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The food DIVA

Chef and owner Ritu Dalmia of the Italian restaurant Diva in Delhi tells SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY she doesn't visit local markets for ingredients. And, that no way means she imports her stuff.



On a stand alone mode... Chef Ritu Dalmia. Photo: Anu Pushkarna.

IT WAS 11 years ago Ritu Dalmia, all of 20 then, opened her first Italian restaurant in Delhi. And she lovingly named it Mezzaluma. One year completed and "if five diners would turn up on a single day," she would think it to be a good day. But for how long?

Tired and sad, Delhi's own Ritu crossed seas to be in London to open a restaurant. This time an Indian one and named it Vama. "In fact, in 1996, it was the first fine dining Indian restaurant on King's Road." Leaving behind a family here too baffled to understand why a 23-year-old is hell bent upon starting a restaurant there instead of joining her father's marble business, she remained there till 2000. But then, she had to return. She was not enjoying it there anymore. And, most importantly, there was a wish in the heart to do something right here.

"So in 2003, Diva was born along with a partner," she relates, tagging, "how the palate of Delhiites has changed drastically since then." As people in the city have become more aware of food, be it travelling, reading or other factors involved, Chef Ritu says, her job of running a restaurant has become much easier now.

"When I was running Mezzaluma, due to a ban on importing food items, I used to go to Italy once in two months, stack up my suitcase with food items to use them here. There was no other way. But now, even though import rules are loosened, yet there is no need to import most things due to a very good domestic supply chain," she narrates. Changing her menu every three months keeping in mind the restaurant regulars, she has not a huge menu but one dish each of meat, seafood, duck and fish besides of course vegetarian dishes. Also, she has a wine list of 300 brands. Enough to keep her in the good books of city diners.

Fresh ingredients

With a steady flow of people in search of good Italian food and rave reviews from foodies in town, Italian speaking Ritu gets a tad humble here: "I call myself a fraud chef. Because if you have fresh ingredients in your kitchen you can't go wrong with italian food." She says, "Since Italian food is all about using fresh ingredients, if you import things from Italy, by the time they reach here, they are already stale." So, the idea is to take stuff from around the country.

"The supply chain is quite strong now. For instance, if I need sea fish, I can call up a supplier today in Cochin and by early tomorrow, fresh lobsters, mussels, prawns would be flown in here. This also solves the problem of stocking up things in freezer," she describes. For meat, she calls up "a great guy called Roger" who rears ducks, quails and turkeys, guinea fowls etc on his farm in Delhi's outskirts. "I also have people supplying to me fresh asparagus, artichokes, Italian tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits. Even for Roger, I got herb seeds from Italy and he now supplies it for me," she adds. An Italian living in Delhi provides her Mozarella cheese which should be eaten fresh. "I used to get it from Italy before but its shelf life is only two days and it was difficult," she says. Off and on, for the last five years, Ritu did "a kind of research" on ingredients for Italian cuisine that one gets here before actually beginning to make her dream come true about Diva.

"Since you get good things through these supply chains, you don't need to go to the local markets. If required, I can go to Chawri Bazaar for meat, Ghazipur for fish, INA and Khan markets for English vegetables and fruits and Azadpur for desi stuff. But I am really finicky about cleanliness. Most shops here are not hygienic," she spells out the obvious. Though Chef Ritu would surely give Delhi good points for going experimental on food, yet, she says, the time has not come yet when we have exclusive markets for ingredients. "And, here, I mean good, clean markets," she adds.

That would be some development.

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