To say Indian women chefs are finally in the kitchen is a statement as trite as it is stale. Yet it’s one that is dragged out from the back of the story repositories every Woman’s Day, dusted off and spun out for consumption.
And while there’s every reason to feel vindicated about the growing number of incredibly talented female culinarians who are increasingly setting the narrative in a previously testoster-toned scene (it is 2019, after all), and even consider it a long time coming, before the celebrity power women chefs of today, India was a very different place. One where the idea of women chefs wasn’t merely anomalous but unimaginable.
It was in this scene that three very different women, in three very different ways, would go on to indelibly change India’s culinary landscape over the decades, until it became the level playing field of talent it is today. While all three ladies may have passed on, their contributions to their chosen field is incalculable; perhaps then, days like today are ideal to celebrate the remarkable women they were.
Bhicoo Manekshaw, the country’s first Cordon Bleu-educated chef (Just like Julia), curated the à la carte menu at the Indian International Centre, the stamping ground of the diplomatic corps and Delhi’s urban(e) elite, as soon as she took over its reins. India’s most exclusive cultural institution used to serve mostly north Indian when it first began catering to the discerning in 1962; this changed under Manekshaw, who joined in 1974.
At the IIC, where she consulted until her death in April 2013, Manekshaw interpreted French cuisine to make sense to the local palate, while conversely also making every effort to introduce the esoteric cuisines of regional Indian communities, including her native Parsis. Manekshaw also created and christened dishes such as Gâteau Indira (named after the former Prime Minister on the spur of the moment) and Stein’s Potato and Sesame Soup, named after architect Joseph Stein who designed the IIC and IHC.
And Tarla Dalal, as much as Bhicoo Manekshaw, was to India as what Julia Child was to the United States, both women nigh single-handedly demystifying the culinary arcana behind new, bewildering dishes cuisines for middle classes of their nations, who were becoming increasingly exposed from sights, sounds, and tastes from around the world thanks to the beaming of televisions and burgeoning of aircraft travel.
Starting with cooking classes in 1966, Dalal got around to writing her first book, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, in 1974, which was to be her seminal work: a stand-by for Indian housewives, both home and abroad, as well as foreigners curious if there was anything to Indian food beyond curry.
Darla was a prolific author, pushing out over a 100 recipe and cook books over the years, which have sold more than 10 million copies, and counting. Apart from her ability to craft vegetarian versions of non-vegetarian dishes which were (astonishingly) as good as their more sanguine counterparts, she was also able to make foreign foods relatable and accessible to an increasing demographic of Indians.
She hosted a cookery show that was broadcast all over South East Asia, India, the Gulf, the United Kingdom and United States, with plenty of reruns still in syndication. Small wonder then that she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007 for her efforts in promoting Indian cuisines and cultures around the world. Dalal also passed away in 2013.
If Manekshaw and Dalal set the template through their books and menus, one centenarian from Andhra Pradesh broke it and engaged with a whole new generation. Mastanamma, a 107-year-old grandmother from AP's Guntur village, shot to fame after her cooking videos were uploaded on to YouTube; her channel, Country Foods, garnered around 12 lakh subscribers over the course of its two year run, making Mastanamma the world's oldest YouTuber.
Despite her sudden viral fame, she quietly passed away recently, and the news of her demise came only after fans began enquiring about why videos had stopped being uploaded. The channel, which was started and is run by Hyderabad-based mediapersons K Laxman and Srinath Reddy, then broke the news of her passing through a video, which recorded her final journey as her village mourned her.
Laxman, who was distantly related to the centenarian, first uploaded a video of her preparing a brinjal curry for visitors back in 2016, and the video quickly had over 75,000 videos. Encouraged by the response, Laxman and Reddy soon began uploading videos of her preparing dishes, known ones and unusual ones, on YouTube, naming the channel Country Foods, due to the rural setting and Mastanamma's culinary technique, which saw her preparing each item from scratch.
While she quickly became popular for her many seafood preparations, Mastanamma also enjoyed cooking more esoteric dishes, which were local to her community as well as her own experiments, from Big Pig Head and Whole Lamb Heads to Watermelon Chicken and snail curries, and even her own take on KFC-style fried chicken with Andhra spices. More interestingly, the sprightly super-senior citizen was extremely tactile, using just her hands to peel everything from potatoes to tomatoes, and each episode began with her first collecting seasonal ingredients from the markets and woods in her river-side village.
From planning diplomatic dinners in New Delhi’s new durbar to writing globally best-selling treatises on regional Indian foods to just connecting with people from all around the world, over time, space, culture and geography, it was women who helped make Indian food truly international.
Whether it was written discourses on the pleasures of vegetarian cooking or a visual demonstration of the efficient broiling of a sheep’s head, whether it was the preparing of incredibly fresh rural fare to be simply served on leaf plates in front of a camera recorded for a mass global audience to the composing of intricately structured meals for the most discreet and powerful of private circles, with each course ascribed in flowing copperplate, or the less informal coziness of a much-thumbed recipe book, yellowing with love, it was their deft hands that crafted the taste of India across the world. International women indeed.