From kalonji to caviar
Jiggs Kalra is to Indian cuisine what Marie Antoine-Carême is to French. If Carême taught the world about five French mother sauces,66-year-old Kalra can be credited with teaching budding chefs the finer nuances of Indian gravies. Talks to the czar of Indian cuisine, who is now changing the way we look at traditional Indian food with his restaurants, Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra in Mumbai and Farzi Café in Gurgaon
You have given our food industry 40 years of your life. What key changes have you observed in the way food was perceived back then to now? Apart from an audience with deeper pockets.
The dining trends in the past five to six years, globally, have seen a revolution of sorts. Restaurateurs and chefs have been pushing boundaries incorporating modern culinary techniques, cooking styles and presentation to add to avant-garde dining experiences across
cuisines, especially Indian, which was not only distorted but was also stuck in the 1980s for a very long time. This, in my opinion, is only going to get bigger. This is the time for Indian cuisine to finally take centre stage on a global platform, which has been long overdue.
When avant-garde Indian eateries do well in a foreign country, it’s easy to digest. But you have been able to create a mark within the country itself. This can be tough considering the audience knows traditional recipes by heart. Why do you think Farzi Café and Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra still made a mark?
That’s very kind of you to say, thank you. To answer your question, I believe we have become more aware about dining out now than ever before. When you have spent your life eating the same food three times a day, every day, there is a sense of monotony that seeps in.
With our concept Made in Punjab, we played with the modern presentation of traditional dishes. With Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra and Farzi Café, we reintroduced traditional Indian cuisine. We added a bit of theatrics and fun to the Indian dining experience, retaining the essence of each dish which worked in our favour.
What is the key difference between food served at progressive Indian restaurants aboard like Rasoi or Dishoom and Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra and Farzi Café?
Our focus is on using local produce and modern culinary techniques to create authentic cuisine. While for restaurants overseas, they have to cater to diners in their region of operation, using ingredients available to them. So I don’t think it’s fair to compare.
If you were to open a Masala Library or Farzi Café in London, Dubai or New York – how would your menu be different? We do have plans to expand to each of these regions, starting off with Dubai soon. Our endeavour has always been towards offering authentic Indian cuisine. So we will continue to focus on true Indian flavours.
After modernisation, what is the next big thing that will hit the Indian food industry?
The trend which I see picking up pace is the use of molecular gastronomy in Indian cuisine. Also, there will be more focus on the use of fresh, organic local produce and regional cuisines.
According to you, what are the unexpolored Indian cusines that must be tapped into and why?
Regional Indian cuisine has a lot to offer, but sadly it hasn’t been showcased much. Irrespective of which region, province or tribe it comes from, it has its own strength and uniqueness. It is just a question of time that restaurants in India and even overseas start offering regional Indian menus.
When modernising a recipe to create a new dish, when does fusion become confusion? What is the key to maintain authenticity?
Before we proceed further, we need to first clarify the generic and misuse of the word ‘fusion’. It is widely believed that whenever you mix two things together it is considered ‘fusion’. While that may be theoretically correct, there is a thin demarcation between fusion cuisine and the concept of progressive cuisine.
For instance, fusion cuisine combines elements of various dining traditions while not fitting specifically into any and has been in existence for many years.
Whereas progressive cuisine focuses on preparing and serving traditional cuisine, using modern culinary techniques showcasing the food in a whole new avatar. It is also a relatively new concept.
You had a food column at one point. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of food writing in the country today?
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, food writing wasn’t prevalent at all. In fact, I was the first to have an opportunity to commence writing on food and restaurants. Till not so long ago, opinions were shared as a firsthand account with close friends and colleagues.
However, today, with the dawn of technology and numerous platforms that have come up, these opinions are shared with the world.
As a restaurateur though, I think it is extremely important to be aware of these opinions, which only enable us to take cognizance of the areas of improvement. As a former journalist, I feel it is equally important for these voices to be cautious of what they are writing, who is reading them, and most importantly, the impact it has on the establishment in question.
It is essential for us to act responsibly and not misuse the opportunity, while being a little empathetic towards the efforts being put in by a number of people who work hard, day and night.
You have said in an interview that you have an emotional bond with food. What irks you the most in terms of food served at restaurants, and what pleases you the most?
Simplicity with a dash of panache is something that I quite like personally. What irks me is when someone tries too hard to please, while forgetting that there is a lot of class in simplicity.
An average teenager today wants to learn how to make risotto, but few are trying to carry forward the fine art of pounding spices the right way or making pickles. As a food connoisseur and a master chef, are you doing anything in order to preserve these treasures or lure youngsters to carry these forward?
We have not presented our cuisine like the Chinese or Italians have. The perception that Indian food has had over the years is that it’s too heavy, with the use of fat and spices. It has never been
considered ‘cool’. With all restaurant concepts that we own, we are endeavouring to change that perception. Our aim is to bring in a sense of pride for our cuisine amongst the youth and introduce a cool quotient to it.
Lastly, the five ingredients your kitchen is incomplete without are…
Salt, red chilli powder, haldi, garam masala and ghee.