March 8, 2015

Tradition & Re-invention: Meeting Jiggs & Zorawar Kalra

Jiggs Kalra with his son, Zorawar Kalra.

Often given titles such as the ‘Czar of Indian Cooking’, what makes Jiggs Kalra and his achievements so special is that he wrote about dining out when options were limited, it was the ‘70’s after all; and gave us precise measurements when all we had were oral recipes passed down generations. Recently, I was invited to a very special evening that honoured Jiggs Kalra for completing 40 years in the Indian Food Hospitality business. “It’s actually 44 years, but we always like round numbers,” he explained, when I sat down with him for a chat after the event at Masala Library in Mumbai. Over the years, he was also instrumental in setting up most of the top notch restaurants in India, and consulted them on menus that he had painstakingly researched. He did all this, without it ever seeming boring, instead he made it seem really cool and aspirational for his readers.

He has that particular knack of not letting his experience and knowledge overwhelm you. Instead, he is friendly, always up for a good joke and even posed for countless photos with the who’s who of the culinary world. Editors, critics, bloggers, restaurateurs, chefs, celebrities et al! All this, despite being confined to a wheelchair. Such is his passion for food that he can make your mouth water with his description of the way his grandmother took all day to cook bhuna__gosht over a slow fire.

Fan girl moment with Jiggs Kalra.

“But I wasn’t allowed into my mother’s kitchen by my father. He didn’t want me to become a bawarchi. Everyone wanted an engineer or doctor in those days,” he reminisces. “_I came into this business when I was asked to gather recipes from women who had crossed the border during Partition. I spoke to 10 such ladies, mostly Sindhi, and their recipes had slight differences here and there. So I took a median of all and wrote the recipes. Until then, Indian food had never been documented, there was no ready text,” he says of how he began his career in journalism before moving on to food writing and consultancy. “I ended up writing 43 books, that’s almost one-a-year. Not bad!” he smiles.

My earliest memory of Jiggs Kalra, though, was watching him on Daawat, the TV show that he hosted on Doordarshan. There was food, conversations, celebrity guests – a combination that ensured that it wasn’t just my Mom who watched the show, but the entire family, including our cook! That was so characteristic of the ‘80’s, when the entire family would gather around to watch the most popular shows, usually on the sole TV in every house. He remembers this time fondly and recalls, “it used to air at 12:30pm on Sundays. People would jot down the recipe and rush to the market to pick up ingredients.

‘Jalebi Caviar, Saffron Foam Pistachio Rabdi’ at Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra.

As I near the end of our conversation, he tells me about the mantra for good writing that he learned from his guru and editor of The Illustrated Weekly, Khushwant Singh. “He had some very simple principles – never use a word bigger than eight letters, never write a sentence longer than eight words and never have a paragraph longer than eight lines.” Simple, precious and enriching, right? It’s the sort of mantra that I had to share with all of you. It serves as a gentle reminder that the pathway to success isn’t complicated – it’s about getting the basics right.

Steamed John Dory at Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra.

But he is hardly one to live in the past. The writer in him keeps him keenly aware of trends and changes around him. He’s extremely happy to see a growing interest in regional cuisines in India. “Now, people are discovering the joys of regional food like Chettinad and Hyderabadi. They have no problems trying out new cuisines. We’ve also learned to appreciate the spicy elements of cuisines like Szechuan and Mexican.” He confesses that he has passed on all his learnings to his son Zorawar, who now runs Masala Library, Made in Punjab and the high-energy Farzi Café under the umbrella of Massive Restaurants. He is all praises for his son’s work ethic and tells me, “Zorawar never leaves his restaurant to his staff. Tomorrow when we go back (to Delhi), he and his wife will head straight to the restaurant.

This celebration of Mr. Jiggs Kalra’s achievements is incomplete without knowing more about his son, Zorawar Kalra. In the last few years, he has managed to revive interest in Indian food amidst a burgeoning environment of Western style cafes and bistros. I was keen to know more about Zorawar Kalra as a person – what is the one thing he could eat from the menus of his restaurants every single day? With him at the helm of restaurants and his father being a culinary legend – are they ever able to hire just a regular cook to make daal-chaawal for them at home? Plus a few major scoops on what’s next for them. Check out the video below for a fun chat that I shot using a selfie-stick!

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