Dahl – it takes skill – Monisha Bharadwaj

It’s important to value skills in school cooking so I’ve repeated an interview I did in 2016 about Indian cooking with Monisha Bharadwaj.

Monisha Bharadwaj
Monisha Bharadwaj

I met Monisha Bharadwaj on a Guild of Food Writer’s Food Trip to Hampshire with Hampshire Fare and it was the perfect time to ask about dahl. I’ve struggled to make dahl that tastes and looks delicious, yet exam boards seem to think is is a low level skill. Wrong! But why not ask the expert?

Monisha is an Indian Chef, TV chef, food writer, author and cookery teacher and she knows a lot about cooking dahl, rice and raita.

Jenny – Do you think dahl is simple dish to make?
Monisha – ‘You’ve got to have a lot of skills to make dahl.  You need to know about sequence, proportion, balance and cooking time. How to cook the lentils properly to get the consistency right – getting the balance of spices and seasoning. There are many kinds of lentils and you need to know which type and colour to choose. Do you soak the lentils beforehand?

How long will you cook them to get the consistency you need – how thick or soupy should it be?

You need to get the spices and seasoning right to get the 6 tastes at the heart of Indian cooking – sweet, sour, salty, hot, bitter and astringent. For hot we use chilli, mustard and ginger. For bitter turmeric and cumin and for astringent turmeric and coriander.

Jenny – So how is dhal made?

Monisha – You need a high temperature frying oil to cook seeds, then onions, ginger and garlic.

Then add tomatoes, spice powder and lentils and cook with water until the lentils are soft. Taste and season with salt. Cook further if the lentils need to be softer.

Serve topped with coriander leaves.

Jenny – ‘When serving with rice – is that easy to cook?’

Monisha – ‘Cooking rice takes skill – knowing what rice to buy, what proportion of water to rice to use, the cooking time, draining and how to get it fluffy.’

Jenny – ‘So how do you cook rice?’

Monisha – ‘I wash the rice, fry spice seeds, add the rice and add 2 times the water by volume. Boil then reduce the heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Then leave for 5 minutes to fluff.

Jenny – ‘ Then serve with raita?’

Monisha – ‘Yes you can make it with grated cucumber, salt and pepper and plain yogurt.’

Jenny – ‘So Dahl, boiled rice and raita need high skills all round! Thanks’

Did famous Food writers learn to cook at school?

Grace Dent in her best selling memoir Hungry says home economics was the one lesson where she could shine. Nigel Slater was the only boy in his domestic science class but it took a long time for Miss Adams to teach him to cook.

So do other famous food writers value their cooking lessons at school? The Guild has nearly 500 members who are authors, broadcasters, columnists and journalists and they are passionate and knowledgeable about food. I asked if they learnt to cook at school and if not why not.

65% of respondents said yes and 35% said no. 

Many were not allowed to but why? The message was clear. Cooking was not considered an academic subject and clever students, like some Guild members, had to study Latin or science instead. They were actively discouraged from learning to cook. In high schools and grammar schools only the less academic were allowed to learn home economics. Several begged to take the subject but had to wait until they left school to study for themselves. A level Domestic Science was not accepted as a qualification for university and others, like me, had to take more exams to make up for this. Clearly, for Guild members, learning about food is their passion and they have a hugely diverse range of job opportunities open to them.

Here are replies from members who loved their lessons. 

Liz Trigg says ‘I absolutely loved it and had a great inspiring teacher Mrs Susan Hopps. I then went on to study a Bsc in Home Economics at Cardiff University’. 
Liz has a successful food media career as a food editor in magazines and writing cookbooks.

Lorna Rhodes replied ‘I loved domestic science at school and did the new course at Salford Tech for Home economics for higher education – led onto a job with Cadbury’s and then freelancing writing and food styling.’
Lorna’s website says ‘Food has been the story of my life!!  I have had a successful career as a cookery writer and food stylist for over 30 years having trained as a home economist.’

Charlotte Pike is Chair of the Guild of Food writers and is an award winning cookery writer, teacher and chef.
‘I did GCSE Food Technology in 2001. I was told off for taking my Mum’s copy of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course in by my teacher! Food Technology was dull.’

Lynsey Ainley/ Hollywood is the manager of the Food & Drink Business Development Centre and Course Director for the MSc Food Design and Innovation at Ulster University Business School.
‘I look back on my HE classes with really fond memories and am genuinely so appreciative of the topics I was taught relating to sustainability, health, budgeting and nutrition as well as the skills I gained in cooking and research.’

Jennifer John runs Ceres PR, a specialist food and wellbeing PR and marketing agency
‘I did O level & A level HE then the National Diploma was a brilliant education all round – in so many subjects!’

