Veteran Chef Nita Mehta Gives The Recipe To Extract ‘Dadi Maa Ke Nuskhe’
- IWB Post
- June 11, 2019
We often hear that a chef’s passion for food reflects in the intricacies of their description, and its vibe parallels to that of an artist’s dialogue on his artwork. Our food-hearty conversation with Veteran Chef Nita Mehta was nothing unlike.
Having developed a flair for cooking in adolescence, the celebrity chef pursued her graduation in Home Science from Delhi’s Lady Irwin College and further post-graduated in nutrition and health. But had she not decided to ace the art of eggless-baking, after being ridiculed for a ‘not so soft’ cake she baked for her husband’s birthday, perhaps the country would have missed from getting a gem of a chef and her 30-year long cooking wisdom.
Authored over 400 cookbooks, won national-international awards, and judged multiple competitions, today Nita runs a Culinary Academy in Delhi, a Restaurant in Ludhiana, and not to mention, her own publishing house.
Here’s presenting you a sumptuous platter of excerpts from our conversation with her, enjoy the read and savour the flavour:
Let’s start the course with some quick bites:
Your idea of breakfast on the go: Muesli and fruits or a quick veggie sandwich.
A dish you love making on weekends: My children love my enchiladas.
Your lazy day cook: Wraps. Freshen the leftover veggies, season with some lettuce, wrap around and you’re done!
A healthy school tiffin option: A whole-wheat bread sandwich (kids these days can be really fussy about tiffin!)
And last but not the least, your go-to dish: Anything that you can think of! (She laughed)
All the picks sound oh-so-delicious! So it wouldn’t be wrong to say that you don’t fall in the category of chefs who don’t (like to) cook at home?
Oh, not at all. I love cooking, home or outside. And my grandchildren have demands flowing in all the time like I’d bake them cupcakes and then together we’d do the icing and decoration. So you see, I have to keep my chef’s hat on all the time, and I am happy about it.
Lucky kids! So which cuisine does their super-chef grandmother relish the most?
Indian. And given that I’ve just returned from Italy, the overdose of Risottos and Pizzas is making me want to indulge in some nice home-cooked dal roti and rajma chawal.
Ah! Well, what holds the ‘Real Indian Flavour’ for you and how do you think it can be best preserved?
The Indian Spices I think. They can make and change the taste of a dish. For instance, if we talk about salt or Garam Masala, disturb their quantities and they can spoil the dish completely, but without them, the dish would taste nothing. So ‘spices in moderation’ is the key.
Great. So what would be that one Indian Super-Food that is always available in your kitchen?
All the spices! And in regard to the same, now I have my own range of spices, recipes that are created, tested, and perfected by myself. And you’ll also always find the versatile palak, along with paneer, in my inventory.
Wow! Speaking of your culinary experiments, it was your mother who first caught you cooking and later became your biggest support? Tell us more about the mother-daughter bonding over food!
Indeed, it was my mother. And had it not been for her support, I wouldn’t have been able to frequent the kitchen as often and much, I was only a child. Though if I look back, my fascination for “Lazeez” cooking and baking (she laughed) led me to pick up more from a neighbor aunt, whose kitchen aroma dragged me to her house and made me her sous-chef in baking cookies and cakes. My mother was more into basic cooking, but I can’t talk enough about the taste she had in her hands, and her speed – she mastered the art of making a meal jhatpat (in no time).
A fitting moment to ask about that eggless-cake baking story, can you still recall the drama that unfolded?
Oh yes, I do. So I was very young and just married into a joint family, where no one consumed eggs. And why I am stressing upon it, you’ll know. I come from a family that savoured non-vegetarian just as much as vegetarian, so for me, an eggless-cake didn’t make sense, and I am talking of 40 years ago, when you didn’t have Google to consult for food substitutes.
Ten days from my wedding was my husband’s birthday and I thought of baking a cake, egg-less as it had to be, I requested my sister-in-law for a recipe, but it so happened that some details weren’t communicated and as a result the cake turned out so hard that not even a knife could go through. People laughed and ridiculed, and naive as I was, I took it to heart and challenged myself to learn and ace my egg-less baking skills. And, here I am! (Laughed) But nothing would have been possible without my husband’s support and encouraging attitude.
Wow! Any naive cooking-moment with your husband from then that you’d like to share?
There must have been many, lack of exposure being the reason! But I have a clear memory of this one instance when my husband’s foster parents were to come from London and he’d told me that they’d have more of salads. I still laugh, remembering the huge plate of cucumber-onion-tomato that I’d served them with. Now when I see people devouring my wide-variety of finely dressed salads, I recall that moment and feel so stupid about it. (Laughed away)
Ha-ha! We’d love to get a verbal glimpse of your first culinary class, everything from who enrolled and what you taught, to how you managed!
