The Legendary Story of Thangam Philip: Food Scientist, Nutritionist, Chef & Mentor

The legendary story of Thangam Philip, grande dame of the Indian catering world.

1/23/2021 7:02:00 PM

The legendary story of Thangam Philip, grande dame of the Indian catering world.

She wasn't just the grande dame of the Indian catering world, she helped prize open a new idea of India.

Thangam Philip has crosshatched my life in the most curious ways. My uncle studied catering under her (very) stern supervision. My mother once took a class at the Dadar Catering College, where Philip reigned as principal—in fact, we still have a stack of her recipes, typed on sheaves of yellowed, raspy pages, all carefully filed away in a blue plastic folder. As for me: I own newer, glossier, books on baking, but it is

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The Thangam Philip Book of Baking, with its infallible madeleine and sponge recipes, that I unfailingly turn to.Whichever way you spin it, Philip was a food legend.Born in Kerala in 1921, Philip graduated from Lady Irwin College in New Delhi with a Home Science degree. Shortly after her first career stint at St Thomas' School in Kolkata, she made her way to Sri Lanka, where she launched a Home Economics department at Southland Methodist College. In 1950, she made her way back to India, where her gifts would soon catapult her to fame, latching her into place as one of the country’s foremost culinary figures.

Thangam Philip at Mumbai's Dadar Catering College.Photo byiwh.comFirst though, a historical preamble.The year was 1947: India had just gained independence from British rule, and an overwhelming food insecurity had taken hold of the nation. The situation compelled the new government to intervene with a slew of dietary initiatives, intended to be less prone to wavering economies and climactic insecurities, but that were divisive (and quixotic). headtopics.com

One of these was the Miss a Meal Movement, asking Indians to sacrifice one meal a week—a baffling request for a country hanging by a thread after centuries of colonialism. Another was the adoption of subsidiary agricultural produce, such as ragi (finger millet), bajra pearl millet, barley, yams, and the like, to reduce the country's dependence on thirsty crops such as rice and wheat. Both directives were roundly derided. The

Bombay Free Press Journalwrote excoriatingly about"being made to swallow barley" as a staple."Who are the people whose food is barley and for whose benefit was this barley ordered?"Still, the attempt was made.The All India Women's Council (AIWC), stewarded by Lilavati Munshi, the wife of the Union Minister for Food and Agriculture, did its bit, suggesting a nonprofit chain of canteens staffed by women, with a menu that would sensitize people to the easy availability of millets. The canteens did well. Lady Hartog (wife of the English educationist Sir Philip Hartog) wrote glowingly of them as"a new type of cafe…where well-cooked light meals, cleanly and attractively served are obtainable at a very moderate cost," in her book

India: New Pattern.Philip was amongst those called upon to captain a café. The managerial skills she acquired were ones that she drew from later as the principal of Mumbai's Dadar Catering College. It was a through line that irrigated the rest of her career.

She Invented Banana Ketchup & Saved Thousands of Lives. Why Have We Never Heard of Her?In 1954, Mumbai's Catering College began with a whisper. The AIWC dropped anchor at Bhavan's College, with the launch of a catering course for the first time in India, and recruited Ms Philip as a professor a year later. Unfortunately, most parents balked at this hatchling of a discipline, and only six students joined! For the next four years, the course crouched gingerly somewhere between failure and popularity... until 1958, when the college went ahead and announced a three-year diploma in Hotel Management and Catering. A brand-new campus followed. Ms. Philip, who had just returned from a trip to the United States, was reabsorbed as principal. headtopics.com

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The politics of Indian agriculture was soon to careen wildly again. The 1960s brought the Green Revolution, a tectonic shift in Indian agriculture. Shutting its mind to long-term effects, the government provided agriculture a technological fillip by incentivizing the use of pesticides, fertilizers, motorized pumps, and high-yield seeds.

It worked. Against all odds, India steered herself to an epiphanic victory against hunger. But the price, paid in pollution and loss of groundwater, was staggering.Photo by AmazonPhilip was a product of this time. Her books explored Indian cuisine at the cusp of these concatenations: For instance, the first edition of Volume 1 of her teaching cookbook

Modern Cookery for Teaching and the Trade, written in 1965, is striped through with themes of food technology, diet and nutrition, and food science. C. Subramanian, then Minister for Food and Agriculture, applauded Ms. Philip's"scientific methods of cooking, planning of meals and improvement of the sense of taste and flavour." Several of the recipes in her book are fortified with soybean flour, peanut flour, and others, an attempt to change the patterns of traditional Indian diets. She grapples with the logistics of low-calorie cooking. She is conscientious about the tabulation of the ideal temperatures for storage of fruits and vegetables. Her books, as anthropologist-theorist Arjun Appadurai writes in his essay “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India,”"made Indian recipes ‘modern’ by looking at them from the perspective of the nutritionist, the food technologist, and the caterer.”

Several of the recipes in her book are fortified with soybean flour, peanut flour, and others, an attempt to change the patterns of traditional Indian diets. She grapples with the logistics of low-calorie cooking. She is conscientious about the tabulation of the ideal temperatures for storage of fruits and vegetables. Her books, as anthropologist-theorist Arjun Appadurai writes, made Indian recipes "modern". headtopics.com

Philip soon had the reins of the college firmly in her hands. She shepherded a syllabus that endures in part, even today. One of her books resounds still, as a prescribed textbook to students. She nudged the institute's trade fairs to immense popularity. She frequently sent out teams to Mumbai’s shanties to share her considerable knowledge of cheap nutritious cooking with the less privileged. The success of the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Mumbai (IHMCTAN), as it is now known, kindled the spark that led to the mushrooming of other catering institutes around India.

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