City Food – Mrs Balbir Singh’s Cooking, City Heritage
Story of Delhi cuisine.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
In 1973, the Delhi-born award-winning actor Madhur Jaffrey immortalised her name in the world of international cuisine with her debut book. An Invitation to Indian Cooking subtitled Classic Indian Dishes—Mostly The Subtle, Spicy Cooking of Delhi was published by the prestigious New York-based Alfred A Knopf and went on to become a classic firmly cementing Delhi’s culinary reputation in the world food scene.
This book is said to have brought Indian cooking to the notice of the world.
But there was another person before the legendary Jaffrey.
In 1961, a handsomely-produced hardbound titled Indian Cookery appeared in the US. The Delhi Walla picked up a first edition in the now-extinct Sunday Book bazaar in Daryaganj. The back cover described the book 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 of Delhi who declared in her preface that “it is a common experience with the citizens of Delhi that if one specialises in kulfi (Indian ice cream) the other is an expert in just seekh kabab (minced meat roasted on skewer) and parantha (shallow fried wholemeal bread). Therefore a comprehensive book dealing with all types of dainties and delicacies of Indian cuisines will meet a good need.”
This was the first book that the great Madhur Jaffery bought as she once revealed in an interview to the US-based Saveur magazine.
Yet, it appears that Mrs Balbir Singh (1912- 1994) is not as well known as Madhur Jaffrey. Her book is no longer in print either.
A graduate of Punjab University, she spent several years in London with her husband and it was there that she began to teach how to cook Indian. After returning to India, she continued giving cooking classes, often at her home in Vasant Vihar.
“I have a very high opinion of Mrs Balbir Singh,” says food writer Pushpesh Pant. He credits her with pioneering cooking classes for those “bluestocking ladies of New Delhi” who wished to familiarise 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.”
Mr Pant never met Mrs Singh in person but had family friends who knew her and, of course, he interacted with the lady through her cookbook that was widely available in Connaught Place bookstores during the 1960s. “I feel her presence overlooking my shoulder each time I write about the Indian food.”
The opening page of the aforementioned secondhand edition has a handwritten inscription 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, Pilu”
The book shows no curry stains.
Whatever, you keep an eye for this book in used stores. For it contains not mere recipes but a taste of Delhi of a certain time.