I taught ice creams! The basics of which I’d learnt from my brother’s wife during a short visit to Bhopal (my parent’s house), and that was also the time I first got introduced to the idea of a cooking class. On returning to Delhi, I tried variety of flavours at Nirula’s (famous ice cream parlour chain), one day at a time, which got me fatter (laughed), but also helped invent new flavours, which I then taught in my classes.
Our family business wasn’t running as well, and my kids had grown up a little, so I thought of giving it a chance. But I didn’t expect a small advertisement in the newspaper to get me over 100 enrollment calls on the same day. And by God’s grace the class that saw a new batch of 15 girls every 4 days, kept expanding with time.
My USP being my teaching method – cook with fun!
When did you think of writing a book? And how was your publication experience as a first-time author?
I have always believed that the cooking method needs to be taught as descriptively as possible. Which reflected in my classes too, because I knew the inconvenience (and pain) that comes with having a bad cook due to missed on details (get what she’s hinting to?). So somewhere down the years, I thought of expanding my reach, to help more people benefit from the recipes. And that’s how after a lot of homework, I put together a book.
But all the publishers rejected my book, “back then foreign-authored books with glossy visuals and fancy covers used to sell high.” So that struggle saw me taking up another challenge, and that was to get my book published, even if I had to do it myself. Time was on my side, and as things took shape, we soon had our publishing house, which today, supports many budding authors in creating their base.
That’s inspirational! Does your book ‘Dadi Maa Ke Nuskhe‘ even share insights on extracting cooking wisdom from the grandmothers?
Ha-ha! That book is all about the priceless cooking wisdom that grandmothers are known to possess, and which many of us, like myself, often get deprived of. It discusses Ginger’s importance in treating bone-ailments, health benefits of saunf and cinnamon, and touches upon many such healthy-secrets.
But the art of extracting cooking-wisdom from someone can only come by learning the style of pouring questions. Keep asking questions and you’ll slowly find your way to the heart of the recipe!
Any traditional dishes that the youth-you wished to reinvent and give a new flavour?
Yes. Growing up I’d noticed that the Indian Food, especially vegetarian, sees a lot of Paneer-based dishes, and in them, you’d find lots of paneer and very few veggies. And of course, given the myth that oil enhances the taste of food, good quantity of oil, too. So, I decided to play around with the long-accepted dishes and make them with much less oil and paneer, and toss in some unheard of veggie-combinations, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and the like. And guess what, my family loved my experiments!
The mention of oil reminds us, how helpful has your Nutritionist Profile been in your culinary endeavors?
Extremely helpful, because the home science course was mainly about ‘how to cook’, but it was when I further studied about the nutrition-side of cooking, that I realized its importance, and the role it plays. And it goes without saying that it added another dimension to my cooking skills that helped me grow better as a professional chef.
What do you have to say about the now-prevalent trend of microwave cooking?
Everything done in moderation is fine. In western countries, one can’t imagine a house without a microwave, and so is the situation now in Urban India. And one can’t say that it’s good or bad, because every technology has its pros and cons. so I believe the only way to go about it is to use it as and when required.
Any tips for people seeking a way to run along their fast-life without compromising on a healthy menu?
Doing some extra-mehnat on weekends is what I can advise. They can go for options like brown kulchas, boiled peas, etc, which can be prepared on Sundays and stored in the freezer, and can also stock-up vegetables and fruits for the week ahead. Because after a week, stored food loses its nutrient value. Then all they’d need to do on weekdays, is assembling followed by a quick cook. With long working hours, and no time and energy to prepare a meal at the end of the day, this approach can come in handy, which is if one wishes to opt for healthy and homemade food! For instance, I myself keep all the salad dressings mixed together in one jar, which takes away the seemingly painful time when wanting to prepare a salad.
That’s true. In 1999, you authored a rather intriguingly titled book, Look Beautiful The Natural Way. A word on it to help satiate our curiosity?
Long ago it seems now. It was my take on the various beauty remedies that can be made using the widely available food items. And just like all my cooking recipes, which go into my book only once I’ve tried and tested myself, the beauty packs and masks too were first tried on myself by myself.
Lastly, what is your take on the ‘Family Bonding Over Food’ concept?
It very much holds true, for food really does have the potential to connect hearts. But owing to time and personal constraints, many families today remain deprived of it. In my own family, the breakfast-lunch-dinner timings vary from member to member. My school-going grandchildren have to run according to their timetable, my son and daughter-in-law adjust according to the kids and their respective work, and my husband and I have our own routine. But we make up for it on Sundays, and of course, the family weekend restaurant visits!