Food writer Laurie Colwin once said, “No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.” This is true for chef Renu Dalal, who has proudly carried forward her mother and legendary chef Tarla Dalal’s legacy, something she admits, was not really the plan.
In conversation with indianexpress.com, the author talks about the constant presence of ‘exceptional dishes’ at home, her upcoming book, what cooking means to her, how vegetarianism will be the next big thing and why fusion dishes are here to stay.
Excerpts from the interview:
Growing up with a legendary chef as your mother, what does cooking mean to you?
As a child, fabulous food was a constant presence in our home. My mother held cooking classes, and the highlight of my day used to be tasting all of the dishes she had prepared, after coming home from school. Our house also used to play host to shooting sessions for each new cookbook, which was something I looked forward to. My mother always encouraged an interest in cooking, so much so that I even took a cooking class when I was young, under her supervision.
Cooking is my joy and passion. It fills me with energy, and my greatest joy is creating something new in the kitchen. I also love the wonderful feedback I receive when my readers make one of my recipes, and the happiness and nourishment I share with them.
Was it always your plan to take forward the Tarla Dalal legacy?
It was never really my plan to take forward her legacy. However, a few months after she passed away, I began to think of new recipes. My mother, an endless source of new and exciting recipes, was no longer around to share her wisdom. It is also a tradition in my family to not repeat menus. Whenever friends and family come over, something new is always on the table. And so, every time I tasted something I liked, I would think, ‘How can I make that?’
I began to put these recipes down in an excel spreadsheet and that’s how I began writing! The wonderful feedback and reviews I received from friends and family encouraged me. I’ve now written two books, and have a third one in the works. My recipes are simple and inventive and I plan to continue as long as inspiration strikes.
Could you share your favourite dish from childhood?
When it comes to my mother’s cooking, picking just one favourite is quite the task. But if I had to choose, it would be her baked bean and spinach pizza. Amazing flavours and childhood nostalgia, all wrapped up in one dish. Her cooking was always ahead of its time. The ingredients she used, the simple and easy-to-follow steps, and the ways in which she combined flavours were all unparalleled. That’s why her recipes continue to remain so popular, and no dish better represents all of these elements than this pizza. I’ve used the same ingredients to create a grilled baked bean and spinach sandwich, which has been quite the hit at family events.
Baked Beans and Spinach Sandwich recipe
- 8 – Whole-wheat bread slices
- 4 tsp – Butter
For the baked beans filling:
- 1 tbsp – Olive oil
- 2 tbsp – Chopped onions
- 1 – Tin of baked beans
- ½ tbsp – Tomato ketchup
- A pinch of salt
- ½ tsp – Chilli powder
For the spinach filling:
- 2 cups – Boiled spinach
- A pinch of salt and pepper
- Cheese slices (optional)
- 1 tbsp – Butter
For the bean filling
- In a non-stick vessel, heat the olive oil, add the onions and saute for ½ minute.
- Add the baked beans, tomato ketchup, salt and chilli powder to taste.
- Cook for one minute.
For the spinach
- Add salt and pepper to the spinach.
How to proceed
- To 2 slices of bread add ½ tsp of butter.
- Add a portion of the baked bean filling in the middle.
- Add a portion of the spinach filling and the cheese (optional) in the middle.
- Apply a little butter on the sandwich on both sides. Grill the sandwich in a sandwich grill till done.
How to serve
- Serve hot with ketchup.
For people in quarantine, should they look at cooking as a hobby or an essential activity to survive?
Cooking comes from the heart and soul – if you do it with love, the end result is so much better. With the ingredients and tools that we now have access to, Indian kitchens are as well-equipped as any in the world. The ability to cook has become more important than ever during this quarantine, one that will prove useful long after this situation ends. Cooking is also a fantastic form of self-therapy. The act of preparing a meal with your own two hands, especially if you share it with friends and family, is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling feelings in the world.
Do you have any favourite quarantine food trends that have taken the internet by the storm?
Quarantine has brought out the creativity in many people, and there are quite a few fantastic trends that have popped up. Three and even two-ingredient recipes that are simple and delicious have taken the internet by storm, and a few have become personal favourites. Home baking has also taken off, with everyone trying their hand at bread, cookies, and cakes – myself included. Immunity boosting foods is another favourite, and healthy foods as a whole have seen renewed interest.
Many believe that vegetarian food can sometimes get monotonous. Any tips?
Nothing could be further from the truth! Vegetarian and vegan food today is dynamic, exciting, and growing faster than ever before, both in India and globally. There used to be a time when travelling abroad meant hunting for the lone vegetarian restaurant in a city. Today, dedicated vegetarian restaurants can be found just about anywhere in the world. Many of these changes are due to the growing knowledge of the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Netflix has even produced a fascinating documentary called The Game Changers, which showcases how top athletes have adopted vegetarianism thanks to its nutritional and health benefits. My mother was one of the earliest pioneers of vegetarianism and really showcased its range and depth.
Two key factors to a successful vegetarian dish are its presentation and taste. The first convinces people to take a bite, and the second makes them want to keep eating! Always try to put something new on the table – your effort will never go waste.
Any fusion dishes you can mention, which capture both Indian and western flavours?
The Indian palate is always looking for something new to eat dressed up in familiar flavours. My travels have given me the chance to try many new foods and flavours, and I love incorporating them into my own recipes. I’ve featured quite a few of these interesting pairings in my books. My favourites are waffle idli delight, Mexican panipuri, chocolate panipuri, spaghetti with lentils, khakra pizza, and Thai paan. They all taste delicious and bring something new to the table. One pairing I’m especially fond of is masala paneer with peach sauce – the combination of sweet and salty is out of this world!
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