“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.”  

Words that still ring true, this was the preface to a book of Indian recipes published in 1961 by Mills & Boon, an English publisher better known for its romance fiction than gastronomical guides.

Authored by Mrs Balbir Singh, Indian Cookery was the first landmark English cookbook of North Indian cuisine written by an Indian woman – but it became much more, cementing her legacy as a pioneer. Celebrity chef Simon Majumdar even described her as “India’s Julia Child”.

Singh’s book, which came out more than a decade before Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cookery, wielded extraordinary influence. “When it was first written there were no authoritative books on Indian cooking,” said Cyrus Todiwala, celebrity chef and owner of London’s Cafe Spice Namaste. “Almost every chef of my generation has a special bond with the book – it was the first reference point we had for authentic North Indian food.”

Written simply, with the purpose of correcting what Singh derisively called the “hotch-potch attempts” of previous books collating Indian recipes, Indian Cookery was the first time anyone had painstakingly described how to prepare dishes from the subcontinent.

Mrs Balbir Singh.

Over its 200 pages, Singh gives precise instructions on how to cook the North Indian and Central Asian staples she had learned from her mother. There are no photographs in the 12 sections – just 150-plus straightforward recipes detail staple dishes such as mutton rogan josh, tandoori chicken, shammi kabab, spinach paneer, dum aloo and various breads.

It is perhaps difficult to see how ahead of her time Singh was today, when myriad Indian recipes are just a web search away: but when Indian Cookery first reached book stands, learning how to cook desi dishes could potentially be an intimidating prospect. It was in part to dispel this attitude that Singh felt compelled to write the book: “It’s not the Indian cookery which is complicated but the recipes which are exhaustive,” she writes.

Authoritative guide

Singh was born Balwant Kaur to a family of landowners in undivided Punjab in 1912. She was inducted into the family kitchen at the age of eight, to observe and help her mother – an excellent cook in her own right – prepare classic North Indian dishes. Singh’s favourite dishes – to cook and eat – were the core of Sunday meals at home: biryani, maa ki dal, dum aloo and desserts such as gulab jamun and kulfi.

She graduated in 1936 from Panjab University, where she met her husband, Dr Balbir Singh, who later served as a medical officer in the Indian Land Forces.

The Singhs briefly moved to London following Partition, after Dr Balbir Singh was granted a research fellowship. Singh, who adopted her husband’s full name, was attracted by the prospect of formally studying something she loved and enrolled in a domestic science course in a Regent Street institute. She was bitten by the teaching bug after she shared a few recipes and cooking tips with some of her classmates, many of whom were English women back from a post-Independence India.

Between this and her Regent Street education, Singh came up with a few rudimentary recipe cards that married the andaaz of Indian cookery with the precise measurements of British culinary science. Her recipe for keema matar, for example, meticulously details the steps needed to transform 15 ingredients over an hour into a textbook example of Mughlai cuisine. There are no shortcuts here, only an authoritative guide.

The cover of Mrs Balbir Singh's seminal cookbook, 'Indian Cookery'.

“My grandmother took huge pride and joy in her cooking, and was very precise in her measurements,” said Pallavi Sitlani, Singh’s granddaughter, who founded and runs a spice company named after her grandmother. “She achieved so much at a time when women were expected to stay at home.”

“She used to make the most amazing, complicated cakes for my birthday,” said Pallavi Sitlani, laughing when asked which of Ammi’s dishes was her favourite. “Everything was handmade – with detailed and ornate figures.”

Upon their return to India in 1955, the Singhs spent a year at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, owing to her brother’s position as comptroller general of the president’s house. There is no record of Singh ever cooking for Rajendra Prasad, but the tantalising possibility of her sharing a few tips with the first president’s chefs remains.

After moving to Rouse Avenue, located between Shivaji Bridge and Tilak Bridge, Singh started conducting cooking lessons at Lady Irwin College. She continued the classes after the family moved to Vasant Vihar – now teaching from the comfort of her kitchen. Their popularity grew quickly. And soon, from six students twice a week, she was teaching 40 students in a class six days a week.

The recipe cards that Singh had prepared during her years in London were refined and revised in the years she spent teaching young Indian women. These became the basis for the cookbook. Singh wanted her book to be used in India as well as by the diaspora, so she wrote an English draft and sent it to Mills & Boon. Mrs Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery was published in 1961.

