When I ring the bell to Mala Bindra’s apartment, she opens the door. There is no army guarding her famous kitchen, no line of staff I have to pass to get to her. She’s old-school elegant, silver hair neatly pinned back in a bun, Clara Delevigne eyebrows lending an exacting element to her soft, glowing face. The performance of the interview, which she has religiously rejected for years, cracks, egg-like, with a welcoming hug. Her oversized cotton shirt smells of rain and salted butter.
Just like every cake she makes, she insists on doing the afternoon tea herself, even though Nyamat – her daughter and my friend – half offers from a throne-like couch; I understand by this early exchange that Mala’s kitchen, a covered, modest facility separate from the family kitchen, is a sovereign state. This is where her mornings begin, sharply at 6 am, with the meditative activity of frosting. This is also the place where Good Housekeeping recipes have been tried and perfected, and where she counts out loud while baking, mercilessly throwing all her dependents out. It is a sacred space, a culinary dressing room, and although I am veritably curious, I only take a small peek while she tends to tea. Stacked above the well-used, meticulously scrubbed utensils is an old school oven timer that I imagine rings through this flat like a school bell every morning.
A cake is born here every day, and if Mala’s cakes were kids, she’d have delivered more than the fertility clinic next door. Quiches, brownies, and cookies are also baked in this kitchen, but it was sometime in the early 1980s that she became known for one particular recipe that would forever extend her name by two words: MalaBindraChocolateCake.
MalaBindraChocolateCake is a feeling more than a recipe. A feeling so strong that I wondered, while Mala was talking, that if I met her at a store or a party, I’d say ‘Hi Mala Bindra chocolate cake,’ instead of ‘Hi aunty’ and imagine peaks of buttercream coat our conversation.
Her chocolate cake, fudgy, native, moist, and “just damn yummy” as her daughter puts it, has flavoured childhoods that were made in the wake of Delhi’s liberalization years; her frosting on the corner of every child’s lips became the tattoo of a good birthday, the sign of a happy family that got it together. For lettering, star shaped frosted letters would line up like a flag, saluting the birth of every Varun, Karan, Priyanka and Tara I knew.
What makes that cake so damn good? She tells us, sifting through formalities, counting the ingredients on her deft fingers, which barely go into the second hand. It sounds matter-of-fact and nothing is surprising, except maybe that she uses olive oil instead of butter. All the ingredients are sourced daily from her local market, during her morning walks with her husband. “I can give you the recipe,” she offers. But in her solid chocolate-slab voice there is a gentle echo that says, ‘But my darling, what good will it do?’
This is a cake that has been perfected over decades, adapted since she first tried her hand at it in the “boondocks” (a town called Sarni), where she was bored to tears as a newly married woman. Since then, its become an edible Delhi monument – a necessary presence at Priyanka Gandhi’s birthday, an item hand carried for yearning families in Singapore, a favourite of Sharmila Tagore’s, and more than all that – a symbol for so many Delhiites for whom perspective was taught via the slicing of this cake, every year, after the candles went out. A culinary Jantar Mantar, this timeless cake has marked time.
Once a man who had just got out of a coma called Mala Bindra. “‘I’ve just come out, and I need to have your cake,’ he said,” she tells me, laughing. She’s not sure what happened after, because he never called back. “Fact or fiction, I’m not sure,” she says, slicing the upside down pineapple cake she has made with tea. In the slice and in her response, I taste more than sugar, a pound of goodwill that is powerful enough to reach both the living and the back-from-the-dead.
Getting there: To order call 98110 398 94, 2, Palam Marg, Sector 4, RK Puram, Rs 800 onwards.
This story was contributed by Meher Varma; find her on Instagram @ agramofmeher.
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