Jiggs Kalra: He fed his curiosity & stirred India's culinary melting pot

Jiggs Kalra
No figure influenced Indian food in the 1980s and early 1990s more than Jiggs Kalra. The most unusual part of it was that he was never a chef and yet he, more than anybody else, helped make chefs the stars they are today.

Kalra started out life as a journalist on Khushwant Singh’s Illustrated Weekly, the top magazine of the day, but soon found that his passion for food overcame everything else. He started reviewing restaurants for the old Evening News in a column called ‘Platter Chatter’, one of the only such columns at the time. 

Sent to Delhi, during the Emergency by Khushwant Singh to help Maneka Gandhi, with her fledging Surya magazine, Kalra soon found that he did not like Ms Gandhi much, but certainly, loved the Capital’s cuisine. Thus, he began a parallel career as one of India’s’ pioneering food writers. It was in this capacity that he discovered such chefs as the Tunde kebabwalas of Lucknow and made them famous all over India.

Perhaps his most important association was with chef Imtiaz Qureshi. Qureshi was the chef at the now-defunct Mayur restaurant at Delhi’s ITC Maurya Hotel, but he was hardly known to the outside world. Kalra collaborated with ITC in the late 1980s on the launch of a new restaurant called Dum Pukht, at which Imtiaz was the star. He worked closely with Imtiaz and Manjit Gill (then the executive chef of the ITC Maurya) to create the menu and turned such previously esoteric dishes as the ‘kakori kebab’ into national obsessions. More importantly, he persuaded ITC to put photographs of Imtiaz in the ads for Dum Pukht, the first time any Indian chef had received this kind of recognition and importance. With this, the age of the celebrity chef was launched in India. 

While Kalra was not a chef himself, such was his mastery of Indian techniques, food history, and knowledge of spices that he was able to transform the Indian food served at restaurants all over India. Till Kalra came along, everyone served a sort of Punjabi-restaurant cuisine. But Kalra made the food of Lucknow the centre of every North Indian menu. 

In later years, he was not involved with any hotel chain, but spent his time travelling around the country, digging out interesting recipes and discovering talented chefs. His cookbook Prashad, soon became the definitive text for Indian chefs and he had a television programme on Doordarshan, where he featured some of the country’s finest chefs, cooking, and explaining their dishes to a wider audience.

Inevitably, he started restaurants himself; some with limited success (his contemporaries say that he was always too nice to be a good businessman) and organised food festivals around the country. A move into high-quality catering, with his then protégé Marut Sikka, launched a whole new genre that still flourishes today. 

In recent years, Kalra was best known for the Masala Library chain. This was created and conceived by his son Zorawar, as a tribute to his father’s pioneering work in the Indian food space. Though Zorawar added modern touches, the restaurants were built on the solid foundation that Jiggs Kalra had created.  Jiggs’ recipes also formed the basis of the menus at Punjab Grill and Made in Punjab, both chains launched by Zorawar to demonstrate that, in addition to the Lucknawi food that Jiggs had popularised, he also had strong Punjabi roots.

How will history remember Jiggs Kalra? I think he will be remembered as a man who bridged the gap between five-star hotel kitchens at such fancy chains as The Taj, The Oberoi, and ITC (all of which he consulted for) and the food of India’s streetside geniuses. He was able to take recipes from a dhaba or roadside kebabwalas and transform them into dishes fit for a king, served to the world at some of Indians finest hotels. He also travelled extensively, organising banquets on behalf of various Indian prime ministers and the tourism ministry, spreading the message that there was more to Indian food than curry.

Without Jiggs Kalra we would all still be eating butter chicken without the refinement that Jiggs brought to the dish. And we would never have understood how rich and complex the real cuisines of North India could be. Chefs would still be in the kitchen, never allowed to show their faces in the dining rooms, in permanent servitude to food and beverage managers.

Jiggs Kalra is gone, but his legacy will live on. Every time you eat a ‘purdah biryani’ or a ‘kakori kebab’, you are eating dishes that he brought to the forefront. And every time you see a photo of a celebrity chef, grinning into the camera, remember this: without Jiggs Kalra no chef would ever have become a celebrity.

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