The foodies of India are being urged to lay down their spoons and forks and raise their glasses and voices in a toast to Jiggs Kalra, that doyen of food impresarios in the country. A Delhi-based columnist is hoping the Government of India will hear this clamour. And when Republic Day comes along, in its wisdom, the Home Ministry will consider Jiggs for a Padma Shri. Last year, for the first time in the history of the Indian honours system, a chef (Dum Pukht genius Imtiaz Qureshi) and a food historian (Pushpesh Pant) were among the recipients. These are quiet, unknown men Jiggs brought out of the kitchen and library and made famous in the 1980s. Now honoured with national awards. But for some inexplicable reason, Jiggs got left out of the 2016 honours list himself. The Delhi columnist is hoping that he gets his due this year.
Jiggs ordered the food from the menu he had created and watched me eating. He never drank himself... Jiggs didn't eat, either.
I am hoping this happens, too. Jiggs is my friend. But I knew him even before that as the father of all Indian foodies and arguably India's first restaurant critic. He began doing reviews of affordable restaurants in the 1970s for The Evening News of India when it wasn't fashionable to go eating out. And he made the chef of the restaurant the star of his writing. This at a time when chefs were only summoned out of the kitchen if the food was bad. Jiggs was then a journalist with The Illustrated Weekly under Khushwant Singh's editorship. He gave this up to become a full-time food consultant and writer and moved to Delhi. When he returned to Mumbai, which was several times a year, he always brought a small town cook he had discovered in some hole in the wall who was hell at making Lucknowi, Hyderabadi, Amritsari, Marwari or Kashmiri food. And this undistinguished bawarchi, maharaj, bhatiyar or khansama Jiggs would install with great pride in the kitchens of the Oberoi and then present him before the gourmets of Mumbai in a food festival like some great showman of the culinary world.
He was always a flamboyant personality, a blustery and boisterous Sardarji, impeccably dressed in starched Ritu Beri kurta-pajamas and turbans he designed himself, somewhat larger than life. You always heard him before you saw Jiggs. And he walked with a spring in his step and mischief dancing in his bespectacled eyes. I would meet him at the Oberoi's Kandahar restaurant, the scene of such heartrending violence on 26/11, and we would wine and dine late into the night. I did all the wining and dining. Jiggs ordered the food from the menu he had created and watched me eating. He never drank himself. "Two sips of beer at the most and then I don't care to pursue the drink further," he told me. His drink was coffee. But to even think of coffee in a fine dining restaurant specialising in North-West Frontier Province cuisine was a sacrilege. Jiggs didn't eat, either. After a man has had everything from octopus to Japanese poison fish, also esoteric elephant in France, inedible horse in Uzbekistan, and zebra in Nairobi, the dals, rotis, kebabs and biryanis of Awadh fail to inspire the palate. So Jiggs did the talking. I discovered a gifted and delightful raconteur in him. And long after the Kandahar's last guest had withdrawn, he would engage me with the most wicked stories about society's swish set of bon vivants, roaring with laughter himself.
I wept when I went to see him in Delhi. He was confined to a wheelchair, one hand useless, his legs incapable of walking, his speech slurred.
Then in the winter of 2000, Jiggs suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side and deprived him of the gift of the gab and the jaunty step in his walk. I wept when I went to see him in Delhi. He was confined to a wheelchair, one hand useless and drooping, his legs incapable of walking, and his speech slurred. Gone was the designer kurta-pajama. In its place, Jiggs wore a shapeless tracksuit. And, the greatest tragedy of this proud and renowned Sardarji's life, his colourful turban was replaced by a baseball cap. When I knelt by his wheelchair and hugged him, Jiggs whispered hoarsely into my shoulder, "I cried when I found I would never be able to tie my turban again." My heart broke. We were meeting at the Delhi Gymkhana one Sunday morning. "What the Lord taketh away, he giveth back with the other hand," Jiggs mumbled. Then he was back to being his irascible self. He ordered breakfast for me. Ticked off the waiters when they bungled his order. Cancelled the food they had brought with asperity. And then ordered again. "I believe this engine of mine is shunting," he told me buoyantly, "and when it takes off, it will go like the Silver Streak."
"I believe this engine of mine is shunting," he told me buoyantly, "and when it takes off, it will go like the Silver Streak."
That was 17 years ago. He's not yet the Silver Streak, he suffered further reversals of fortune down the years, a heart attack last week, but Jiggs is still chugging along merrily. In the interim, he's been to Mumbai more times than I care to remember, organising regional food festivals for the Oberoi, Leela, Renaissance, steering his wheelchair into the kitchens and chivvying the chefs to do his biding, opening new restaurants from Delhi to Kolkata, making friends with master chefs he rubbed up the wrong way years ago, busy writing books, advertising for Basmati rice, promoting pork from Shimla, traveling with the Prime Minister and organising his meals abroad, planning banquets in Delhi and Agra for Pakistan's visiting Presidents and Prime Ministers, catering to the weddings of politician friends' children, advising Jet Airways on its inflight dining, accepting awards and honours at food shows in Singapore and Dubai, and helping set up a chain of restaurants for his son Zorawar. "All this for a man who is only half a man," Jiggs told me wryly when I met him last in Mumbai.
I remembered Jiggs Kalra's words to me at the Delhi Gymkhana in 2000: truly what the Lord taketh away, he giveth back with the other hand.
It was at the launch party of Zorawar's modern Asian bistro at Mumbai's swankiest shopping plaza. The bijou eatery was spilling over with foodies, gourmets and gourmands; unfortunately, not many recognised the grand old man propped up in the wheelchair next to me as the former "Tastemaker to the Nation" and the "Czar of Indian Cuisine". I don't think Jiggs cared. He held court with old friends and those who knew him, whispering in our ears, because a crowded and noisy cocktail party is the last place to hold a meaningful conversation. Waiters with platters of food floated past. Occasionally, Jiggs would call for one and sniff at what was on display. Here was the man who had revived and restored Indian cuisines and showcased them to the world for over 40 years, proudly presiding at the opening of his son's newest restaurant in a successful chain of them across the country. The food was eclectic and high on theatrics. Citrusy yuzu and soy-hinted foam, dried vegetable dust and Sriracha splotches, Penang curry served like a gourmet French soup, a sushi matrix on a vertical wooden block chiselled into tiny squares, pork skewers on a porcelain pig, sushi burgers on black slates... that kind of fare. I thought the Indian palate, always adventurous, had come of age if people not only understood what was on their plate but were eating it with relish. Zorawar Kalra, his father's son, is a success story and the fastest rising star in the culinary world today. I remembered Jiggs Kalra's words to me at the Delhi Gymkhana in 2000: truly what the Lord taketh away, he giveth back with the other hand. But today, a Padma Shri would be nice too.