The inscription inside Pallavi Sitlani's copy of 'Indian Cookery'.

Promising to be 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”, Indian Cookery represented the consolidation of hitherto verbal cooking instructions, passed down via oral memory, and refined through years of teaching.

Singh wanted to share the cuisine she had grown up with and make it accessible: through her concise, if at times a tad dated, prose, Indian Cookery did just that. It won the 1964 German Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung, a prestigious European award for professional cookery, and sold over 400,000 copies worldwide by 1994.

“The book was popular because it wasn’t a coffee-table book,” said Todiwala. “What it did was demystify the whole cooking process with clear instructions for easily replicable dishes.”

The response was immediate in India. The cookbook was hailed has the holy grail of North Indian khaana. Attendance at her cooking classes almost became a prerequisite for marital suitability in Delhi – an unpleasant reminder of how Indian society demands that women possess suitable culinary abilities.

Singh’s lessons were about more than instilling culinary virtues into the generations of young women she taught. “We’ve had so many people contacting us and saying how the classes transformed their relatives who attended them,” said Sunil Sitlani, Pallavi Sitlani’s husband and co-founder of Mrs Balbir Singh Ltd. An email to the Sitlanis from a customer says their grandmother, a shy retiring woman from Kerala, came back from Singh’s one-month long course completely changed, confident both in the kitchen and outside.

Pallavi Sitlani with her grandmother, Mrs Balbir Singh, in Delhi in 1990.

Singh’s success prompted Doordarshan to ask her to host cooking shows in 1967 – the first time culinary segments were run on the country’s national television station. Though its archival footage doesn’t exist, Pallavi Sitlani recalls her grandmother telling her the segments were just like teaching a class – only to a camera instead of students.

Singh’s dishes, found in lovingly-worn copies of her book and torn recipes reprinted in magazines such as Femina, remain a bible for all sorts of chefs – professional as well as those approaching the art of cooking for the first time. “I swear by it,” said Colonel Anjan Datta, who took up cooking after retiring from the Indian Army, and is particularly fond of a plum jam based on Singh’s recipe. “The book is always by the kitchen – and her recipes are very convenient and easily adaptable.”

The impact of the book wasn’t restricted to the subcontinent – copies were packed along with dried ingredients and kitchen utensils and sent with itinerant Indians making their way out into the world.

The British food historians Peter and Colleen Grove even wrote in their book, Flavours of History, that the notoriously hazy origins of Chicken Tikka Masala stemmed from Singh’s recipe for Shahi Chicken Masala.

Singh would continue to teach and champion her passion, and go on to author another book, Continental Cookery for Indian Homes, in 1994. She died later that year.

Did the recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala stem from Singh’s recipe for Shahi Chicken Masala? Photo credit: Michael Hays/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence].

Her recipes live on thanks to the eponymous company that was launched in 2017 by Pallavi and Sunil Sitlani.

“I wanted to bring her legacy back,” explained Pallavi Sitlani, who first registered the domain in 2014. Then a blank website, the 49-year-old soon received emails from devotees of the book, espousing its virtues and excited about the continuation of its legacy.

In December, 105 years after Singh’s birth, the company was launched with the website going live. It sold pre-made spice mixes, shahi chicken masala, garam masala, amritsari chana masala, and a recently-launched tandoori barbecue rub, all made to Singh’s exacting measurements.

The original Indian Cookery will soon be available on CKBK, a digital service for notable cookbooks, and the Sitlanis are in the process of republishing the book more than 30 years after its last reprint. They plan to modernise some of the recipes and include photos.

“We stock the most influential cookbooks, old and new,” said Matthew Cockerill, co-founder of CKBK. “And when it comes to Indian food, who better than Mrs Balbir Singh?”

Much has changed since a young Balwant Kaur first learned how to cook. India’s cuisine and its people have gone global in this post-liberalised and globalised era. What hasn’t changed is the passion for the dishes that inspired Singh and that resonates in her recipes shared through generations and across borders. Indian cooking for Singh wasn’t just superlative. It could be made by anyone, provided someone showed you the way.

She was the first to do just that.