Ive always promised myself Ill never open a restaurant outside of Delhi because I need to be in my restaurant. But if I ever make that exception, it would be Calcutta, said Ritu Dalmia on her first proper visit to the city of her birth in 20 years.
Making up for all that lost time, Ritu not only sampled her aunts kachori, luchi and chana for breakfast but also dug into churmur and jhal muri on Russell Street. Then I did sandesh, Bhojohori Manna, Kewpies… so I had a really fabulous time, she laughs whole-heartedly, peering through her owlish glasses.
In town for the launch of her second cookbook Travelling Diva, t2 caught up with the devilish Dalmia — call me a whore, she grins as she whips up a Penne Puttanesca, which translates into whores spaghetti (!) — at a cook-out at The Conclave on Friday, as part of the Calcutta Literary Meet, in association with The Telegraph.
You come from a vegetarian Marwari household and now you cook beef!
(Laughs) I wish I could come up with a tragic story about how much I had to fight, but my parents were very supportive!
From Italian Khana, youve moved to world food in Travelling Diva. Big leap…
Its not. Ill tell you why. Italian is my main love. But in my restaurants Diva (at the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre, Delhi. She also owns a restaurant by the same name in Greater Kailash) and Latitude (Khan Market, Delhi), we serve world food, which includes Italian. Basically, Travelling Diva is a collection of those recipes which have made an impact on me. Many have stories attached to them.
What are some of those stories?
In the book, you will find the recipe for Cream Cheese Torta, a German cheesecake made by a dear friend called Ela. Its special to her because its her fathers favourite dessert. She first made it for him when she was 14. It is a cake she does every time anyone visits her because it bowls everyone over. And its made with leftovers!
Then, there is this amazing restaurant in Goa called Bomras, which I love, which serves Fish Ceviche. When chef Bomra came to Goa from Burma, he went to every hotel and every hotel rejected him. So he had no choice but to open a little shack of his own, which today has taken over every eatery in Goa.
Another recipe is the Red Velvet Cake. One of my favourite chick flicks is Steel Magnolias, starring Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton and Sally Field. It also starred one of my favourite American cakes, the Red Velvet Cake, and I have to admit I have been slightly obsessed with it since.
After your first restaurant Mezzaluna didnt take off in Delhi, you went to London and opened the Indian restaurant Vama…
I had invested a lot of money in Vama but lets face it, at 22, you think you know it all, but you dont. The restaurant was located in a very expensive part of London (Kings Road). The first two months, the restaurant wasnt doing well at all. We would sign a cheque for a supplier knowing its going to bounce. My parents were devastated. But I couldnt come back saying, Im sorry, Ive f****ed it up big time.
But God was kind to me. We were in an area frequented by musicians and film stars — which I wasnt aware of. I remember the first time Bryan Adams came to the restaurant. He came around 7pm (we used to open around 7.30pm) and I was eating my khana — good ol Calcutta dum aloo and a peshawri naan. So, this guy comes in looking like a tramp, wearing a skull cap. I was desperate for customers and I needed every pound, so I said, Please sit, give me a second, well open for you. He said, I want to eat what you are eating. The dum aloo wasnt on the menu, it was just my Calcutta hangover! Still I made it and when he took off his cap, I was like, Oh shit, this is Bryan Adams.
For the next four-five years he came to Vama on a weekly basis and he only ate that dum aloo. Then we also had people like Maggie Smith, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bryan Ferry.
Your number one meal was at...
A restaurant called La Calandre in Italy. The chef Massimiliano Alajmo is a philosopher. If he gives you something crunchy to eat, he gives you earplugs. So you can hear that sound just resonate and thats the moment when you need to look within, according to him. So his food tastes very good, but theres also a sense of theatre and drama. That would be my number one meal.
Your fave recipe in Travelling Diva is?
I love the Grilled Halloumi with fresh tomatoes because its so bloody simple to do. I love the Mucver or the Zucchini Fritters. I also love Gitas Prawn Biryani.
And the trickiest dish?
I havent put any into the book.
Favourite Calcutta street food?
Street food haunts in Delhi?
I love to go to Chandni Chowk on a Sunday… Kuremal Kulfi, Dahi Bhalla near the Central Bank, parathas from Paranthe Wali Gali and Amritsari Lassi.