Interview: Food historian Jiggs Kalra

Jiggs knows best
When India’s celebrated food columnist, food historian and connoisseur of fine taste, Jiggs Kalra oversees the making of kebabs and biryanis in Dubai, you simply give in. That is what diners do now at Market Café, Grand Hyatt Dubai. Rajeev Nair writes

Read or listen to grandmothers: That is Jiggs Kalra’s advice to food writers. J Inder Singh Kalra alias Jiggs is India’s most celebrated food columnist. He is also a food historian and a connoisseur when it comes to matters pertaining to good taste.
So give him a biryani with shredded pineapple smatterings or show him a chef on television asking you to go by easy pinches of ingredients, Jiggs will raise an eyebrow. He is a perfectionist, which also makes him a tough taskmaster. On biryanis with pineapple (the sort served in north Kerala), he says: “What will you call it? Hawaiian biryani?” And on the “pinches” culture: “My pinch is not the same as yours so how can anyone go by pinches. These people are just taking short cuts. They have no real desire to cook and simply want to let other people know that they can cook. Ingredients must be measured to the last gram.”
Having recovered from a stroke, Kalra now undergoes “boring, repetitive” physiotherapy sessions now. But any discussion on food – its history and future – will elevate the man’s energy mode.
Jiggs Kalra, a former journalist with a leading Indian daily and now, chairman of Jiggs Kalra Food Services Limited, says food reviewing is serious business. Indeed, all reviews are. He learnt it through experience first with movies. He had panned legendary Indian filmmaker Raj Kapoor’s film Mera Naam Joker. Kapoor wasn’t amused. They had a showdown at a party after which Kalra wrote a full-length piece apologizing on the bad review. “You are an appraiser, never a critic,” says Kalra of his learning from the experience. “A lot of journalists think they are food critics when they are simply reporters reporting on food. Appraise the food, don’t pan the restaurant.”To start off, any food writer must read extensively on food. They must listen to mothers and grandmothers talk about food. That is how Kalra learnt. He also did extensive research, which he continues to do. He has covered much of Indian cuisine with one segment left that had skipped his attention. He won’t reveal it on record except that it is from Bengal and that MJ Akbar, editor and columnist, had mentioned about the delectable cuisine.
Jiggs Kalra is in Dubai to host the Kebab and Biryani Festival as part of the ‘Taste of India’ promotion at Market Café, Grand Hyatt Dubai through September 9. This is his longest stay in Dubai – for 22 days, interacting with guests and overseeing his staff at the kitchen. He creates about dozen biryanis and an array of kebabs for the promotion. “These are things that most Arabs and other expats love of Indian cuisine,” he says.
Kalra feels biryanis have a history of abuse by cooks. “The trick is in layering the biryani and in taking it out. If you splash the biryani with a spatula, you will break the rice and destroy the biryani. An ideal biryani will have two colours of rice: White and saffron.”
As a food historian, Kalra feels Indian cuisine is not promoted as much as it should be outside the country. Indian food is not standardised abroad and “nobody is sure what they will get. I saw two British girls coming out of an Indian curry house with their fingers yellow with turmeric. For heaven’s sake, turmeric isn’t nail polish.”
Kalra says India failed to sell its cuisine properly. “In every Chinese and French embassy, there is a master chef who propagates the country’s cuisine. We don’t have that kind of patronage.”
The difficult part of documenting food for posterity, he says, is the difficulty in research.” You must spend your own money for the research. There is no foundation supporting you.”
While the West has a great institution of cooking, in India hotel management schools teach about taboo meats like beef instead of focusing on goat and fish, he says. “Indian food has a philosophy; it is a tradition of sharing. The thumb rule is that you have one dish more than the number of diners, and you share the dishes. It is a very family thing.”
Kalra therefore insists that every restaurant he opens has at least two or three tables for twelve, “where four generations of a family can come together.”
Indian food must be enjoyed as courses, insists Kalra. “You can’t simply put them all in one plate. Our food philosophy says to serve from fire to the thali; even the dining table is not part of our culture. India’s poet laureate Dr Rahi Masoom Raza, a dear friend, once said that a dining table is the autobiography of a culture. He is so right. Indian cuisine is not cut out to eat at dining tables. We picked it up from the British. We eat in the kitchen, seated down cross-legged.”
His dream restaurant will be one where food is served hot off the oven with different sherbets served between courses. “I am a traditionalist. I want to bring tradition back to Indian cuisine.” Kalra, in fact, was responsible in bringing cut-specific food to India. He opened a restaurant where dishes were made of a single cut so that no member of the family feels deprived. “If every member of the family gets an identical piece of vegetable or meat they will enjoy the food better.”
Kalra marvels at Indonesian cuisine as well as the Afro-American dishes served in Louisiana. Both employ chillies in abundance, which he says is the poor man’s spice. “More chilli ruins food. Your nose drips, you can’t smell and you stop enjoying the food.” For Kalra, therefore, it is green pepper corns, his favourite ingredient. He is careful about using mint for chutneys; he prefers corianders because “one downpour and the mint gets bitter. It is very seasonal.”
For Kalra, a good Indian meal, with all its diversity, will consist of kebabs from the north, curries from the south, a Hyderabadi biryani and sweets from Bengal.

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