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Food for thought and the tummy

Not perhaps until Jiggs Kalra arrived on the scene did journalism realise that food columns meant serious business. Apart from being a trendsetter, he is also committed to Indian cookery.

Kalra: Nation's tastemaker

KHUSHWANT SINGH describes Jigs Kalra as "the tastemaker to the nation" and "a connoisseur of Indian food". And for Kalra these are accolades he cherishes. Mr. Kalra, the man with a number of firsts to his credit, was in the City recently for the launch of Moksh, a pan-Indian restaurant at The Chancery. His company, Bawarchi Tolla, conceptualised the menu for the restaurant. Mr. Kalra learnt the finer nuances of writing from Khushwant Singh at Khushwant's School of Journalism, and to this day remains indebted for the excellent training that was imparted to him. He began his career with The Illustrated Weekly of India, where he worked for 12 years. In 1972 he was given the responsibility of writing a restaurant column in the Evening News in Mumbai. The column was thefirst of its kind. And throughout his writing career, Mr. Kalra has followed one principle strictly - "Appraise but do not criticise."

The columns that followed were Platter Chatter, the first restaurant column in Delhi, and The Weekend Review for the Hindustan Times. The flourish of his pen had the ability to decide the future of a restaurant, but he never took that liberty.

Mr. Kalra wrote all his columns with Pushpesh Pant, an ayurvedic expert. The only book that this firm believer in teamwork wrote was Prashad, a book on Indian cooking, and this because, he was hurt by the comments, people abroad made about Indian food.

In 1980 his wife was down with encephalitis and had to be treated in the United States. There he heard people say: "All Indian food is the same." Mr. Kalra was shocked to hear this. This prompted him to go on a visit to all the Indian restaurants. To his utter disappointment, all Indian dishes tasted the same. " We had so much to give to the world in terms of cuisine, but we lacked standard."

That was what drove him to write the book. He spent all his waking moments and everything he had saved up to write Prashad.

Mr. Kalra also has to his credit the first-ever television series on cooking, Daawat. He has also worked on Zaike ka Safar, a foodologue on Zee TV.

A natural progression from this saw him create his organisation Bawarchi Tolla, which means "Cook's Abode". If its track record is anything to go by, it definitely is the best in the business. And the Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, will also vouch for it. When Mr. Vajpayee had to host a dinner for the Malaysian Prime Minister in Kualalumpur he looked towards the legendary chef to deliver. Mr. Kalra delivered and how?

The menu, he worked on, had the taste of India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The floor operations were managed by his son, Marut Sikka. When Pervez Musharraf came down to India, it was Mr. Kalra again who took care of the banquets. Bawarchi Tolla trains chefs, conceptualises menus for restaurants, and executes menus.

The group firmly believes in seasonal menus and works closely with hakims and vaidyas to create spicy combinations keeping the weather in mind: an approach that is gradually gaining popularity.

A passion and love for food has seen Mr. Kalra move from a food critic to food consultant extraordinaire.

Ask him what his favourite Indian cuisine and pat comes the reply. "Not fair. Would you ever ask a mother who her favourite child is?"


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