The legendary story of Thangam Philip: food scientist, nutritionist, chef and mentor

How the grande dame of the Indian catering world helped prize open a new idea of India

By Meher Mirza
January 31, 2021 11:30PM (UTC)
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(Meher Mirza / Food52)

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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 "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.

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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.

First 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).

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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 Journal" wrote 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."

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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.

* * *

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.

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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.

Philip 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."

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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.

Young, starry-eyed scholars passed through the years from IHM doors — Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, the late Floyd Cardoz, and Ananda Solomon. From the flickers of memory that people still hold about Philip, one thing is clear—she was a woman who emanated authority. On the Facebook page Humans of DCC (Dadar Catering College): "The terror lady of the hotel industry. When her car used to enter Mahim, IHM Dadar main sannata lag jaata thaa [IHM Dadar fell into a hush]."

But Philip wasn't isolated by college life. She authored a slew of recipe books, among them "Flavours from India," and my personal favorite, "The Thangam Philip Book of Baking." There were frequent appearances on All India Radio. Her recipes found regular space in the most popular women's magazines of the time, such as "Femina." A staunch philanthropist, she contributed to the FAO's Freedom from Hunger campaign launched in 1963 and worked on projects with the International Labour Organization. She sat on diverse committees, often one of very few women (if any), together with such stalwarts of the Indian culinary world as K. T. Achaya. Even after retirement in 1986, she was active as a board member of several hotels, financial institutions, and catering colleges, almost until her passing in 2009.

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Her awards boggle the mind: A commemorative coin, etched in her likeness by the FAO Ceres (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), showed bakers stamping dough into naan (it is an honor she shared with Sophia Loren, Margaret Mead, and Coretta Scott King, among others). In 1976, the Padma Shri for Civil Service, one of India's highest honors for civilians. In 1982, the Knighthood of the Cordon Bleu.

Thangam Philip helped prize open a new idea of India — one of lettered people that sat comfortably in an armchair in Paris or New York, easily tossing off suggestions on how to make the perfect soufflé or consommé Montmorency. Her "Modern Cookery For Teaching and the Trade: Volume 2" resounds with the minutiae of French dishes like salmis of pheasant and langouste à la parisienne. With globalization, the fifth edition was fattened to include recipes from countries such as Romania, Denmark, and Myanmar.

Perhaps some of the allure stemmed precisely from this Europeanization (and technologizing, as asserted by Appadurai) of cooking; the recipes offered a canvas of possibilities, previously unimagined, to catering students and home cooks. The Indian sections of her recipe books read like a greatest-hits version of the cuisine — Punjabi, Kerala, etc. — while the fifth edition saw an addition to the canon by way of a new section on Chettinad food, thanks to its burgeoning popularity in India. Her work wasn't without its critics though, who argued that it led to a flattening and subordination of variegated regional cuisine in favor of one that pandered to English-speaking, Westernized, urban middle and upper classes and castes.

These critiques may be warranted. Yet, Philip's contribution to the gastronomic world of a newly independent India is undeniable. She was a chef, a professor, a cookbook writer, a food scientist, a mentor, a businesswoman, and she was certainly the grande dame of the Indian catering world.


Meher Mirza

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