Jiggs Kalra Made the World Respect Indian Cuisine & India Take Pride in Its Chefs. This Republic Day, He Deserves a Padma Award.
I WANTED to write this piece a year ago, immediately after the Republic Day awards were announced, but I held myself back because I did not want to sound churlish at a time of celebration. It was a time of celebration because for the first time in the history of the national awards a chef (Imtiaz Qureshi) and a food historian/television personality (as well as an acclaimed professor of international relations, Pushpesh Pant) had received the Padma Shri. I was of course delighted to find out that the culinary arts had finally got their place in the Padma sun (although Pant got the award in the ‘Literature and Education-Journalism’ category), but I was disappointed that Jiggs Kalra, the doyen of food impresarios, the man responsible for making celebrities out of the two awardees and now the inspiration behind his son Zorawar Kalra‘s hugely successful Masala Library and Farzi Cafe restaurants, had been denied his due.
It may not be too late yet for Jiggs (Jay Inder Singh) Kalra, whom Khushwant Singh described as “the tastemaker to the nation”, to be awarded not the Padma Shri, but the Padma Bhushan, for he was the first to get the world to respect Indian food and the industry to give chefs the status that was eluding them.
An acolyte of Khushwant Singh, the son of a Brigadier in the Indian Army (Corps of Signals), and an alumnus of Mayo College, Ajmer, and St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Jiggs worked for The Illustrated Weekly of India, where he even covered the Bangladesh War, till he was hired by the Evening News of India (also owned by The Times of India Group) as a restaurant reviewer with the clear brief to discover “affordable eateries”. That made him — in 1972 — the first full-time food critic in the country and his column carried a logo made by Mario Miranda.
Soon, again at the bidding of his mentor, Jiggs moved to Delhi, a city he did not particularly like, to assist Maneka Gandhi run Surya magazine. After the fall of Indira Gandhi and with Surya folding up, Jiggs moved to Hindustan Times, where he joined Evening News (now defunct) as the restaurant critic — his column was called Platter Chatter — and later wrote for two four-colour supplements of the newspaper — Weekend Review and Morning Echo (both defunct) — edited by the famous Hindi writer and journalist, the late Manohar Shyam Joshi, who left his stamp on history by scripting the original blockbuster television serials, Hum Log and Buniyaad.
By then, of course, Jiggs had become the country’s foremost champion of its cuisines and its unknown chefs. It was no small achievement, for we are talking of a time when five-star hotels, then mainly headed by Europeans or by Indians trained in Switzerland or in the European tradition in India, condemned Indian restaurants to the basement so that the ‘offensive smells’ emanating from them did not disturb the delicate nostrils of their international guests.
Jiggs had also, by the 1980s, become a food impresario. He got his first break thanks to Arvind Singhji Mewar, who asked Jiggs to oversee the turnaround of the Shiv Niwas Palace in Udaipur after he had head-hunted the heritage hotel’s key functionaries for its royal owner.
In the years that followed, in a brilliant jugalbandi with the former boss of ITC Hotels, S.S.H. Rehman, Jiggs created Dum Pukht in 1988 (and invented the myths of the cuisine having evolved during the construction of the Bada Imambara in Lucknow and of the toothless ‘Nawab of Kakori’ for whom the famous melt-in-the-mouth kebabs had been created) and made Imtiaz Qureshi the country’s first celebrity chef (it was Jiggs who insisted that Qureshi, a discovery of Rehman but unknown outside ITC, should appear in Dum Pukht launch ads with his imposing personality and twirled moustache).
Thereafter, he launched Aangan at the Hyatt Regency New Delhi and rolled out his immortal invention, the salmon tikka, which was a favourite of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His other famous restaurant, Singh Sahib, at the then Parkroyal (now known as the Eros Hotel at Nehru Place), became famous for being the first to go beyond Dal Makhni and Butter Chicken and revive the classics of Punjabi cuisine as they were in the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
And in the 1990s, Jiggs established the catering company Bawarchi Tola, the first to specialise in serving local favourites unknown outside their cities of origin, making dishes like Amritsari Kulcha, Ram Babu’s stuffed paranthas and Tundey ke kebab famous all over. His fans extended from Princess Diana to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had food catered by Jiggs at Kuala Lumpur during his first state visit to Malaysia and then again at his failed summit with Pervez Musharraf in Agra. Bawarchi Tola kept making news also for feeding the A-List at the late Pramod Mahajan‘s daughter’s wedding and at the 18th birthday party of Sushma Swaraj‘s daughter. It was indeed the catering company of the rich and famous, who discovered the wonders of the country’s traditional street delicacies.
Today, we take pride in extolling the virtues of regional cuisines, lionising our chefs, and treating them like celebrities once they appear on television. We, journalists, make the mistake of declaring that the resurgence of regional cuisines is the new trend, even crediting the millennial generation for this shift in taste, but all this had been done and dusted by Jiggs in the 1980s and 1990s.
He wrote the first authentic pan-Indian recipe book, Parshad: Cooking with the Masters in 1986 — and it has turned out to be a runaway best-seller with six million copies, and counting! His associates were two gifted chefs, Arvind Saraswat in Delhi and Richard Graham in Bangalore, who went on to become famous in the limelight shared with them by Jiggs, and his recipe testers were the young and talented Manjit Gill (then and now with ITC Hotels), Manu Mehta (then with ITC Rajputana, Jaipur), N.P. Singh (then with Handi, Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi) and S.P.S. Chaudhury (then with The Oberoi New Delhi).
His next stop was national television, where he, with support from the indefatigable Jaya Chandiram of Doordarshan’s Central Production Centre and expertise from Pushpesh Pant, unspooled Daawat, the country’s first cookery show on DD National in the early 1990s. It made celebrities out of Manjit Gill (now the corporate chef of ITC Hotels), Praveen Anand (creator of Dakshin restaurants), Vikrant Kapoor (star of Sydney’s Zaaffran restaurant) and Davinder Bungla (then a young man from an Uttarakhand village; today, the corporate pastry chef of Hyatt Regency New Delhi). Jiggs’s next big — and last — television foray with Pant was Zaikey Ka Safar, a food-based travelogue, which, again, predated the now-famous shows by Vinod Dua and Rocky and Mayur.
Jiggs Kalra was a pioneer who freed five-star hotels and similar chic establishments from their colonial mindset; he was a standard-bearer of the community of chefs, which till then wallowed in the shadows, and the culinary communicator of an age when the country’s elite didn’t quite know about their own food heritage. It’s a pity that a paralytic stroke in the early 2000s confined the rambunctious sardarji with a goldmine of food knowledge and bawdy jokes, and a wardrobe full of colourful turbans and Ritu Beri kurta-pajamas, to the wheelchair. The least we can do as a nation is grant him the national award that he deserves.