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Jaspal who? Just Jiggs

If you are happy in the kitchen, the outcome cannot be anything but outstanding, says the master chef



Jiggs Kalra makes a point — Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

IF MANMOHAN Singh ever came hungry to Jiggs Kalra, what would he whip up for the fulfilment of the Prime Minister? "For the asli Punjab da puttar that he is, I would go back to our roots and dish up an elaborate three-course."

"Instead of kebabs, I would give him Batti ka murgh, followed by some curries and bread. I would begin with Amristari Machhi and Amritsari Kulcha that would bring a sense of déjà vu for him, as Amritsar is where his family chose to settle down after Partition. In the second course, I would advise him some Murgh Mardaan Malaiwala, Tadke wali daal or dahi, Paneer Bhurjee and Bharta (which he is profoundly fond of), and finally some Shikampuri Pulao — from the royal house of Patiala, which is flavoured-rice and chicken-breast full of goodies.

"I would make some Lehsun-burrani to go along with the rice. He will have bowls of it, I am sure, to digest the rice. The last part will have Shahi rabri, Malpua and advice to eat only as much Rabri as he can absorb."

Then again, Jiggs would like it most if Dr. Singh refused this stately meal and went on a Saatvik aahar instead. "After all, my responsibility to ensure good health of the customer is paramount and takes precedence over my pleasure of whipping up a hearty meal. At 72, none, not even the Prime Minister should be eating a full stomach."

Overseeing the ongoing Punjabi food festival at Firdaus in Taj Krishna, he rues, "We are, above all, a fat nation who've always loved to eat," adding, "Only recently, Indians have realised the importance of eating right. The Prime Minister has taken care of his health, it is important if he has to take care of a food-crazy nation, like ours."

Sardar soldiers on

This is Jiggs Kalra's first food festival since the massive stroke he suffered four years ago that has left him paralysed on his left side. Bash on regardless (coined by Field Marshal Manekshaw) being the dictum he lives by, the Sardar soldiers on — confident that by mid-March he will be up and doing.

"It is traumatic when a Sikh who's been tying a turban since eight years of age, cannot tie it any longer by himself. My Taj is gone, I have to make do with a cap, you see," he says with childlike innocence. Well, he already looks upbeat in red Reebok-sneakers and a white Crocodile tee shirt as he goes around on wheel chair, giving instructions to chefs about the balance that need to be maintained in the different ingredients that make Butter chicken. What, after all, is life on earth without Butter chicken?

Bend it like him

Jiggs says, "Life would have been as before. And Butter chicken, for your information, is the lowest common denominator of Punjabi cuisine. It is an aberration restaurateurs cannot do away with, owing to its huge popularity with people, who are not particularly Punjabis. Murgh Mardaan Malaiwala is far superior composition than that." A dead bird tells no tales, and Jiggs Kalra does not tell stories.

"Since my Illustrated Weekly days, my guru Khushwant Singh, for whom I am what I am, always used to tell me to adhere to the truth. The rest will fall in place by default," he says.

Six books, three textbooks and five restaurants in four years, Jiggs, by his own admission, couldn't have done any better even if he wasn't paralysed. "God has been kind to me. That is what my guru keeps saying, Khalsa Chadi Kala Viche Re."

Photographs of every god under the sun adorn his bed stand, which brings us to a query whether it is a god-given quality to be a great cook. "My father, Brigadier Kalra, could tell from the smell of the subzi about the vintage of the ghee used.

And my mother's record of being the best Army-housewife cook for several years successively is yet to be beaten. Cooking is only a state of mind, if you are happy — the outcome is outstanding. I understood that my happiness lay in being a domestic cook than a glorified clerk in the U.K. at 17 pounds a week, which was one of my first jobs."

One final question, what was Jiggs Kalra born as? "Jaspal Inder Singh Kalra who did not have a beard," he says matter-of-factly, quickly adding, "Jiggs was the result of a time-honoured tradition of public schools to have nicknames for all newcomers. Mayo, and subsequently, St. Xavier's, Kolkata, stuck to that ritual, in my case."

"But just Jiggs is how I would like to be remembered as, you see what I mean," he smiles and moves to a corner table to enquire if diners have any complaints against the food. If one said something's not great, it is not charged for. That's Jiggs.

SOUVIK CHOWDHURY

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