Author-historian William Dalrymple demonstrates his culinary skills at New Delhi, shares experience

He whipped up a skillet of juicy tiger prawns in a jiffy, alongside a very season-appropriate and refreshing onion-mango salad with a dressing of lime and coriander
William Dalrymple cooking tiger prawns
William Dalrymple cooking tiger prawns

William Dalrymple’s social media is expectedly about the things he loves––books, history, arts and artefacts. Put the online feed of this author-historian under a magnifying glass, and you will find a soft spot, also for the culinary arts.

Once in every few months, a tweet from Dalrymple will pop up, talking about a restaurant he discovered, a recipe he relished, or simply articles about good, satisfying food. During the lockdown days, for instance, he wrote about how he enjoyed a meal from Delhi’s Mahabelly––“Yesterday’s banana-leaf wrapped prawn olathiyathu with coconut chutney & appam was purest spicy heaven.”

But the author-historian is more than just a food connoisseur. Dalrymple, is also an exemplary cook, definitely more than he cares to admit. He demonstrated his culinary skills at a recent cookout at a hotel in Delhi, where he whipped up a skillet of juicy tiger prawns in a jiffy, alongside a very season-appropriate and refreshing onion-mango salad with a dressing of lime and coriander.  

Cooking is merely an extension of his creative personality, he feels. “There are many different forms of creativity, and writing only uses one side of your brain and it is nice to dabble, in an amateur way, in other forms of creativity.

So I love my photography, and cooking. I wouldn’t, in any way, claim to be a great or a talented cook, or particularly a regular cook. But I love it,” says the author of City of Djinns. 

Much like his writing, Dalrymple’s cooking too is rooted in memory—the fondest ones being those of his childhood in Scotland that was spent gorging on delectables prepared by his mother.

“My mom was a won- derful cook and at a time when Scotland was not known for its cooking. So I always grew up with spectacular food,” he says. The tiger prawns too have a story of their own.Dalrymple discovered the recipe in a book by his favourite cookery writer Claudia Roden. “She brought middle- eastern cooking to London in the 1970s, when no one else was cooking this food in London,” he says, adding, “I love middle-eastern cooking because of its fresh ingredients, simple, clear, light food.”

Roden’s tiger prawns have been the author’s go-to recipe whenever he has had to rustle up something for a large number of people, with not enough time at his disposal. “This is my standard last-minute dish to cook when friends are coming over for dinner, and I haven’t thought of anything else. This is something to be cooked in five minutes flat, and it tastes completely delicious,” he says.

Middle-eastern cooking is also the author’s preferred choice of cuisine, especially when he is in India. “It is kind of like an antidote to the heaviness of Indian cooking. I think it is much more suited for the hot weather. Bizarrely, Indian food like the Mughlai cuisine is completely inappropriate for the hot climate. It’s delicious, it’s fantastic with all that carbohydrate, oil and ghee… So the middle-eastern food and its lightness is a good antidote to too much rajma and Mughlai,” he says.

The author, who shuttles between India and London, admits that Indian food remains one of his all time favourites, particularly dishes from down South. “... either something of a delicious coconut-y fishy thing from the South, or a good Chettinad thali,” the author of White Mughals ponders.One of his recent finds, and favourite restaurants at the moment is the Bangala, a heritage hotel in Chettinad’s Karaikudi. 

“It was started by these two wonderful widows in their 50s, and over the last 20 years, they have created the best South Indian restaurant. They do this amazing thali lunch, where they raise a simple thali to a high art form…They have spectacular ingredients and sometimes I use their cookery book,” says Dalrymple, who is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled The Golden Road.

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