Sunday, January 1, 2012

Interview with Author of Iconic Parsi cookbooks, Jamva Chaloji ,Katy Dalal and her son Kurush Dalal

A few years ago, I connected with Kurush Dalal and later his wife Rhea. We hit it off from our first conversation on the phone and today they have come to be very important to the fabric of my life, foodie and otherwise. All that time ago, I had called to ask if I may meet his mother to talk about Parsi food for my book. I never did get to meet her (she passed on in March 2010) and that is a regret right up there with the one I have about not documenting my Dadi’s recipes. But what I did manage was a very insightful email interview of Katy and Kurush that was never published by the magazine that commissioned it. I just saw on Facebook that today would have been Katy Dalal’s birthday. So here is the interview, as a tribute to her and a thank you to Kurush and Rhea for being part of my life. You both truly bring joy to my heart and the lives of everyone you meet. May we meet and eat a whole lot more in 2012 and the years to come!

The name Katy Dalal is well known amongst culinary circles. Famous for her stellar cookbooks on Parsi cuisine (Jamva Chaloji 1 an 2), the fascinating book on Pulaos and Biryanis the delicious Seafood Fiesta, Dr Katy Dalal is  also distinguished in academic circles, having won many awards and completed a Ph.D on Archaeology from Pune University. A specialist on Achaemenion history, she has also taught Ancient Indian Culture in different Mumbai Colleges. Her rich legacy has been very ably shouldered by her son Kurush Dalal who is an archeologist by training and a caterer by profession. As a caterer he specializes in (but does not limit himself to) Parsi Cuisine while juggling a teaching career at the Mumbai University and at the Jhunjhunwala Colleges. 

Katy Dalal on her Career and Kurush

Tell us a bit about your background.
Katy Dalal - I was born and brought up in Bandra which was then a peaceful, green suburb of Mumbai. I attended St. Joseph’s Convent over there and after passing my S.S.C. with a first class, I joined the DNH National College, Bandra. I was extremely interested in History and I secured the highest total of marks in World History in the Intermediate Arts exams conducted by the University of Bombay for which the University conferred a prize and a Scholarship and my college awarded me a gold medal. I was very happy because I felt this was my first step to Egypt in whose ancient history, religion and culture I was extremely interested then. I joined the St. Xavier’s college for my B.A. degree and enrolled at the Heras Institute of Ancient Indian Culture and History. There I met an extremely sympathetic vice-principal father John Correia Afonso who advised me that the first step would be to go meet Dr. H. D. Sankalia (the premiere Archaeologist in India) at the Deccan College, Pune. Dr. Sankalia advised me that it would be preferable for me to first learn all that Indian Archaeology had to entail before I went to another country to study there. He also advised me to join his M.A. classes, which I did.  At that time I was the only female student at Deccan college.
I did my M.A. from Deccan College with a First Class First and then wrote a Ph.D. Thesis titled “Prehistoric Pottery Industries along the (lost) Saraswati River of the Great Indian Desert”. I explored the Ghaghar riverbed from Nohar almost upto the Indo-Pak border in Bikaner. I was fantastically lucky as I managed to find pre-Harappan material at several sites. In India pre-Harrapan material had only been found by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1946 below the ramparts at Harappa. My finds were exact copies of his. I had also found a strange ware excised internally and externally and another type of ware which was later on told to be 3000 to 4000 B.C. old. After this Egypt took a back-seat to India. I became totally involved in exploring the pre-Harappan culture and the thesis took me ten years to complete.

Your career is so far away from cooking, when and how did food and its exploration become important?
Katy Dalal -  By the time I completed my thesis, I had fallen in love with and married an extremely clever young Merchant Marine Officer. I taught Ancient Indian Arts and Culture at various Mumbai Colleges - S.I.E.S., Wilson, St. Xavier's & K.C. I used to travel with my husband on Merchant Liners and all the Officers used to want me to cook special meals for them which they thoroughly enjoyed. On one trip I suffered a retinal detachment and that put paid to my teaching in college. As I was at home, people would request me to cook for their parties. One fine day I realised that instead of twiddling my thumbs at home, I could make a business out of my cooking I developed a large Tiffin business. I took catering contracts at the Free Masons Hall, the P.V.M. Gymkhana and the Ripon Club and thus began to learn more about cooking different dishes. I used to love decorating the food and always felt that food looked and tasted better when arranged properly. 