Jane Milton writes about the food industry and often appears as an expert on television programmes representing the industry.
‘I did O’ grade and Higher Home Ec. In my higher studies chemistry and Home Ec were time tabled against each other as ‘if you are clever enough to do chemistry, you would not do Home Ec.’ The School year book says – Course of Higher Education as they could not bring themselves to say I had gone on to do a degree in HE! ‘

Sam Bilton is an established Food Historian, writer and cook. 
‘I did Home Economics as an O level in the 80s. I had a very enthusiastic home economics teacher so I enjoyed it. No one suggested I do Home Economics as an A level. I wish they had as I’m sure I’d have got better results!’  

Clare Gordon Smith is a food writer, stylist and editor. 
‘I did Home Economics at school, but had to change school to get there as the previous school didn’t think it much of a subject!’

What are the views of food writers who did not study cookery at school?

Angela Clutton writes award winning cookery books and runs food events for Borough Market and the British Library and regularly appears on TV.
‘At my school you did either Latin or Home Ec – and this was a decision made by the teachers, not the pupils. The ‘clever’ girls did Latin… Ridiculous and makes me sad even to write it here.’ 

Liz Wright, editor of the Smallholder Magazine, replied
‘I’d like to have done more but I was academic so they wouldn’t let me – didn’t do me a lot of good, left school at 15 because I hated it.’

Kay Gale ‘I went to a direct grant girls’ school in the sixties. No domestic science, no sewing. The headmistress apparently didn’t approve.’ Kay has been a book editor for many years and runs a travel gourmet blog.

Not all are glowing about their cookery teachers. Some replies made me chuckle.

Steff Hafferty is a no dig gardener, garden and food writer, teacher, consultant. ‘It was dreadful, taught by a psycho maths teacher and a psycho nun. I learned nothing about making good food’

Sally Butcher says she’s a crazy cornershop keeper. Restaurateur. Masquerades as a chef.
‘My home economics teachers were appalling. I couldn’t wait to drop both classes.Kay Gale ‘I went to a direct grant girls’ school in the sixties. No domestic science, no sewing. The headmistress apparently didn’t approve.’

My conclusions?

Since I started teaching in the 1970s, home economics, domestic science, cookery or whatever else you want to call it, has been challenged. The Guild members describe the enjoyment many found in cooking at school, yet others were stopped from taking the subject and told they were too academic and had to do other things. Learning about food deserves more respect. Well done to those Guild members who found a way in later life to get qualified and earn their living working with food.

In 2021 there is a shortage of people needed in the hospitality and catering industry, our weekend papers are packed with food news and recipes, and the public demands good quality food in supermarkets and restaurants. But our food teachers still struggle with lack of technician support for their busy classrooms and need help funding ingredients so that all students in their classes can cook. Somehow we need to wave the Food flag and hope that schools of the future give students a chance to learn about this amazing subject that has been such an important part of my life for the last fifty years!

You can read my story teaching cooking in 1970s east London in I taught them to cook.

White Eggs

In the seventies, most of our eggs had white shells but gradually brown shelled eggs appeared in the shops and people thought they were healthier. In 2021, during the pandemic, white eggs were back in the supermarkets and sold for half the price of brown ones. The reason? Specific breeds of hen lay white eggs and these breeds can be kept in very large flocks as the hens are not as aggressive as brown egg laying hens. The white shelled eggs are therefore cheaper to produce and used by the food and catering industry. The pandemic closed many of these companies so there was a surplus supply of white eggs which supermarkets are selling at reduced prices. There is no nutritional difference between white and brown eggs although my 1970s students insisted there was and always wanted my brown eggs.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Marguerite Patten

Marguerite Patten’s Cookery in Colour was my first cookery book and I used it for all my cooking exams in the 1960’s. In 2009 I visited her at her home and got my well used book signed. Marguerite was as busy as ever, and at 93 years old, she regularly contributed to BBC discussion programmess on current food issues. We talked about the challenges of cooking in war time, and all the changes in equipment and ingredients that came during the following years.

Marguerite Patten signing my copy of Cookery in Colour

Marguerite gave me a copy of A Century of British Cooking, as I was writing a memoir of teaching in London schools in the 1970s. She has written an astonishing 170 books, which makes my 70 titles seem like a starter. Marguerite worked on the launch of the new pressure cookers which saved fuel in the 1950s – interesting how many things are becoming topical today. She demonstrated the Kenwood Chef when it was invented, and promoted many of the food initiatives in the 50s and 60s – using more wholemeal flour and the soft margarines for cake making.

We talked of offal – Awful Offal my students called it- and remembered stuffed hearts, liver and bacon, and grilled kidneys. Marguerite was involved with many food initiatives, and believed that food should be well cooked and delicious. We sat down to a tea of smoked salmon sandwiches and asparagus rolled in brown bread with cream cheese, followed by homemade fruit cake.

Marguerite was an inspiration to anyone wanting to learn to cook, or write about food. So optimistic, generous and hard working, with a database of stories and memories. I value sharing her memories and sensible opinions on the food we eat.

Marguerite died in 2015 at the age of 99. Jenny Ridgwell

Photo by Jenny Ridgwell