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It is an unfortunate truth that women chefs are undoubtedly still an exception in India and the world over – but, things are changing. Over the last several decades and especially the last few years, innumerable women of Indian origin with a strong culinary flair have left their marks in the global food industry, whether as part of the old guard or new crop of dynamic entrepreneurs.
Tarla Dalal and Madhur Jaffrey for example, are long-renowned names in the food business. The former is one of India’s most accessed food writers – with well over a 100 books of myriad genres in her name, still often found nestled away in the homes of budding cooks, exploring traditional desi fare and fusion cooking that was well ahead of its time. When Dalal passed away in 2013, she left behind a legacy of ready-to-cook mixes, shows, magazines and series of cookbooks that credit her with popularising foreign cuisines in middle class India through the ’90s. Jaffrey, on the other hand, is an authority who took the wonders of Indian food to the West. The UK-based writer, critic and TV show host – interestingly, a thespian – took the help of her distinguished style to embed the nuances of desi spices in the hearts of expats and curious foreigners. She is often called the ‘Queen of Curries’.
Another stellar name in the cookbook biz is that of Nita Mehta, who – having founded the largest Indian publishing house of such tomes – has published thousands of recipes and even won international awards for them. Now, she brings her knowledge to enthusiastic amateur chefs with premier cooking classes, critiques, curation of special menus and her presence across highly-watched TV shows.
The striking Padma Lakshmi is an expat foodie, who brings style and substance to her job. An Indian-born American, Lakshmi is a known celebrity face in modelling, TV and film, and has presented cookbooks like the award-winning ‘Easy Exotic’ to the world. Since then, she has also hosted a reality TV food and cookery show that has rung in Emmys, alongside others, showcasing culinary tourism.
The ever-smiling Ritu Dalmia is another well-known celebrity chef-restaurateur, who started out with Italian Khana, making the popular Mediterranean cuisine more accessible to the subcontinent. Now, the host of multiple TV shows, she also owns several well-frequented eateries in the nation’s capital.
Young and talented firebrand Anahita Dhondy, an alumna of the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu London, is also a chef manager in New Delhi, at the popular SodaBottleOpenerWala. Last year, she proudly wore the moniker of being youngest female chef in the capital, and is a firm proponent of women’s empowerment. And, over in the financial capital, Kshama Prabhu runs the kitchen of The Bar Stock Exchange formidably, enhancing the innovative lounge concept with a unique flair when it comes to her fine dine creations.
Over the years, experienced chefs like Madhumita Mohanta, Madhu Krishnan, Veena Arora, Nazneen Nikhat, Nita Nagaraj and others have also ruled the kitchens of restaurants in the ITCs, Hyatts, Lalits, Jaypees and Oberois of the nation with an iron hand – across several reports, many have cited that it is no easy job to manage the gender imbalance. In intimidating circumstances, what works best, they say, is walking the fine balance between firmness, strength, and a nurturing feminine touch to helm a team.
More recently, Indian women making a name for themselves in the culinary industry include Maunika Gowardhan, whose food writing has evolved from an eye-catching blog to much-read columns for a host of magazines, and even cooking alongside Jamie Oliver on his popular online channel. Another Le Cordon Bleu alumna (Paris), ‘Macaron Queen’ Pooja Dhingra is barely 30, but has a burgeoning empire in her now-famous Le 15 Patisserie, winning hearts across Mumbai with the delightful confectionery.
Regrettably, this article cannot possibly mention the hundreds of Indian chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs, amateur cooks, entrepreneurial hoteliers, bloggers and more, all of whom are leaving their marks with backbreaking hard work and culinary panache in the country and beyond. What we can say, however, is kudos to this ever-increasing brigade of women, all of whom are bringing vibrancy and a very important evolution into kitchens across the world, one sauté, bake, grill, flambé, poach and simmer at a time!
Shweta has been writing about food for a few years now and has dabbled in TV, print and online journalism for over almost a decade. She has written on and edited for topics ranging from the environment, culture and lifestyle to politics, business and, of course, food. She has written for publications under the Times Group, Fox Life India and NDTV. When she's not devouring a good book or spending vast swathes of time on the Interweb, she loves to set off on all manner of culinary explorations.