She started cooking at an early age because her mother “couldn’t cook to save her life”. She wanted good food and the only way she was going to get it was by getting her hands dirty in the kitchen.
Chef Ritu Dalmia now runs six successful restaurants in Delhi introducing varied and authentic cuisines to the city. Ritu Dalmia is the hands, heart and brains behind DIVA Italian, Cafe DIVA, Latitude 28, DIVA Spiced, The Cafe at ICC and Cafe DIVA Sangam. She also has two hit television TV shows that feature on NDTV Goodtimes.
DSSC caught up with her at her Asian restaurant, DIVA Spiced in Delhi’s Meherchand market to talk about sugar, spice and all things nice. She launched her very first restaurant 16 years ago in 2000, which was ahead of its times and Delhi’s food landscape hadn’t experienced the revolutionary boom we see now where Dilli-wallahs have a far more varied and experimenting palate. With a constant smile on her face she says, “The food scene in Delhi has really changed from when I was young. We have six non-Indian restaurants that are working and that in itself is saying something. Today a lot of younger people are going out and spending more. They are travelling, they want to come back and recreate the same experience whilst abroad.”
Though she was born and brought up in a Marwari house in West Bengal, her heart and soul belong to Italy. She went to Italy for the first time when she was 10 years old and formed an instant connection. “While everyone was missing home and Indian food, I couldn’t get enough of spaghetti with tomato sauce, even though that’s what we got every day,” she says, adding, “I think I have some sort of connection with Italy from my past life”. And so when it comes to Italian food, she’s a complete purist but she satiates her creativity by experimenting with other cuisines.
Growing up, Chef Dalmia says she was constantly trying to run away from her Marwari heritage. She said, “I fought my Marwari background for many years. I was born in a vegetarian household but I started eating meat at a very young age because I was curious and because I was a rebel.”
Getting older, though, she finds herself going back to her roots. “Pak Pranali, which was like the ultimate cooking guide for every maru household, was one of my first cookbooks and I still go back to it because it has amazing ‘kitchy’ dishes that I recreate and modernize,” she says.
In fact, she’s combined maru food with coastal and her other cuisines at two of her restaurants, Cafe DIVA and Latitude. In the end, she says, she’s realised that “you really cannot escape your roots”. One of her favourite meals, “even above Italian”, is plain dal-chawal with aloo-jeera. She said, “I only like ghar ka khanna” but sadly she doesn’t get it very often between running six restaurants and hosting two TV shows.
At DSSC we love simple dal and chawal so we took this opportunity to ask Chef how she would put a Ritu Dalmia touch to a plain ol’ dal chawal? “Hing”, she says is the core ingredient. “You cannot make dal without hing. To it, I would add roasted sesame seeds, a wee bit of tamarind and jaggery and you have something that will explode all your taste buds”.
Food for Ritu Dalmia is about instant gratification. “At my age, food does more for me than sex”, she says with a hearty laugh. “Plain and simple. There’s too much pressure these days with work, relationships, and expectations. It has no ‘stressy’ strings attached to it.” She’s not shy about her love for junk food as well and quite abashedly admits how much she loves hot dogs. “Let’s face it”, she says, “fast food gives you instant gratification. I love it”!
Chef Dalmia has an enchanting love for food that is transparent – it’s transparent in her youthful energy, wholesome laugh and through her fantastic restaurants. She has been an early supporter of our Club and we often joke that our love-filled cheeky banter is something that future generations will talk about. She is someone we admire, turn to for advice and has truly transformed the culinary landscape of the country.
Off to the kitchen now, to try her version of hing vali daal.
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace of base industry disrupters.
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