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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > Never a dull moment around Tarla

‘Never a dull moment around Tarla’

Updated on: 29 May,2022 08:08 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Phorum Pandya |

Friends, family and students stitch together the portrait of a woman who went on to become India’s first informal Masterchef, and rightly deserves a Bollywood biopic

‘Never a dull moment around Tarla’

Huma Qureshi plays the late Tarla Dalal (right) in a biopic on the Padma Shri awardee’s life

In the 1980s India knew her sauces and chutneys. But to marry a hung curd dip with chips or cucumber and carrot fingers was not the stuff of desi snack parties. Tarla Dalal was determined to change this. How could she bring foreign countries into the Indian home for those who couldn’t afford to travel, but were curious about international taste and keen to introduce it to their families?

The Gujarati home chef, who is credited with inspiring mothers to pack a Mexican wrap in their child’s lunch dabba and serve white sauce pasta and burritos at birthday parties, is soon to get a biopic that traces her incredible journey. Backed by director-producer couple Nitesh and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, helmed by Piyush Gupta, the film sees Huma Qureshi slip into the role of Dalal, endearing buck teeth and jet black bob in place.  

Dalal, who hailed from Pune, spent much of her life after she married Nalin Dalal in South Mumbai’s Napean Sea Road neighbourhood.

It was back in 1966 that she decided to spread the love for cooking by holding a class for neighbours, one that would present the women with can’t-go-wrong Indian dishes and simple Thai, Mexican and Italian cuisine. When they nudged her to record the recipes, it did not indicate that she was at the cusp of launching a cookbook empire that would place a title or two in practically every urban Indian home. Vakil & Sons, India’s most prominent publishers back then, recognised the market opportunity when they learned of the popularity of her classes. Her first book, The Pleasure of Vegetarian Cooking (printed in 1974), was a comprehensive selection of vegetarian recipes from Indian, Western and Chinese cuisines. It is believed to have sold 1.5 million copies to date.

With Dalal having passed on in 2013 following a heart attack, Qureshi says all she had to rely on are written material and videos of her hit television shows.  “As actor, I try to capture the vibe and charisma of the person—how she spoke to the camera, explained things. While I cannot mimic her, mine is an attempt to capture the soul.” That Qureshi comes from a family that runs Saleem’s, a Mughlai restaurant in Delhi for over four decades, makes her comfortable to play a chef. “If you are asking me whether I can peel an onion and fry an egg, the answer is yes!” she laughs.

Dalal’s legacy, say her friends, lives on every time someone making pizza at home adds a spoonful of readymade ketchup to the homemade sauce for “chataka”.

‘She visited Pune bakeries to learn making biscuits and cakes’

Rajnikant Dharamdas Shah, Dalal’s brother
Tarla grew up in a family of four on Laxmi Road. Her younger brother, Rajnikant Dharamdas Shah (now 84), says the siblings were born in Alibag before Pune became their home due to their father’s business. “After getting married, Tarla decided she wanted to learn how to make cakes and biscuits. She went to Sathe Biscuits & Chocolate Co. Ltd, Pasture Bakery on MG Road, and Modern Bakery to sharpen her baking skills.” Shah says that while growing up, when their mother was visiting Mumbai, Dalal would take charge of the kitchen, waking up before school to cook for the family. “After she was married, she moved to Brighton building on Napean Sea Road. Whenever I visited her home, and she was hosting us, the table would be laid impeccably, decorated with flowers,” Shah remembers.

‘Dinner was always at 8 sharp’

Dalal’s daughter Renu was inspired by her mother’s culinary documentation and has written books herself. Pic/Shadab KhanDalal’s daughter Renu was inspired by her mother’s culinary documentation and has written books herself. Pic/Shadab Khan

Deepak, Renu and Sanjay, children
Dinner at the Dalal home in Mumbai was never later than 8 pm. “We’d eat the simplest food. While she did whip up Mexican and Thai delicacies, our daily meals and lives were simple. Mom was the first one to make tacos and burritos in the city and we got a taste of it all at a young age. I loved her khow suey,” recalls Sanjay, who went on to become the publisher of her books and now helms the Tarla Dalal website. “Together, we even launched ready-to-cook mixes called Tarla Dalal Mixes. We sold the rights to a company in 2000. Mom and I made a good team, and it was fun to watch her ideas grow. She was a giving, kind human being, helping people at every step.”

In 2013, after Dalal’s passing, Renu took inspiration and began to approach Indian cooking with a new style, releasing her first book on her mother’s birthday (June 3). She introduced interesting hybrids of everyday vegetarian food. Her food style is fusion and inventive, where she combines flavours of the world over with techniques of traditional Indian cuisine. Her books include Simple and Delicious Vegetarian Cooking and Modern Vegetarian Recipes. “My recipes are simple with innovation that bring something new to the table. They include asparagus samosa with cheese sauce, spaghetti with lentils, chocolate pani puri,” says Renu Tarla Dalal’s eldest son, Deepak, shares, “Mom never repeated a dish once it was checked and gone for publishing into one of her books. Then, she would move on to the next,” he laughs, adding, “Even if we loved it, it was never made again.”

