Jiggs Kalra, the Culinary Alchemist Who Changed the Way We Look at Indian Food


Jiggs Kalra, the Culinary Alchemist Who Changed the Way We Look at Indian Food

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Back in the ’80s, the average middle-class Indian kitchen had the fragrance of familiarity around it. Even as a stranger, you could make your way through the kadhais and handis, the tumblers and the thaalis. It was expected that the kitchen would be stocked with grounded masalas, whole spices, vegetables, adrak, and lasoon. If were in the Western part of the country, one knew where to find the kanda-batata, the kaddu and kombdi. In the East, you knew where to find the panch-phoron and the sorshe. There were no surprises, no foreign bodies. Just a lot of indigenous, comfort food.

And then came Jiggs Kalra, the flamboyant chef, culinary alchemist, who changed the way we looked at Indian food – how it could be cooked and consumed. He put a bit of Kashmir in Kanyakumari and Bengal in Bombay. But everything was tempered with a robust Punjabi zest for the good life. He conjured visions of dishes with sumptuous names: Rattan Majusha (a rich mushroom curry dish), Tabaq Maaz (grilled lamb chops dish with spices)  Lazeez Khumb (another mushroom preparation). And he introduced the middle-class Indian kitchen to a treasure trove of ingredients and techniques that we never thought existed. Last year at 71, Jiggs Kalra breathed his last, ending a delicious chapter in the kitchens of India.

Jiggs Kalra became a household name in the ’80s and ’90s, in part due to his hugely popular columns that frequently appeared in print. His recipes could best be described as food fantasies that played out on the pages of a magazine as if it had discovered a culinary rockstar. Each of them read like an opera with several acts – most of which were unfamiliar, exotic, and often expensive. Prepping and cooking time ran into hours. The pictures of the food that accompanied his columns were laced with seductive, jewel tones, and you could almost see the fat glistening on the food and the moisture settling in.

Kalra was not your average cookbook aunty who curated heirloom recipes and spun stories around them. He was instead, the flamboyant star of a Broadway musical.

Growing up, I remember Sundays when we would eagerly await the glossy supplement of The Telegraph to gape, gasp, and drool over his recipes, which were both a learning and an unattainable fantasy. It was in his recipes that we were first introduced to the super exotic guchchi mushrooms, the abundant use of pista-badam, the joy of using varq in celebratory dishes, and how the flourish of saffron could add more than just colour. And there was no substitute for the glorious-ness of desi ghee in his world. His recipes taught us that you could cook lamb with apricot and prawns with seasonal fruits. And even the humble cabbage could be upcycled with cinnamon and made to look like a dish for Cinderella’s banquet. But more importantly, Kalra was the one who convinced us that you actually use wine in Indian dishes and not lose your religion over it.

Kalra was not your average cookbook aunty who curated heirloom recipes and spun stories around them.

To put things in perspective, Kalra’s popularity in Indian homes was even more fascinating, given that it was playing out at a time when the fanciest vegetables we could find in our local bazaars were the simla mirch and the occasional button mushroom. Our mothers, on the other hand, were busy cooking avial or shukto, rajma or kadhi, depending on where you lived. So then what purpose did Jiggs Kalra’s recipes serve in our lives? A lot more than other than stirring up a curiosity about the diversity in our culinary heritage and an aspiration for the kind of life where a Jiggs Kalra would rustle up a magnificent feast for you. Fit for a king.

I’m not even sure if people back then dared to attempt his recipes at home – where would one find morels or akhrots the size of pigeon eggs? But we didn’t need to. The recipes itself were fantastic escape from the everyday ordinariness that was most of our homes.

It was not until two decades since I started following his recipes that I had my first date with Kalra’s magic. On a wedding anniversary, I found myself at Masala Library in Mumbai’s BKC, making my way through a smorgasbord of flavours and textures, fragrances and theatrical mise en place. With every bite, I relived a moment from my childhood, immersing myself wholly into the pages of his unforgettable but unattainable recipes. What hit the sweet spot, however, was the dessert: a jalebi caviar that defined the essence of Kalra’s cooking.

Now, in 2020, Kalra’s reputation in millennial minds, is synonymous with that hearty food entrepreneur behind popular and hipster restaurant chains serving royal cuisine. But for the aam aadmi, brought up on a staple of dal chawal, he was and will always remain the man who made Indian food look sensuous and sophisticated.