31/05/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Jiggs Uncle And The Making Of A Food Writer

Premshree Pillai/Flickr

Jiggs Kalra has been called a lot of things -- the czar of the Indian culinary world, a cuisine encyclopedia, a pillar of our food heritage, a great food writer, a TV host, archiver, author, historian and more.

There is nothing that hasn't been written about this larger-than-life personality by some of the most widely read food writers in India -- including yours truly. Today, though, I'd like to share with you my own personal history with Jiggs Kalra.

My fascination with Jiggs Kalra began when I was in my pre-teens, thanks to my dad, (late) Col Adhikari Nimai Charan Dash - better known as Col ANC Dash. It was an Old Monk-y evening of December when the entire unit was called for an evening dine-out. Well-lit lawns, strategically placed snacks bowls strewn across the freshly manicured lawn, a flowing bar and officers and their wives dressed in their finest. We too were dolled up for the occasion. It began as most such evenings did, and then you saw a line of ranks being formed as a blue turban made his way to the enclosure reserved for ladies and officers. In the habit of following my dad everywhere, I tugged his arm and asked, "Who is it?"

He whispered, "Jiggs Kalra." There was an unmistakable glint in the eyes of my dad, who was not only an exceptional doctor but also a food archiver who noted his observations in a diary. My interest was piqued. The turbaned man wasn't a star, a sportsperson or a valiant soldier. And yet the long queue told me he was important, very important. Did I meet him then? Unfortunately not. Did my dad get to meet him? Protocol-wise he had to!

"'Jiggs Kalra would have eaten that and loved it too,' dad would say, and I'd eat anything -- burnt lamb, raw fish, baked snake, you name it."

While I did not know anything about the culinary icon at that time, I was determined to learn all there was. If my dad admired Jiggs Kalra, there had to be something special about the man. Like every daughter does, I hung on to my Dad's fascination. Of course, months after, my clever dad used it to get me to eat things I'd usually turn up my nose at. "Jiggs Kalra would have eaten that and loved it too," dad would say, and I'd eat anything -- burnt lamb, raw fish, baked snake, you name it. I tried all kinds of things made by the adivasis that my dad would treat au gratis at every posting he took, which in his four decade of service covered much of India.

My first proper introduction to what Jiggs Kalra does was when the programme Dawat was showcased on Doordarshan and became a permanent fixture at home. The style of cooking, stories and the genial look of the blue turbaned man gradually took a hold on me. It was the only show that could take a dum aloo and give it the haute-ness of a French vanilla crémeux. Sorry chefs, but that was the show that really made Indian cuisine progressive. I and many others learned how delicious beetroot cutlet with a hint of sour cream could be and how much better a desi chicken tasted after given a good massaging and cooked in an earthenware pot. In the wide variety of homes I visited (a perk of being a doctor's daughter), Jiggs Kalra's tips and recipes were quite the rage.

I grew up a foodie who had dined with adivasis, princes, zamindars and potters, and thanks to my dad Jiggs Kalra remained a constant in our conversation. My dad's culinary diary, which I often smuggled to read as I began working for Palace On Wheels magazine became my source for stories that I replayed over my head.

" Here was a man who had earned a treasure trove of culinary information in a way that our tech generation might miss -- on the ground, with the people!"

Unfortunately, my dad passed without meeting Jiggs Kalra, but his diary inspired me to start writing about food, six years ago. Then in 2013 I met Jiggs Kalra for a story about him and his son. This showed me a little-known side of the culinary czar: that of a father. And gave me my instant connect. It was on that day sitting with him, relishing a mildly spiced malai seekh kebab roll at Masala Library, talking everything from women, parties, armed forces, food, news and Arnab Goswami, I realised what my dad really admired in him: Here was a man who had earned a treasure trove of culinary information in a way that our tech generation might miss -- on the ground, with the people!

His easy nature and a genuine zeal to share information, made me understand why my dad had once whispered with something close to reverence, "He is Jiggs Kalra." That day, I earned more than just an admiration for Jiggs Uncle (and a right on him as well), he became my icon - just like my dad's.

Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to often pick his brains for many of my articles, and yet I am humbled every time he says -"Beta, I wouldn't know. Sorry cannot help you."

As I end, there is only one thing I would like to say: Dad, meet Jiggs Uncle -- not Sir - Uncle!

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