A stellar meal in Bombay can come out of a Library or a Canteen, writes Vir Sanghvi

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 07, 2015 15:19 IST

Two trips to Bombay in one week. Hectic, but worth it. Both involved superior gastronomic experiences. And both had to do with individuals who have done a great deal for Indian food.

The first was for a party at Masala Library honouring Jiggs Kalra. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of people who know Jiggs: foodies, journos and his pals from the old days, and now, a new generation that recognises him because Jiggs has become a brand thanks to the success of Made in Punjab and Masala Library, both of which use his name.


The legend lives on: At Masala Library (above), Zorawar Kalra hosted a party for his father Jiggs. Nearly every foodie and restaurateur of consequence in Bombay turned up to honour him

My generation remembers the old Jiggs. He left Mayo a year or so before I joined but in my senior years at school, we were repeatedly informed by our teachers that the Jay Inder Singh Kalra who was the star writer at Khushwant Singh’s Illustrated Weekly (then India’s bestselling magazine) was a Mayo old boy. So, by the time I finally met Jiggs, many years after I left school and started doing a bit of writing myself, he was already a legend in my own mind.

In those days, Jiggs was hard to pin down. He was Khushwant Singh’s star protégé but he was also a budding food writer. In the Seventies, nobody wrote about food except for Behram Contractor and Jiggs, both of whom discovered interesting places for The Evening News (a Times publication, like the Weekly, now also deceased).

But because food was a side-line, Jiggs was despatched by Khushwant to do special assignments. In 1975/6 (the dark years of Emergency) when Khushwant transformed himself into a Sanjay Gandhi acolyte, Jiggs was packed off to Delhi from Bombay to help Maneka Gandhi run Surya, a glossy magazine she had started under Khushwant’s watchful eye. Jiggs liked Maneka but hated Delhi ("wretched city").

Nevertheless it was to become his home as he later moved from Surya to the HT where he worked for The Evening News (no relation to the Bombay paper except that it is now also defunct). At The Evening News, he started a restaurant column called Platter Chatter, which was probably the only such column in the capital.


Pink revolution: Jiggs Kalra had the bright idea of making a fish tikka with salmon, which now appears on menus around the world

It soon became clear though that ordinary journalism had begun to bore him and that food exerted a powerful fascination. He took to travelling around the country and discovering new chefs and little-known restaurants.

That launched him into food consultancy and he worked with several hotel groups and chefs. He collaborated extensively with the Taj’s great Arvind Saraswat and some of the results of that collaboration appear in the cookbook, Prasad.

He worked with the Delhi Hyatt at a time when imported ingredients had just begun to arrive in India and had the bright idea of making a fish tikka with imported salmon. In the process, he created a standard that now appears on many menus around the world.

His most memorable contributions came during his stint with ITC. At that stage, the Maurya already ran a very good Indian restaurant called Mayur, with Imtiaz Qureshi as chef. But Mayur lacked the glamour of say, the Taj’s Haveli and Handi, and Imtiaz was unknown outside of the ITC kitchen. ITC hired Jiggs to help with a new Indian restaurant, which ended up being called Dum Pukht.


There and back again: Bandra-born Floyd Cardoz, the culinary director of the company behind The Bombay Canteen (above), is a chef I’ve never met, but whose food I’ve always admired. He sprang to fame in New York in the late Nineties as the chef at Tabla Success has many fathers so I will not adjudicate between various claims as to the ownership of Dum Pukht’s innovations. I will only tell you when the restaurant first opened, it was Jiggs who took me there and claimed that Dum Pukht was a lost Avadhi cuisine rediscovered by ITC. Most people swallowed this claim.

In fact, steam-cooking and slow simmering were also the themes behind Handi, next door at the Taj Palace. But Jiggs sold the myth of Dum Pukht cuisine so successfully, that decades later, the brand endures while Handi is dead and forgotten. It was Jiggs who persuaded ITC to put Imtiaz in the ads and turned him into India’s first celebrity chef.