What made you decide to write your first cookbook? How did you go about working on your books?  Did you travel, meet people?  Spend hours in your own kitchen? 
Katy Dalal - Ideas for a book had been hovering in my head since before marriage. I was appalled when I heard young girls say that they couldn't boil eggs or make rice. I decided that the young women of the community were becoming too westernized in their food habits and so I wrote a book on Parsi cuisine titled "Jamva Chaloji". It contained everything a woman should know when she first goes to her husband's house. It was a thumping success and every copy was sold within the first six months! The publishers reprinted the book several times. This was followed by five other cookery books. Writing the book was very simple. I am descended from a long line of excellent cooks. The first being my great grandmother Soonamai, who lived in Gujarat, the second my paternal grandmother, Cooverbai followed by her two daughters Hilla and Khorshed and my mother Piroja. I had observed all that they were doing during my childhood and would jot down some recipes on pieces of paper. In fact I distinctly remember discussing an unusual sauce to be had with mutton cutlets once - we were discussing how to make a papaya sauce which I had never eaten before. As the years passed I developed a great interest in writing (academically) and cooking (professionally). The logical culmination of this was my first cookbook, Jamva Chaloji. Among the many other reasons were the loss of Parsi culinary traditions due to modernisation and the creation of nuclear families, the lack of a simple, authentic Parsi cookbook, and the needs of young Parsi brides in India and abroad.  

Would you share some of your most pleasurable moments during writing your cookbooks?
Katy Dalal - Forming the recipes in my head and watching in pleasure as they turned out quite exactly as I remembered them to have tasted. 

What about YOU, the cook? What are your favorite foods to cook with?
Katy Dalal - Coloured peppers, Rawas (Indian Salmon), jumbo prawns, Pomfrets- which Parsis love, French herbs, and cream.

What's your favorite recipe to cook? 
Katy Dalal - Golden Pepper Prawn Pulao which is my own creation. This is a pulao which has yellow peppers stuffed with prawns in them and looks lavish and tastes quite delicious. It is a great hit with my guests and my family likes it too. This is something I make at home. Of the dishes that I have served at weddings and large functions is a beautiful salad made with deboned Rawas, butter, pineapple pieces, herbs, and other condiments. This salad is served reconstructed in the shape of the fish with its head and fins (boiled, of course) and covered in 'scales' made from sliced cucumbers. The base for the salad is a sumptuous Russian salad laid on a mirror and with carved decorative vegetables, etc. It looks absolutely superb!!! 

Do you have any favorite cooking gadgets or utensils?
Katy Dalal - My kitchen is choc a bloc with gadgets collected from all over the world, some I have bought, some my darling husband brought back for me from his travels and many more are gifts from family and friends. However, the my two most indispensible gadgets are a little electric chopper which chops just one onion if I need it, and my moule legume. Of course my ‘masala pata’ is something I cannot imagine my kitchen without.

What is the most memorable dish you have ever eaten?
Katy Dalal - The Camembert Dariole at the Zodiac Grill at the Taj hotel in Mumbai is something I will never forget the taste of. Another unforgettable meal was at the Grand Hotel in Kao Hsuing (Taiwan) where I ate the best Chinese food ever.

Do you have an amusing kitchen incident to share with us? One unforgettable Kitchen blunder?
Katy Dalal - Many years ago my cook was making Machchhi no sahs, a typical fish preparation of the Parsis. I, of course, was not there while she was cooking. Later as I was heating up the meal before we all gathered for it, I noticed that the sauce was frothing quite strangely and even exuberantly! A little questioning revealed that the silly woman had used detergent powder (Nirma) instead of the flour she was supposed to have done. She mistook the yellow detergent powder for besan!

What is your best cooking tip for a novice cook?
Katy Dalal - Always read a recipe twice. Collect all the ingredients in front of you in order of use. Use your own instinct to adjust the recipe to your family’s taste, And of course, use your own judgement too while adding salt, spices, cooking oils, etc.

Are you happy that Kurush has carried on your legacy ?
Katy Dalal - I am enormously happy that he turned out to be such a good cook who could, at a glance would tell us how many people could eat out of a certain portion of rice or mutton or whatever ingredient was at hand. This judgement has never failed him. Academically he is extremely sound. He is a good explorer, excavator and has also done a PhD on the Iron Age in India.  

What is your favourite dish cooked by Kurush?
Katy Dalal -Pork Chops which we had very recently at his house for lunch.  He had also once done an entire leg of ham boiled in beer (with spices) and roasted with honey.   

What is your best cooking tip for a novice cook?
Katy Dalal -Always read a recipe twice. Collect all the ingredients in front of you in order of use. Use your own instinct to adjust the recipe to your family's taste, And of course, use your own judgement too while adding salt, spices, cooking oils, etc. 

Kurush Dalal on his legacy and Katy Dalal

Kurush, Tell us a bit more about yourself
Kurush Dalal - I am an archeologist by training and a caterer by profession. I grew up in a house filled with books and the flavours of myriad foods both Indian and Western. I spent four years boarding in Panchgani, did my HSC in Science, my BA in AIC & History from Mumbai University, my MA (in Archaeology) and PhD from Deccan College, Pune University. In the course of my studies I saw the real India of the small towns and villages as I travelled its length and breadth on Archaeological trips. I lived and ate with people at all these places and truly imbibed the flavours of India not just the feast-day preparations but the day to day sustenance of the people on whose backs India stands. On the way I met and married my wife and finally met my match in the kitchen.

