City Food – Mrs Balbir Singh’s Cooking Time, Delhi Heritage
Lest we forget.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
In 1973 the Delhi-born award-winning actor Madhur Jaffrey immortalized her name in the world of international cuisine with her first book itself. An Invitation to Indian Cooking: Classic Indian Dishes—Mostly The Subtle, Spicy Cooking of Delhi was published to general and lasting acclaim by the US-based Alfred A Knopf.
This book is said to have brought Indian cooking to the notice of the world. (See Delhi’s first world-famous cookbook here.)
Actually, this is true only up to a point.
In 1961 the US-based Weathervane Books published a handsomely-produced hardbound titled Indian Cookery. The book’s jacket described it as an “exciting and comprehensive treasury of recipes from India, including curries, kebabs, rice dishes, breads, desserts, sauces, ice creams, sharbats and squashes, pickles, chutneys, and other preserves.”
The author was a certain Mrs Balbir Singh. In the preface of her book, she wrote: “It is a common experience with the citizens of Delhi that if one specializes in kulfi (Indian ice cream) the other is an expert in just seekh kabab (minced meat roasted on skewer) and parautha (shallow fried wholemeal bread). Therefore a comprehensive book dealing with all types of dainties and delicacies of Indian cuisines will meet a good need.”
But what’s the story of Mrs Balbir Singh?
According to Wikipedia, Mrs Singh was born in 1912 and died in 1994. Referring to her as an “Indian chef, cookery teacher and cookbook author”, the online encyclopedia says, “Her formal cooking and homemaking classes began in New Delhi in 1955, and her award-winning Mrs Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery book was first published in London in 1961 to much acclaim, and went on to become a revered classic inspiring future generations of Indian chefs and cookery authors.”
Yet it appears that Mrs Balbir Singh is not as well known as Madhur Jaffrey.
Google searches reveal no detailed biography.
The website Mrs Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery, does not even have her photograph. In fact, there are no photographs of Mrs Balbir Singh on the net.
However, a Cambridge-based architect student who grew up in Delhi talked of her intimate connections with Mrs Balbir Singh on her blog Brown Memsahib:
“… it (Indian Cookery) is an heirloom cookbook, belonging to my mother. A book that she used as a young bride too, it had been her guide through the tremulous time when as a nineteen year old girl, she found herself in charge of her own kitchen, cooking for a large extended family. This book must have seemed like a lifeline to her. And when it came to guiding me through my trial, she knew that she could not be there physically for me, so she gave me this book instead.”
The back flap of The Delhi Walla‘s copy of Indian Cookery offers a fleeting glimpse of the author:
“Mrs. Balbir Singh was born in Punjab, India. Her mother was an exceptionally good cook, and from her earliest years, Mrs. Singh spent many hours by her mother’s side in the family’s kitchen, helping, observing, and learning her mother’s secrets of good cooking.
The author is a graduate of Punjab University, where she met her husband. During the early years of her marriage, Mrs. Singh traveled to Europe with her husband. The family spent several years in London, while Mr. Singh attended Medical School. It was during their stay in London that Mrs. Singh began to teach Indian cookery. Upon the Singhs’ return to India, Mrs. Singh began to give cooking classes and now has as many private pupils as she can cope with. In addition to teaching, Mrs. Singh has entered – and won – many cooking competitions in her country. Dr. and Mrs. Balbir Singh are the parents of one son, who is an Electrical engineer.”
The first time I heard of Mrs Balbir Singh was in the summer of 2014. I was writing on an Old Delhi cooking instructor when food consultant Anoothi Vishal mentioned Mrs Singh as one of the earliest cooking teachers to translate Western cuisines to Delhiwallas.
“I have a very high opinion of Mrs Balbir Singh,” says Pushpesh Pant, the Delhi-based author of the voluminous India: The Cookbook. Talking on the phone, Mr Pant credits Mrs Balbir Singh with pioneering cooking classes for those “bluestocking ladies of New Delhi” who wished to familiarize themselves with more elegant styles of cooking.
“Madhur Jaffrey’s celebrity status as an actor of global renown helped her to cement her position as India’s leading cookbook writer,” says Mr Pant, “but Mrs Balbir Singh wrote for us Indians. Her book and her cooking classes provided a bridge for Delhi’s middle-class ladies to cross over to the more urbane manners of the upper middle class. Mrs Balbir Singh didn’t just teach those rich Punjabi wives how to make sophisticated Indian and continental dishes but also helped them recognise the differences between, say, a roast and a bake, or a pudding and a cake. Her students, for instance, would also learn to set a table.”
The original buyer of my secondhand copy of Indian Cookery had inscribed the opening page in blue ink:
To Renuka, and her Groom!
The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach! A very happy and long married life to you both. God bless.
From your loving Godmother, aunt,
The book shows no curry stains.
“Mrs Balbir Singh is barely remembered today,” says Mr Pant. “We Delhiwallas have forgotten the debt we owe her.”
Thank you, Mrs Singh