He remembers the breads she made. “Fresh out of the oven, it was the nicest.” While it was Renu who was encouraged to take up cooking, he would be the passing visitor who walked in to grab a bite. “The kitchen was mom’s domain. She was a task master. Only those who were competent were allowed inside,” he signs off.  

‘Tarla Ben was like an elder sister’

Anjana Shah, sister-in-law and early student
One of Dalal’s first students was her sister-in-law Anjana Shah. “When Nalin Bhai first brought her to our home, we thought they made an odd pair. Nalin Bhai was well educated and a renowned chemist, and Tarla Ben was  a graduate and came across as a simple girl. Little did I know then that she had the ability to adapt without losing her core,” says Anjana.

Although Nalin’s family was a progressive Gujarati unit and Dalal came from a modest, traditional home, she settled in easily, and inspired the family to practice Vaishnav traditions. “She was eager to learn and grow,” says Anjana, adding, “Nalin bhai was fond of food, and Tarla took a nosedive into learning new cuisines for which she took a couple of classes too. The family was social and Tarla Ben threw these wonderful parties. She was a natural hostess.”

When Anjana lost her husband in an air crash early, Dalal ensured she was always around for company. “She treated me like the daughter of the house. She held the family together, and although she grew famous, humility never left her.”

Dalal always wore silk sarees, a marker of her interest in tradition, along with listening to bhajans, haveli sangeet, cooking and travelling. Anjana remembers having meals with Dalal at Thai pavilion, Grand Maratha and Thaker Bhojnalay. “Once, we were on our way to a wedding, and she saw a Rajasthani thali restaurant. ‘Lagan ne maro goli, let’s go try this food [To hell with the wedding!],’ she said. There was never a dull moment with her.”

‘Wherever we travelled, people knew her’

Arun and Sudha Mehta of Vakil & Sons published Dalal’s first book in 1974 and several hit titles after. Pics/Bipin KokateArun and Sudha Mehta of Vakil & Sons published Dalal’s first book in 1974 and several hit titles after. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Arun and Sudha Mehta, proprietors, Vakil & Sons
When we met them, Mehta and his wife Sudha Ben are sitting in the garden of their Napean Sea Road bungalow, the greenery and open calm, a reminder of old Bombay. They were Dalal’s first publishers and closest friends.

The first book they printed, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, saw a first print run of 3,000 copies in 1974, following which it was regularly reprinted, with the latest, the 35th edition printed as recently as 2021, recalls Arun Mehta.

Arun and Sudha Mehta of Vakil & Sons published Dalal’s first book in 1974 and several hit titles after

In 1965, Dalal told Arun’s uncle G Mehta, who helmed the printing press then, that she wanted to write a book. “Bairaao cookery books vache [Do married women read cook books]? They are in the kitchen from age seven; why would they need a book?” he had asked her.

“By then, Tarla was taking classes and doing exceptionally well. She didn’t take no for an answer and started prepping for the book, designing the photographs and writing the recipes. Nalin Bhai made her write the recipes step by step systematically. Then, he got someone to try them to check for measurements, and the dishes turned out well. We priced the book at R35. It was an instant bestseller. We even sold across Africa and America. Of course, she was not satisfied with just one book and wanted to write more. We went on to publish the next two books, The Delights of Vegetarian Cooking and The Joys of Vegetarian Cooking,” says Arun. 
In 1987, Dalal’s son Sanjay stepped in to start his own firm to publish and market his mother’s books. But this didn’t end their friendship with the Mehtas. We “travelled all over the world together, including Europe,” says Arun. “Wherever we travelled, people knew her. Any restaurant we visited, the chef came out to present his best dishes to her at the table. She was a star in her own right.”

Once on a trip to South India, when she spotted a bunch of bananas over ripening, she made up a dessert from it. Another time in Manali, she went and got local ingredients to create cocktails. Recalling a trip to Udaipur, Sudha says Dalal had sworn not to buy another saree. “But, she ended up buying eight at a go! That was Tarla Ben. Her multilingual style of talking centred around Gujarati, made her a hit. ‘Taste achha lagta hai,’ she’d go. Once she made dhokla at her residence and I asked her if she had tweaked the recipe. ‘Mine don’t come out like this,’ I said. “Sudha, tu maari recipe follow nathi karti’ [you are not following my recipe to the tee],” Sudha laughs at the memory.

Dalal passed away a day after returning from their last trip to Mahableshwar, says, Sudha. 

It was a five-day trip to and she had complained of ill health. She was taking medication to manage the symptoms, but was quite uncomfortable.”

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