Jiggs Kalra, pioneering food writer, researcher and consultant, passed away on Tuesday in Delhi after a prolonged illness. The 72-year-old, who was the first Asian to be inducted into the International Food and Beverage Gourmet Hall of Fame, was widely regarded as the first to bring lost recipes from across north India, including ones from the royal kitchens of Awadh, into the limelight. He was responsible for making the kebab, especially galouti kebab, and tikkas a staple at Indian restaurants around the world. “People may not remember this but the cuisine of Awadh, which everyone knows about now, was revived by him,” says writer and culinary entrepreneur Karen Anand. “It was because of the work that he did in the ‘80s that Indian food was elevated into fine dining,” she adds.
Born Jaspal Inder Singh Kalra, he began his career as a journalist, working at The Illustrated Weekly of India, where he flourished under the editorial eye of Khushwant Singh. He eventually segued into food writing, with what is arguably one of the first restaurant review columns in India in The Evening News and grew to become an expert in the field. So much so that his former boss and mentor, Singh, bestowed on him the informal title ‘Czar of Indian Cuisine’. His book Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters, remains a bible for everyone who wants to cook Indian food professionally. “He was a reporter, a writer and one of the most knowledgeable people about Indian cuisine,” says chef Rajiv Malhotra, corporate chef, Habitat World, India Habitat Centre and Chor Bizarre. “In fact, his book Prashad was one of the first food books I bought, and it’s one that I continue to use,” he adds.
Kalra was also a pioneer in food television, with the hugely popular Doordarshan show Daawat, in which he, along with food historian Pushpesh Pant, travelled the length and breadth of the country, talking to chefs, bawarchis, khansaamas and other professional cooks and bringing to light a mind-boggling range of recipes. “This was huge for that time,” says Manish Mehrotra, corporate chef, Indian Accent Restaurants. “It was notoriously difficult to get the old ustads to share their recipes, but he managed it.”
Over the years, Kalra wore many hats, inclunding as Advisor to the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation in 1997. He was behind the success of some of India’s most iconic restaurants, including ITC’s Dum Pukht and Bukhara, and researched and wrote prolifically till a decade ago, when a stroke forced him into a wheelchair. However, he remained involved in the Indian hospitality industry: he lent his name and expertise to restaurants such as Jiggs Kalra’s Made in Punjab and Punjab Grill by Jiggs Kalra. He was mentor and culinary director of Massive Restaurants Pvt Ltd, launched in 2012 by his son Zorawar, with restaurants such as Masala Library, Farzi Cafe and Pa Pa Ya under its marquee. The “progressive” cuisine served at these restaurants was introduced by Zorawar as the natural next step of Kalra’s mission of placing Indian cuisine firmly in the fine dining territory.
His most important contribution, however, was as an impresario for Indian cuisine. “I remember that 20 years ago, hotels used to run food festivals entirely on his name. In fact, he was probably the first to recognise the importance of organising food festivals to draw attention to different cuisines. Everyone does it now, but he understood its importance very early, and people would go to these festivals simply because he was behind them,” says Malhotra.
According to his one-time research partner and co-writer, Pant, there have been other great recipe writers for Indian food, but what set Kalra apart was that he was not just a writer, but “a brand ambassador for Indian food.” In this role, Pant explains, Kalra not only helped get Indian cuisine global recognition as a culinary tradition of the same standing as the French, but also helped highlight the role of chefs, including Imtiaz Qureshi of Dum Pukht. “He would find chefs in the bylanes of small towns and promote them in his articles. Hotel management had the habit of looking down on chefs, but Jiggs fought for their rights and helped rebuild the confidence and pride of chefs in their own profession. That is perhaps his greatest contribution to Indian food,” says Pant.