I wrote this book to get some brownie points from my mother, who has been a strict vegetarian all her life," says Ritu Dalmia. “She did not even bother to open my previous cookbooks because of the meat and fish sections, though she still thinks my mushroom dishes look like meat."

We are sitting on the first floor of the celebrity chef’s signature restaurant, Diva, in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash-II, talking about her latest offering, Diva Green: A Vegetarian Cookbook. But the conversation, much like the book itself, meanders into personal anecdotes.

It’s the sort of thing you may find yourself reading in bed. Each recipe is prefaced with a brief autobiographical aside. “I write the way I talk," Dalmia says, “I’ve no time for profundities and most of my food memories are related to travel, meeting people, and trusting my instincts." She gets a little piqued when I ask if she has a cooking philosophy. “Cooking is fun, there’s no right or wrong way," I am told. “In fact, my biggest worry is putting in measurements in a recipe. Oil, salt, seasoning—these entirely depend on personal taste."

Diva Green—A Vegetarian Cookbook: Hachette India, 224 pages, Rs 699
Diva Green—A Vegetarian Cookbook: Hachette India, 224 pages, Rs 699

Tiny windows of advice—from the best way of storing mushrooms to the quickest method of sweating out eggplants—open out sporadically. Potato, Pumpkin, Eggplant, Tomato, Carrot and Beetroot, and Mushroom have distinct sections devoted to them, while Fruits, Dairy, Greens and Everything Else (avocado, corn, tofu and whatnot) appear in an eclectic mix. There’s also a useful guide to making stocks, dips and sauces; and finally, some meal plans.

The recipes range from good old alu (potato) and baingan (eggplant) fry (Bengali style) to exotic stuff like Chilled Eggplant Gazpacho and Spaghetti with Strawberries. Some, like the Beetroot and Pearl Barley risotto, are courtesy other chefs—Tom Pemberton of Hereford Road in London, in this case. A Burmese Tomato Salad is inspired by a similar one she had eaten at the Bomra’s restaurant in Goa.

“There is no formula to my menu," Dalmia says. “Whatever I like to eat myself goes into it."

Together, we pour over the current one. Vegetables clearly have the upper hand, which is not surprising for a chef who was born into a Marwari family in Kolkata and brought up on a pure vegetarian diet cooked by a maharaj. “But I was always the rebel who wanted to eat salami for breakfast," she says. Once she moved to Delhi, her Punjabi friends indulged her curiosity for meat, though in the last few years, for health and other reasons, she is gravitating back to her roots.

But being vegetarian, even a decade ago, wasn’t a happy experience. “I went to an iconic restaurant overlooking the Notre Dame in Paris with a friend some years ago," recalls Dalmia. “As a vegetarian, all she could get for the main course was a plate of steamed Brussels sprouts."

Clearly, international chefs hadn’t spent much energy on vegetarian food since the time Dalmia had survived a week-long school trip to Italy, as a 10-year-old, on spaghetti cooked in fresh tomato sauce. The one good thing to have come of that tour was her enduring love for Italian cuisine, the success of which, Dalmia claims, depends more on the freshness of the ingredients than individual talent.

“While catering in Italy, I realized the trick to good vegetarian food is how you balance between starch and carbohydrates," she says. “So when I opened my own restaurant, I decided to have a world menu, which would address a range of dietary preferences." When she started her first venture, MezzaLuna, in Hauz Khas Village in Delhi, she had to fly to Italy almost every week to get fresh supplies. No wonder it had to be shut down eventually.

Getting the right ingredients, which are now easily available in India, thanks to globalization and better organized supply chains, is but half the battle won. “I am a control freak," says Dalmia, “I like to go to my restaurants every day to check if everything’s in order, one of the reasons why I haven’t yet opened a restaurant in any other city in India."

At Latitude 28 in Khan Market and Café Diva in Greater Kailash-I, the menu is dictated by her own predilections. Diva Piccola in Hauz Khas Village, “which I started out of nostalgic reasons", is more of a pizzeria, while the “canteen" at the Italian Cultural Centre—“it’s more like a dhaba, really"—serves simple, home-cooked Italian cuisine. It’s a hit among expat Italians because it fulfils their craving for authentic “mama’s food".

“It’s a pity home-style cooking is a steadily vanishing art," says Dalmia. “How many of us cook traditional food at home any longer? Would you, as a good Bengali, make posto-alu (potatoes cooked in poppy seeds) when you have friends over?" I sheepishly admit that I’d rather play it safe and opt for a pasta salad.

Dalmia’s potato salad
Dalmia’s potato salad

Each of Dalmia’s restaurants has a distinct ambience. “Latitude started as a place for ladies who lunch—not kitty parties, mind you—though I am pleased to see an ever-growing male clientele there," she says. Diva has a more muted calm—Dalmia looks visibly pleased when I tell her that it’s my chosen venue for a serious first date—while Piccola is for the young, fast-food-eating crowd. But Dalmia will have none of it when I venture that so much of the modern eating out experience, especially at restaurants like Diva and Latitude, is linked to the cosmopolitan spirit of these places.

“In London there’s a Chinese restaurant with pink tablecloths, banquet chairs and the rudest waiters, who plonk the food down before you and walk away. People go there, eat, pay and then go back the next week. Why do you think?" she fixes me with a stare. “I don’t mind whatever it is about a restaurant that tickles your toes, but if the food is not good, nothing else can compensate."

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