery lag gayi! We made all foreign dishes with vegetarian ingredients, and we ate happily ever after."
The original masterchef had a guru too. In the Sixties, Dalal joined Mrs. Chichkar’s cooking classes. In later interviews, Dalal remembered her teacher fondly and said she “learned how to make white sauce and ways to set jelly and things like that.” Dalal also credited Mrs. Chichkar with inspiring her to be fearless with food. “I also learned to innovate. I learned to put together salads with ingredients other than tomatoes and onions,” she said.
Uday Damle: “I used to cook mostly non-vegetarian food but my mother wasn't a fan. She would always pester me, “Why aren’t you interested in vegetarian dishes?” So while searching for such recipes I stumbled upon the show, Cook It Up With Tarla Dalal and was amazed with the variety of vegetarian options! It was so much fun that I got hooked to trying her recipes and won my mother over.”
What we eat and how we perceive what others eat are invariably informed by the society and politics around us. For instance, being a vegetarian has got much more socio-cultural cache today than it did when Dalal began her career, with more people around the world opting to not eat meat for a variety of reasons. In Dalal’s time, the prevailing notion was that meat dishes required greater cooking skills and if one was a real foodie, then one would eat meat. Dalal’s recipes subtly took a hammer to that idea by showing just how much variety one could have with only vegetarian ingredients.
Kavita Advani: “Tarla Dalal was one of the most popular chefs. I have almost all of her cookbooks and tried out a lot of her recipes. I love her palak soup and mushroom soup but my all-time favourite recipe is her tandoori mushrooms. It is made very often at my place. She definitely inspired a lot of us to start cooking. People like me who hated cooking got interested because her recipes are easy to follow. It was really fun watching her on TV.”
In the film Tarla, Huma Qureshi as the titular character is disgusted by the sight of meat being eaten and throws a massive tantrum when her husband sneakily eats mutton for lunch at work. The film doesn’t show how the real Tarla Dalal was well aware that it could be a challenge to survive solely on vegetables. To make vegetarian meals fulfilling, the chef said she worked hard at coming up with recipes that were “tasty and at the same time healthy.”
Bhavika Shroff: “I got married at a young age… at that time, we used to marry young, so I was almost twenty-three and then had to live on my own with my husband and set up a house. I was obviously not experienced in cooking. I had done a fair bit at mom’s house but not really too much because mom is a fantastic cook. I had to figure out everything on my own. It was not easy. The best person to turn to in those days was Tarla Dalal. We used to have books and didn't have everything at the click of a button as we have these days. I remember my Maasi had even gifted me books by Tarla Dalal. There’s one particular recipe I know…I won't be able to pinpoint the book which it was from. I've looked everywhere but I've never been able to find it. It’s the veg frankie. It's so nutritious. The recipe was fantastic. I followed it properly and I still make it, it’s a super duper hit with my kids and family. I’ve tried hunting (for) it on the net but I can't find the same one. I think she was one of the best master chefs of that time and I really look up to her. She was a saviour for many, many like me.”
Dalal said in an interview, “You can create something that is healthy right there in your kitchen. Work on it and you will be able to do it.” Rather than making a point about how complicated or difficult a dish is, Dalal’s message was more encouraging as was her demeanour. Smiling warmly and dressed sharply, Dalal projected the kind of modern aunty you want to turn to in your time of need. Especially through her cooking shows, Dalal changed the idea of what a kitchen is. Rather than being a dingy, tiny place that effectively stifles a woman, she projected the kitchen as a space where a woman (or man, should he be so inclined) could experiment with things and enjoy herself, all the while guided by Tarlaben.
Chetan Popat: “For me, Tarla Dalal was one of the first celebrity chefs and since childhood, I've heard her name because my mom also used to follow her recipes. Every time I would come across a new book published by Tarla Dalal ji, I used to buy it and try and follow all her recipes. In fact, I think she’s one of the first chefs who introduced European, Mexican and Chinese cuisines to India. My personal favourite is her recipe for Puran Poli, which is a very typical Gujarati/ Maharashtrian dish. It’s a sweet roti. You can't go wrong if you follow her measurements. Her Gujarati dal recipe is also one of my favourites.”
“Nobody is born with knowledge. The more you read and research, more you come up with new ideas,” Dalal said in an interview. To say that food, particularly traditional Indian food, requires research was an unheard of idea when Dalal put forward such thoughts. Recipes were simply passed down from generation to generation, and few gave much thought to what it takes for a recipe to work. Dalal never made a show of the behind-the-scenes rigour that went into her recipes, but the fact that they’re foolproof suggests they were tried and tested multiple times. The film Tarla has one sequence where Tarla makes ragda pattice again and again in order to perfect the recipe. The only person who uncomplainingly eats the dish and gives his feedback is Tarla’s husband Nalin (played by Sharib Hashmi). In real life too Nalin Dalal was a pillar of support for Dalal. “He had somewhere seen a spark in me. Thanks to him, that I was first introduced to the wonderful world of cuisines,” Dalal said of her husband.
Bharti Bhutani: “I used to have a bunch of my own recipes but Tarla Dalal added her flavour to each one of them. She has upgraded my own recipes that I used to have and there’s a little bit of Tarla Dalal’s tips in each one of them now. Specifically, her Pav Bhaji and Usal recipes are something that I keep going back to.”
Chetna Ahluwalia: “I'm a pure vegetarian. Tarla Dalal ji introduced the eggless cake. I followed that for so many years. This is just one, she has given us so many simple and easy-to-do recipes.”
In 2007, Dalal was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007, making her the first recipient in the field of cooking. Today, when cooking shows are global hits and celebrity chefs are an everyday reality, it’s easy to lose sight of just how massive an achievement it was for Dalal to not just become a household name, but also to garner this degree of respect for her work.
Minal Agrawal: “Tarla Dalal…well, what can I say! I was around five years old and my mum who was adapting to becoming a more modern housewife felt that apart from the normal cooking of a Gujarati household that she knew – DBRS (Dal Bhat Shaak Rotli) as they call it now – maybe she needed to upscale her skills. Who else in those days, in the Seventies, other than Tarla Dalal? Fortunately for us SOBO (South Bombay) people, she was accessible to my mom who took time out during the afternoon, which was the only break she got and joined Tarla Dalal’s classes to learn Chinese food. I think Tarla Dalal has been the epitome and pioneer of Western cooking introduced to Indian households way back in the Seventies. Recipes that come first to mind are all the Chinese dishes like fried rice, Manchurian, American chop suey and even something as basic and simple as corn soup with condiments like vinegar and chopped chillies.”
In a deeply patriarchal society, where cooking has been considered ‘women’s work’, Dalal insisted upon this work being given dignity and importance, which in turn meant dignity and importance for the person doing the cooking. At the time, professional chefs in India were all men almost without exception. Dalal’s work made her stand out and also pushed society to give due respect to the amateur chefs in every home kitchen. Chefs like Dalal laid the foundation for the new Indian cuisine, which is rooted in traditions but open to influences from the world over, that would go on to become a global sensation. It’s upon the shoulders of Dalal and other “cooking-class aunties” that the current tribe of chefs stand.