Tarla Dalal, India’s most popular cookbook author, dies at 77

Dalal, the original creator of the Indian cookbook industry, mixed the art of cooking with a natural flair for business

Padma Shri winner, author of countless cookbooks and the endearing champion of vegetarian cooking in India, Tarla Dalal is survived by three children. Photo: Hindustan Times
Padma Shri winner, author of countless cookbooks and the endearing champion of vegetarian cooking in India, Tarla Dalal is survived by three children. Photo: Hindustan Times

Tarla Dalal, the prolific writer of cookbooks who turned her traditional Indian cooking skills into a one-woman business empire, died at the age of 77 at her Mumbai residence from a heart attack in her sleep early on Wednesday morning.

Padma Shri winner, author of countless cookbooks and the endearing champion of vegetarian cooking in India, she is survived by three children.

Dalal was only a young housewife when she picked up the basics of cooking on her own and, years later, revolutionized everyday, non-fussy vegetarian cooking. With 170 cookbook titles to her credit—translated into many regional languages as well as Dutch and Russian—including the most famous The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking (her first book published in 1974, which was an instant best-seller), it would be safe to say that Dalal taught Indians how to hold a cookbook.

But she was also an entrepreneur who was able to mix the art of cooking with a natural flair for business—the original creator of the Indian cookbook industry.

Even before the runaway success of her vegetarian cookbooks she had started cooking classes at her home in 1966. Later, she launched her line of ready-to-cook mixes under the brandname Tarla Dalal Foods (TDF), which was acquired in 1998 by Corn Products Co. (India) Ltd—a subsidiary of US-based Bestfoods Ltd—along with technical know-how, plant and machinery.

TDF made over 18 types of instant mixes at its factory in Ambernath, outside Mumbai. Corn Products later became International Bestfoods Ltd (IBL), whose parent US company—the maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Knorr’s soups—was acquired by Unilever Plc. in 2000 for $24.3 billion in cash and debt.

She continued monetizing her cooking skills in later years.

The website, www.tarladalal.com is the largest Indian food website with recipes spanning seven cuisines—Punjabi, Gujarati, Rajasthani, Maharashtrian, “South Indian”, Chinese and Italian. She brought out a bimonthly magazine called Cooking & More, hosted Cook It Up With Tarla Dalal on Sony TV that was broadcast in South-East Asia, India, the Gulf, the UK and the US, and recently launched her own iPad app, Tarla Dalal Recipes.

Dalal’s experiments with food, chronicled in titles such as 100 Calorie Snacks, Acidity Cook Book, Popular Restaurant Gravies and every other niche you can possibly think of, changed Indian kitchen staples, and put the joy back in vegetarian cooking. Besides bookstores, her books sold in video libraries, toy shops, boutiques and supermarkets—a feat for any author. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor says: “I started writing cookbooks thanks to Tarla Dalal. I used to be busy with my TV shows and never realized that cookbooks can be a great business.”

Nilanjana Roy, who edited Penguin’s A Matter of Taste: Anthology of Indian Writing on Food says, “She accomplished something that was quite extraordinary—she made our own food accessible to ourselves, and that it is so important that you can’t stress it enough.

“She made it perfectly respectable for anybody with any kind of a background to experiment.”

Roy adds: “You had popular cookbooks before, but she made it into an industry, and a very Indian industry. Because cooking appears to be domestic, it is easy to ignore, but it is also a very large business. She became a euphemism for cooking. I am not saying that she reinvented Indian cooking the way (American chef) Julia Child did (with French cooking), but in terms of running a business empire and the industrialization of cookbooks, her achievements were colossal.”

Her beginnings were small and innocuous.

In 2007, after receiving the Padma Shri—the only cookbook author to have received the honour—she told The Hindu about her tryst with the basics of cooking when she was in her early 20s and engaged to Nalin Dalal: “To please her husband, a young woman will learn to cook the food he wants.”

Till the end, she maintained her sense of humour and humility. In the last couple of years, Dalal focussed on healthy cooking and brought out titles such as Zero Oil Soups, Salads and Snacks.

Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, cookbook author whose A Pinch of This and a Handful of That will be out next month, says, “The first cookbook I ever used was by Tarla Dalal. When I got married, my mother gave me one of her books. She was the person who gave the cookbook genre a life. If you think of cookbooks, she would be the first on the list.

“On the home-cooking front, she was an icon.”

It’s unlikely that any Indian kitchen is untouched by a Tarla Dalal recipe. As sports nutritionist and columnist Rujuta Diwekar says: “Growing up in Mumbai or in India and being interested in food, there was no way that one would not have heard of or tried cooking from one of her books. She was always using Indian food and recipes so well.”

Om Arora, owner of Variety Book Depot in Delhi, one of India’s oldest book distributors, said:

“Tarla Dalal was introduced to me by Mumbai-based publisher Vakil & Sons who were her neighbours and had published her first book The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking. They had not sold too many copies, whereas we, at Variety Book Depot, had done well with that book. So Dalal approached us to distribute her second book The Delights of Vegetarian Cooking in the mid-1970s.

“Tarla Dalal created the market for Indian cookbooks, specially the vegetarian fare. In fact, her first two-three books still sell—in my estimate they must have sold 500,000 copies each since the 1970s.”

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