Her voice is high-pitched and energetic, her warmth infectious. At ABP Cook Studio in Mumbai, where Ritu Dalmia, the diva of Delhi’s food scene, is launching her latest book, Diva Green, there is already a small crowd huddled around her. Dressed in a black chef coat and denims, Ritu is entertaining the food bloggers, who have arrived for a unique ‘cook along’ session with her, with one of her Goa stories. (She shot for her book in Goa.) She wears thick-rimmed black frames and a striking red watch, and laughs open-mouthed when someone tells her they love the flip-flops she has worn on the cover image of her book. She whispers, “You know what! Those are not mine. I borrowed those from Poulomi [Poulomi Chatterjee of Hachette India] while we were shooting.”
That’s Ritu Dalmia. Unapologetic, uninhibited. She doesn’t shy away from saying her all-new vegetarian cookbook will be a hit. Nor does she have any qualms about admitting her family laughs at her inability to make the simple kheer. “I am too old now to hide my shortcomings,” said Ritu, 42, when asked whether we could let her secret out. “But the kheer still gets to me. Sometimes it is the consistency, sometimes the sugar content. It gives me low self-esteem.”
Hard to believe this comes from someone who opened her first restaurant in Delhi at age 22. Although her restaurant, MezzaLuna, had to be shut down in a matter of three years, nothing could stop this young Marwari girl, who saw no future for her in her family’s marble business. She went on to open an Indian restaurant, Vama, in London’s King’s Road. “I was too pampered,” she says. “I realised that it was best to stay that way. So I came back to India.” She sold her shares in the restaurant to her partner Andy Verma and came back to India. After 13 years, she now helms five restaurants in the capital, runs a successful catering business, has written five cookbooks and has hosted two TV shows.
It is not always that you get a chance to cook with Ritu Dalmia. So, we decide to get our hands dirty. Ritu gives out instructions like a headmistress and calls everyone bachcha. The first on our list is carrot cake. As we mix up all the dry and wet ingredients, she says, “When people compliment me saying my cakes are ever so moist, I just modestly take it saying, ‘Oh! It is just my way with food, you know!’” But the secret is in brushing a bit of golden or maple syrup over the baked cake to make it moist and let the moistness stay.
Having grown up in a vegetarian Marwari family, Ritu used to run to her friend’s place to have salami for breakfast. “I used to proclaim that I am a hardcore carnivore,” she says. “As a chef, I have to eat everything but I have realised, as I am getting older, if you ask me what my favourite food is, it is vegetarian.” There is a mindset that vegetarian food is boring, she says. “When we launched the book Diva Green in New Delhi, we served a tasting menu to about 60 people who were largely meat-eaters,” says Ritu. “It was a six-course fully vegetarian meal and the challenge was to find out how many of them actually missed meat. And, of course, after the meal, none of them did.”
Diva Green does not follow the usual starter-main course-dessert pattern. Instead, recipes are listed on the basis of the most prominent vegetable in it. “We have listed recipes using the simplest of vegetables like pumpkin, beetroot, tomato, potato, eggplant and mushroom,” says Ritu. “There is no asparagus or broccoli. Nothing that you can’t find at home or can’t get from your local vegetable vendor.”
Once the cake was put in the oven to bake, we begin working on spicy mushroom salad. There is a twist this time. Ritu has challenged us to add one ingredient of our choice to give the salad a touch of our own. We decide to add a bit of lemon zest to the dressing and it tastes wonderful.
So what is the chef’s favourite dish? “Hmmm…,” she thinks for a while. “What day of the week is it?” Oh, she has a different one for every day, we wonder. “It is not about what’s your favourite. It is all about what your state of mind is,” she says. “This is one of the most difficult questions. If I say one dish’s name, I’ll be lying. Taste, I feel, is a memory.”
But she does share with us something else. As Indians, we will never feel out of place in Italy, she says. “There are a lot of similarities between India and Italy, starting from lifestyle and culture to the food we eat. For instance, like Indians, Italians are very family-oriented people. It is one of the few European countries where you can find children staying with their parents for a long time.” Italians are very hospitable, too, she continues. “If you find four women sitting and talking here, I am sure, food will be one of the main topics of discussion. Exactly the same as Italy.”
The similarities don’t end there. “If you go to Sicily, they have something called panelle, which is nothing but besan ka bhujiya,” she says. “Or if you go to Farvana, they have something called farinata which is besan ka pooda. Similarly, marzipan, from Sicily, is nothing but badam barfi.”
The real reason why Ritu chose to cook Italian khaana is “because it is the easiest cuisine to cook”. Indian food, she says, is very complicated to cook and only a genius can understand and master the nuances of Indian cooking. She believes she is not that talented. Her talent lies in making people feel at home. The effect she has on all of us is proof enough to her success in the restaurant business.
Ritu has a story to go with every recipe in the book. Next in our cook-along is Saint’s Day Pasta. She livens up the mood by sharing the story of her friend from Italy, who gave her the recipe to this dish, while stirring the tomato sauce on the stove. This special tomato sauce, made in extra virgin olive oil with chopped tomatoes, crushed garlic, a red chilli and lots of basil, can be refrigerated and stored for as long as you want, she says. Ritu explains the different ways in which we can use this basic sauce – as a base for pasta or as a sandwich spread. “Please promise me that the first thing you do when you reach home is throw away all the dry oregano you have stored up,” Ritu tells someone who asks about using it in the dish, adding that the only place Italians use their oregano is as a seasoning for their pizzas. “Also, don’t add any red or white wine into your sauce thinking it will make it more exotic. The French add wine, the Italians stay clear of it.”
After putting the pasta in the oven, Ritu goes on to use the same tomato sauce as a base and layers it with cheese and chicken pieces. Dinner is served and as we sit down to have it, Ritu tells us about her love for music. “I am a closet DJ,” she says. “I make the playlists for all my restaurants. But what I really want to do is to be a travel writer. That is the only way I think I can go around the world under the pretence of writing about it at someone else’s expense.”