Remembering India’s Culinary Genius Jiggs Kalraby | June 10, 2019
The recent passing of Jiggs Kalra brought back a rush of memories from the time I was first introduced to food writing in Delhi. A legend when it comes to reinterpreting traditions, he understood the language of food like no one else.
I first met this ‘Czar of Indian Cuisine’ (as his guru and editor Khushwant Singh liked to call him) in the late ̓90s at a Dosa festival that he was hosting at the coffee shop at The Oberoi, New Delhi. Those were the days when five-star hotels were the only establishments that would offer unique food experiences to those with evolved palates. And Jiggs, whose food explorations had taken him from being one of the first food writers and columnists in India to a food consultant and author of books, was happy to introduce new flavours to the diners.
I vividly remember how he watched my expression as I tucked in the spicy duck filling that he had introduced in a dosa, clearly a result of his experimentation with fusion cuisine. His eyes lit up when he spoke about India’s culinary traditions and the use of masalas in street food versus the practice of slow cooking in Indian homes. We discussed the slow food cooking in Punjabi homes, variations of dum and tandoor, and I went back with so much learning and respect for a man who was just as enthusiastic sharing his thoughts with a possible fresher as he would with someone of his own standing.
Jiggs or J Inder Singh Kalra as I learned later came from an army background and he’d had a fairly well-travelled childhood and a grounded upbringing. An alumnus of Mayo College, Ajmer, he always had a flair for writing and a deep love for food. And when he combined his two loves he became one of the first food writers in the country at Illustrated Weekly under Khushwant Singh. His batch of colleagues at Illustrated Weekly included some noted names in journalism including Bachi Karkaria and Behram Contractor (the satirist Busybee) who was more focused on writing about food in Mumbai.
For Jiggs, street food and traditional cooking held much charm. He would scout the streets sampling famed dishes and decoding the flavours, which he later went on to record in the form of his books. He was one of the first to focus on the ‘exactness’ of measure for ingredients while listing out a recipe so that the flavours were true to the original. One of the most famous examples is the galouti kebab that he perfected in his own style.
Jiggs also loved to share a good food story. One might also remember him as the host of two of India’s well-known TV food shows, Daawat and Zaike Ka Safar. The research for his shows only intrigued him further and he delved deeper into the history of food and began interacting with food styles and traditions from all over India. He worked extensively with chefs, housewives, and culinary legends spanning the length and breadth of the country, recording data unheard of before.
And if those weren’t enough feathers in his cap, Jiggs added another one for good measure when he got published. He authored several books that form a rich source of information on Indian cooking and cuisines such as Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters, Kama Bhog: Food Of Love (with Ian Pereira, Pushpesh Pant, and Marut Sikka), Classic Cooking of Punjab, Classic Cooking of Rajasthan, and Classic Cooking of Avadh, to name a few. It was like he said once, these books aimed to document rare recipes that were either diluted or lost, and hoped to revive, restore, and record Indian cuisine.
His knowledge about Indian cuisine was also why Jiggs was often invited to oversee food menus that were to be to served royal guests and foreign dignitaries. The two most famous ones include serving Prince Charles and the late Lady Diana on their trip to Jaipur as well as the meal preps for the former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf at the Agra Summit in 2001.
The health issues he faced following a stroke, shortly after the summit, eventually affected his active culinary life. He, however, continued to guide and direct the various ventures led by his son Zorawar Kalra under the aegis of Massive Restaurants. In fact, his touches to the menu of Punjab Grill by Jiggs Kalra and Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra are particularly impossible to miss.
Truly, Jiggs leaves behind a legacy that is rich and would be remembered for a long time to come.
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