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Doyenne of cuisine

Padmashree Thangam Philip was in town recently. MARY GRACE ANTONY, met her for an exclusive interview.

DON'T LET her diminutive appearance fool you. Barely over five feet high, at the age of 80, Mrs. Thangam Philip is probably one of the most accomplished women in India. She is an icon to Hotel Management and Catering professionals everywhere. Dressed in a simple Kerala sari, and sporting the ornaments and jewels that she loves, she gave an exclusive interview to The Hindu Metroplus.

Q: Can you tell us something about yourself?

A: I was born and brought up in Malabar. Most of my primary education was completed here, and I also underwent a Leadership Training course at the Children's YWCA in Kerala. After my school education, I won a scholarship to the prestigious Lady Irwin College - which was the only college in the country that offered a Home Science programme then. Later I did a diploma in Home Economics. I taught for a while at an Anglo-Indian school in Pachmarhi near Calcutta, a summer hill station for the British. But in 1944, I left Calcutta for Sri Lanka, where I started a school for Home Economics. Later, I began the College of Catering and Institutional Management in Bombay. In those days, the government was trying to encourage people to switch from total cereal consumption to semi-cereal consumption. I integrated this concept in my teaching programme, and the first batch of students (1954) was eagerly recruited by the hotel industry. I was an Indian delegate to Rome as part of the Young World Leaders to launch the Freedom from Hunger campaign. Later, in 1986 I was the National Consultant for the UN International Labour Organisation.

Q: You have also authored several cookery books, haven't you?

A.: Yes. The first of these was "Modern Cookery for Teaching and Trade" (1963), for my students, which is still the prescribed textbook. I have also written many books on Indian cuisine, among which is "Cooking with Substitutes and Imagination", to encourage new cooking methods; and I co-authored "Standardised Diets for Hospitals in India". I wrote for the cookery section of Femina for 15 years. I still continue to write, and script columns for the New York-based Global Encyclopaedia on Food.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

A: I have won several noted awards. In 1975 I won the Ceres Award, which has only been awarded to two other Indian women - Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa. In '76 the Government of India bestowed the Padmashree award on me. The following year, I was presented the Cordon Bleu Sant Esprit Knighthood of Henry V of France in Switzerland. There have been many other awards, including the Distinguished Woman of India, and the Hall of Fame by Hotels and Food Services - of which previous recipients include M.S. Oberoi and J.R.D. Tata. But, I would say that my greatest accomplishments have been to provide opportunity for employment and inculcate a dignity of labour, and my contribution towards the spirit of hospitality.

Q: Who has been your major inspiration?

A.: My mother was a good cook. She was the one who encouraged me to take up Home Science and go to the Lady Irwin CollegeQ: What is your favourite cuisine?

A: I have worked in all parts of India, so I am familiar with the ethnic and traditional dishes of various regions. I prefer food that is not pungent. I like European dishes, especially English, French and Swiss cuisine. Q: Do you have any fond memories of Kochi?

A: We were in Kochi in 1927, and I was a 5th std student at St. Mary's Convent in Fort Kochi. I don't remember much from those days. My father was a Registrar at the Port and all visiting ships had to report to him. I recall the first ship I ever visited, the HMS Enterprise - (laughs) and I was seasick as a dog!

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