He became famous for promoting little-known Indian chefs, converting Indian culinary tradition into haute cuisine, and there was little he did not know about north Indian kitchens. But Jaspal Inder Singh “Jiggs” Kalra spent his early adulthood with some unusual food.
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When Kalra died in 2019, the journalist Bikram Vohra wrote about how he often ate sardines and baked beans for breakfast and served fish paste on Monaco biscuits as canapés at parties in the flat the two shared for seven years on Mumbai’s Altamount Road. Those parties attracted Bollywood stars, models, air hostesses and sundry famous people.
Kalra’s story has faded somewhat in this age of cloud kitchens, home-delivered food, star chefs and the pandemic. I narrate it because I hope to gradually explore the culinary legacy of some of those who made us aware of our heritage.
Kalra, like Vohra, was also a journalist, and they both cut their reporting teeth during the 1971 war while working at The Illustrated Weekly Of India, edited with verve by Khushwant Singh, whom Kalra regarded as his guru. In later years, because of his close association with food, Kalra was mistakenly famous for being a chef, but he never trained as one, learning the basics in his mother’s kitchen.
Kalra wrote about and promoted regional Indian food. His special fondness was the food of Awadh, with an emphasis on dum pukht—steam-driven slow cooking. “Mr Kalra wrote about innovative restaurants, unusual ingredients and new and old techniques in Indian cuisine,” noted a 2019 New York Times obituary.
His most famous book was Prashad: Cooking With Indian Masters (1986, Allied Publishers), which he called “a celebration of the best in Indian cooking”. That is hard to accept for someone like me, who regards the best Indian food as coming from east of Kolkata. Nevertheless, the cuisines he introduced to us eventually went national and global to the point where even local biryani cloud kitchens down south today seal their handis dum style.
Prashad (offering) expanded my culinary horizons in the late 1990s, a period when, like Kalra in his early years, my home in Delhi was a revolving door for friends and their friends seeking food, booze and raucous companionship. There were no models or famous people but many of the friends I made then have lingered—even if they do not remember the deal I offered them: dinner’s always available but wash your damned plates.
Showcasing recipes of the “grand old men”—they were all men—of north Indian restaurants, Prashad came into my life in 1996, at a time when my repertoire was limited to sausage masala, kheema, barbequed meats and Konkan fish curry. It opened up an unfamiliar world of not just dum cooking but pounded spices, slow-cooked gravies and exotic Awadhi cuisine: Khuroos-e-Tursh (chicken spiced with saffron and black cumin), Adh-e-Changezi (leg of lamb in a peppery gravy) and Firdaus-e-Barein (meatballs stuffed with sunflower seeds and raisins, simmered in a gravy).
It was Prashad that allowed me to turn out my first serious vegetarian entrée for my then girlfriend—and now wife—who I learnt to my consternation was, well, vegetarian. With great fanfare, I made makai khumb, a gravy of mushroom head and corn. She liked it, she said, all starry eyed. Only years later, when the stars receded somewhat, did she confess to not liking mushrooms.
The fonts, photographs and layout used in Prashad have the visual appeal of a school textbook. Actually, that’s not true. Textbooks look better. Yet, you will find it in bookshops, design unchanged, holding its own with Nigella Lawson and Sanjeev Kapoor.
Among the dum pukht options Kalra wrote about, one of my favourites was a fenugreek chicken. It uses dried kasuri methi, or dried fenugreek, the best of which, he tells us, comes from Qasur in Pakistan. I reprised the dish after nearly two decades and I am happy to report it is as appealing as ever, a pleasure to cook and a delight to present, after carefully peeling off the dough that seals in the juices and flavours. The recipes in Prashad, writes Kalra, “are not the usual restaurant fayre (sic), where it is not unusual to sacrifice the palate to please the eye”. I think he may have got that wrong.
For the marination
Half kg chicken
Half cup yogurt
(Whisk yogurt, add salt and immerse the chicken in this marinade for at least an hour.)
Whole spices: 2 green cardamoms, 1 black cardamom, 2 cloves, half-inch stick cinnamon, 1 bay leaf, a small pinch of mace
2 onions, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
One-and-a-half tbsp garlic, finely chopped
One-and-a-half tbsp ginger, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, juliennes
2 green chillies, deseeded
Quarter tsp turmeric + half tsp red chilli powder, dissolved in a little water
2 tbsp kasuri methi
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
2 tbsp ghee
Heat ghee in a handi or vessel that can be sealed easily, add whole garam masala and sauté over medium heat until it crackles. Add and sauté onions until golden brown. Add garlic, ginger and green chillies and sauté for a minute.. Add dissolved turmeric and red chilli and stir in. Add tomatoes and sauté until the oil leaves the masala. Add the marinated chicken with marinade and half a cup of water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until the chicken is almost cooked. Adjust seasoning if required. Sprinkle ginger juliennes, kasuri methi and coriander and cover with a lid. Seal the handi with atta (dough) and put on dum in a preheated oven at 250 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11
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