Did you always plan to follow in your mothers footsteps and choose a career in gastronomy?
Kurush Dalal - No, when I was little I wanted to be an astronaut and as I grew up and went to school and college I was  fascinated by both Astrophysics and Nuclear physics, sadly I failed my HSC in Physics (of all things) and changed streams to Ancient Indian History. I was always a part of Mum's catering business and had been helping with all aspects since I was 11. When I first evinced an interest she made me a waiter's uniform and put me to work at the lowest rung of the ladder at the Freemason's Hall. Right through my college days (11th and 12th) I helped with purchase and spent almost  5 mornings every week in the fish, meat and vegetable markets, evenings were often spent on the job – catering at various venues.

So, which is you  favourite cookbook by your mother?
Kurush Dalal  - The first one - 'Jamva Chaloji'.  Not only because the title was my suggestion but because it was a terrible need of the hour and has almost resurrected Parsi gastronomy in Parsi homes both in India and abroad.

Would you share some of your most pleasurable moments with your mother in the kitchen?
Kurush Dalal - Though I picked up a lot of my cooking skills in my mother's kitchen I seldom cooked with her. Watching mum cook is often like watching a very complicated stage performance. She is more often than not an intuitive cook and I still remember the time when she taught a bunch of the Taj's chefs Parsi cooking. They were flummoxed by 'a pinch' of this and 'a handful' of that and would make her stop in mid-move and actually weigh the various spices as she scooped them out of the jars.

What about YOU, the cook? What are your favorite foods to cook with?
Kurush Dalal - I’m a very moody cook. At home I like to cook all those things that I rarely get to cook at work like pork, pork chops, hams, veal, and simple dals. At work my main interests are sauces, dressings and starters since I feel these are often ignored in India. I’m also a bit picky about my ingredients and like a kitchen filled with complex, myriad and weird spices, condiments, vinegars, oils, etc.

What's your favorite recipe to cook? 
Kurush Dalal  - Pork Chops marinated in a red wine vinegar with whole spices and demerara sugar, grilled in olive oil and served with herbed cheesy mashed potatoes.

What is your favourite dish cooked by your mom?
Kurush Dalal - It's got to be her Dhan Dal and Kolmi no Patiao with Parsi style Fried Fish and green coconut chutney.

Do you have any favorite cooking gadgets or utensils?
Kurush Dalal - My wooden spatulas, especially my hand carved bamboo spatula from Nagaland, and my knives and steel.

What is the most memorable dish you have ever eaten?
Kurush Dalal - This is a difficult one.  There are 4 dishes actually: my dad’s prawn and tomato omlette, my  mum’s dhan dal and kolmi no patio, my wife’s Bengali maangshor jhol and the fried eggs my grandma (mum’s mum) used to make.

Do you have an amusing kitchen incident to share with us? One unforgettable Kitchen blunder?
Kurush Dalal -During our courtship days my wife (to be) once made a favourite dish (baked potato and onions in cheesy white sauce) of her hostel days. Halfway through she realised we had run out of milk so she merrily substituted it with diluted condensed milk …… little realizing its sugar content. The resultant dish was part main course and part dessert. It was weird, strange and quite peculiar but we (a friend and I)quietly polished it off. Nothing since has ever managed to top this. us some of the most important cooking tips you learned from your mom?
Kurush Dalal -Two main things actually, patience with food and the selection of only the finest ingredients, preferably personally gathered/prepared/bought.

Is there a cookbook in you as well? Can we look forward to something along those lines from your kitchen/pen? Anything else you want to share with us?
Kurush Dalal -Most definitely, more than one, more than writing a cookbook I feel a great need to collect recipes from specific geographical zones and from specific religious groups and castes. There is a crying need to put this down on paper and to record these traditions before they completely die out due to our modern food habits. So my first book(s) will probably be edited volumes or collections more than books filled with my own original recipes, that I think will come later. In the last 15 years or so there have been major upheavals in the eating patterns and the food availability scenario in urban India. Whilst its really nice to have non-Indian foods available in our restaurants this is sadly at the cost of many a traditional style, the Irani Cafes, the Chilliya restaurants and the Udipis are disappearing and with them is disappearing an entire chapter in the food history of our country.

Gratitude, gyaan and LINKS
Thank you Saee Koranne Khandekar of the blog Myjhola for allowing me to use the Pictures you took of Kurush and Rhea. 
For more on Katy Dalal’s books
For more on Dalal enterprises and to order from them visit the Dalal Enterprises Facebook Page (be sure to order from them, you will not regret it!)  or Email Kurush at or call +919820136511


Panfusine said...

thanks for sharing this, Parsi cuisine is not something one has access to so easily.. Fascinating!

Anshie said...

This is a treasure for sure. Thanks for sharing. And Rhea used to mention that her hubz made the best pork chops. Now I know for sure that they are the best .. His mom loved them!!

Kurush F Dalal said...

Dear Rushina,
Today is mum's 2nd death anniv an reading this makes me feel she's sitting right around the corner and dictating the email to u ... thank u.

SohNi said...

Very nice interview..... got to know something new about virtual world people.....or I should say FB has made world so small n more revolving......