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Jiggs Kalra: The Chef Whose Curries and Stories Were Equally Appetising

We pay tribute to the Czar of Indian food. A chef, writer, raconteur and champion of fine Indian cuisine

Priyamvada Kowshik

Priyamvada Kowshik

My first meeting with culinary legend Jiggs Kalra was on one of those typically rushed days in a newspaper office, back in 2004. I was working for a national daily, had only recently moved to Delhi and was promptly assigned the beat no team member had volunteered for. Food.

For a city features team in the mid-noughties, art and theatre were classy, fashion was aspirational and music had a story to tell. Food, most believed, was merely about eating out and writing. Though pretty soon I realised it was more like sublime cooking—you miss the nuances—and you’re left thumbing an insipid copy.

This was a time when Delhi's DINKS and Gen Xers were moving away from multi-cuisine and Mughlai; and a younger, more experimental food culture was derailing the old guards and their gravy trains (literally). Even packaged food makers wanted more than the basic Masala and Pudina flavours for chips and instant noodles.

For someone raised in a tiny Goan village on strictly home-cooked meals, this was uncharted territory. I needed help to navigate this appetising maze. My copy still unfinished, I walked up to my editor and asked for time. Then I dialled the expert I’d recently met at the launch of a premium new restaurant in south Delhi—from his wheelchair, he had designed the menu with a delightfully new approach to Indian cuisine, turning the dining experience into an edible story. An energetic voice boomed at the other end “Haan haan, tu aaja. I'll tell you stories of kebabs and curies and a whole lot more....” It was to be one of the many afternoons I spent chatting with and learning from the legendary Jiggs Kalra—food critic and writer, chef, consultant and master storyteller.

By the time I met Jiggs Kalra, a stroke he suffered in 2000 had left him severely physically restricted. But his passion was unscathed. He was opinionated and irreverent, a witty and delightful raconteur of stories from his travels and tasting trails across the globe. Tales of menus he planned for visiting heads of state, especially those from Pakistan; or recalling his days of working with editors such as Khushwant Singh. In the 70s, Kalra was one of India's best known food critic and later grew to be one of the most sought after food consultant. A master chronicler of food, Kalra introduced talented bawarchis and Maharajas from unknown and quaint eating houses of small town India, to swanky five star kitchens, shaping their careers but more importantly, reviving lost recipes and techniques of Indian cuisine. Indian food was always the centerpiece of our conversations. 

Through his stories and anecdotes, Kalra brought the world of food alive for me. Those afternoons of chatting about his books and tracing a culinary map of India; discussing the nuances of Awadhi cuisine for which he had a special love; or even the chicken sandwich from Delhi Gymkhana Club I was served on several occasions—food, flavours, smells, sounds and stories jumped to life around him. 

Kalra had an agile mind, one that never stopped thinking ahead of his time. “Karaikudi,” he told me on one early visit, “that’s going to be the next big thing.” This was before Chettinad cuisine got  a gourmet makeover. He was always working on something new—one time it was an idea to distill the essence of onions and curry leaves for a new flavour of chips; another time it was a menu that travelled along the ancient Grand Trunk Road linking India to Central Asia; or a new idea for a south India edition of his bestseller Prashad. On some occasions, he quizzed me as if to test my interest, “Can you name five of chocolate's best friends?" while pulling out a few bars of chilli chocolate he wanted me to taste.  

Through his stories, Kalra introduced me to ageing Nawabs of Awadh who had lost all their teeth but not their appetite for fine food, and inadvertently led to the invention of Gilawati kebab when they ordered their bawarchis to cook a dish “that would melt in the mouth and didn’t need teeth to bite into”. I imagined the royal cooks pounding meat and spices all night long, to achieve the desired consistency. There were tales of pushcart ownerss-turned-food barons, and one-armed chefs like Lucknow's Tunday Miyan, who, despite losing a limb was known to create the best galouti in the whole of Awadh. Kalra described with delicious details how the aloo got into the Kolkata biryani, or an old hakim's role in turning up the spice quotient of biryani served in Old Delhi, the hakim's antidote for an epidemic was a spoonful of pounded laal mirch.  

Those conversations between a young journalist and the "Czar of Indian cuisine" stoked a latent interest and breathed life into the sublime aspects of food. it's provenance, the cultural subtexts, and trajectory of flavours. Recently, during a conversation with Jiggs Kalra’s son Zorawar, who runs Massive Restaurants and a string of successful eateries such as Farzi Café, across the globe, the entrepreneur named his father’s passion to elevate Indian food to global standards as the philosophy that drives them. Their successful ventures such as Masala Library, are a testimony to this vision. When I met him last year after a nearly decade-long gap, Jiggs Kalra looked older, but merrier, speaking proudly of his son's success and the restaurants they had built. "He's gone much ahead of me," he beamed, before breaking off into another juicy story.           

 

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