Celebrity chef Ritu Dalmia is known for popularising Italian cuisine in India. She is also a restaurateur with three ventures in Delhi, out of which Diva is the most successful one. The chef has received acclaim for her unique style of cooking and the Italian flair she brings to many of her dishes.
Born in Kolkata into a Marwari family, Dalmia was introduced to Italian cuisine as a child. “I ate my first Italian meal on a school trip to Rome when I was 10 years old. I remember eating Spaghetti Pomodoro and it was one of the best dishes I had ever tasted.”
Dalmia is among the few Indian chefs who specialise in Italian cuisine. She started preparing Italian dishes as a chef in 1993, when this cuisine was barely known in Indian food circles.
In 2000, she opened an Italian restaurant called Diva: The Italian in Delhi.
Highlighting how far Italian cuisine has come in India, she said, “In 1993, I could not even get simple fresh herbs like basil in India. I used to bring all the ingredients in my suitcases from other countries. People also used to wonder things like, why Macheroni Hot Pot is on the menu. But Italian cuisine has now become quite popular in India. Now we even have a huge wine cellar.”
Dalmia shot to prominence with her cooking show, Italian Khaana, on NDTV Good Times. The show ran successfully for three seasons. When asked about her thoughts on the show, Dalmia replied, “It was super fun. I had an amazing team that travelled the length and breadth of Italy with me, suffered Italian food day in and day out for weeks with me. It was an unforgettable experience for all of us.”
The talented chef has won many television awards and has also authored several culinary books. In 2012, she published Travelling Diva: Recipes From Around The World. The book is a collection of her favourite European, Middle Eastern and Asian recipes. It also carries an account of her encounters with these cuisines on her travels abroad.
Dalmia admitted that she had never thought of becoming a writer. But she has been in the habit of keeping a journal from her school days. This is what helped her when she became an author. Initially when publishers approached Dalmia, she rejected the offers, but in the end, she said yes. Talking about her first book, she said, “I was overwhelmed by the response I received after the book. I enjoyed writing it and I really hope that I find some more time to write more books in the future.”
Apart from Italian cuisine, Dalmia finds Asian and regional Indian dishes interesting. She likes the complexity of these dishes and how they can appeal to anyone and everyone. “It is all about being mindful and nuanced in order to achieve the perfect balance of flavours in these cuisines. So I find both [Asian and Indian food] very interesting and intriguing,” she said.
Dalmia feels that India has become more open to international cuisines in recent years, but there is always scope for improvement in this area. “Like any other country, India also has a very strong and rustic food culture. Indians are happy to experiment with international food once in a while, but in the end, they need the comfort of home-cooked food. Sometimes, Chinese works too,” she said.
Aside from her passion for food, Dalmia feels strongly about, and has campaigned for, LGBTQ rights. She was among the first six petitioners to demand the abolition of Article 377 in 2016. “A lot of people now are open-minded about this and a lot of schools are now taking initiatives to educate children that the LGBTQ community is no different from any other. I think education and awareness are tools that will make our society less homophobic,” she said.
While Dalmia’s journey as an activist has been a challenging one, her career as a chef has more or less been smooth sailing. She says that she has been “fortunate” in this respect. When she was starting out, criticism came her way only occasionally, and she learned how to deal with it. She said, “I have learnt to be more open to criticism now. Things have been difficult for me but I am learning that things don’t always work out the way we want them to.”