You don’t hear much about Jiggs in the context of Dum Pukht or any of the other success stories he was associated with largely because Jiggs had a way of falling out with chefs. He never claimed to be a chef himself but eventually the chefs began feeling that he was getting too much credit for their work. And yes, Jiggs can be a difficult man to deal with when he is in one of his dark moods.

But I think the basic problem was that Indian chefs had not come of age then. Nobody had ever written about them before and in the first flush of glory, they began to resent Jiggs whose role they saw (unfairly) as parasitic.

The idea of a food consultant who imagined dishes and suggested new directions had never been taught to the chefs at Pusa Road or Cadell Road and the more fame they got, the more they resented Jiggs. Why did they need him? They were the stars, not him!

Jiggs fell ill over a decade ago and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. That should have been the end of the story. Except that his son, Zorawar, has now turned into one of India’s most innovative restaurateurs and has faithfully named all his restaurants after his father (as in Jiggs Kalra’s Made In Punjab) even when they have little to do with Jiggs’ legacy. In the process, Jiggs has become a brand and found the kind of fame and financial security he never saw in his heyday.


(From left to right): The tacos use a vindaloo-inspired filling, but their greatest feature is the Gujarati methi theplas at the base (left); Cardoz gives Durban dish Bunny Chow Indian, African and Portuguese influences with a Goa sausage filling; perfectly fried eggs turn up as a topping for a Kheema Bheja Ghotala (right)

It was Zorawar who hosted a party at Masala Library for his father and nearly every foodie and restaurateur of consequence in Bombay turned up to honour him. Masala Library did the food, lots of champagne was consumed and Jiggs was in such sparkling form that you forgot he was still wheelchair-bound.

My other Bombay trip involved a chef I’ve never met, but whose food I’ve always admired. Floyd Cardoz sprang to fame in New York in the late Nineties as the chef at Tabla, a modern Indian restaurant owned by Danny Meyer who was then and is still the city’s top restaurateur.

Indians reacted badly to Tabla because it did not serve standard Indian food. Nor did it use many of the tricks pioneered by London’s Indian chefs: cook a lamb shank, put a rogan josh gravy below it, dress up the plate and make it all look French, for instance. But I loved it. I thought it took classic Indian flavours and recast them in a new setting. The Bread Bar downstairs, which was more casual, did food that was more conventionally Indian.

In New York terms, Tabla was way ahead of its time and when it eventually closed, Floyd did a variety of other things including winning Top Chef Masters with a dish that included upma. When I heard he was culinary director of the company that was opening The Bombay Canteen in Parel, I was excited but also, it must be said, a little sceptical.

By now, anything that references Bombay merely does a variation on paani puri or vada pao using newer cooking techniques and then claims to be an exemplar of modern Indian cuisine.

I was relieved to find that The Bombay Canteen aims to reflect the cosmopolitan ethos of the city rather than merely reinvent street food with spherification and liquid nitrogen. The menu is pan-Indian and genuinely creative.

The tacos use a vindaloo-inspired filling but their greatest feature is the Gujarati methi theplas that form the base. Bunny Chow is a staple of Durban’s Indian community, but in Floyd’s hands it becomes a glorious celebration of Indian, African and Portuguese influences with a delicious Goa sausage filling.

There are many north Indian and south Indian dishes too and the cooking and the ingredients are all first rate. I was particularly taken with eggs, perfectly fried with golden yolks that turn up as toppings in such dishes as the Kheema Bheja Ghotala.

I also liked the ambience. Sameer Seth, CEO of the company that owns The Bombay Canteen, says that they thought of an old Bombay bungalow when they designed the restaurant, with a seating area for proper meals and two verandahs where you can snack and drink all day.

What it comes off as is an informal, happy space where you will be greeted with the same warmth whether you order 15 dishes, as I did while checking out the menu, and pay nearly Rs 6,000 (service included) or just have the Eggs Kejriwal (the restaurant’s signature dish, I think) and a Thums Up for Rs 350 or so.

The restaurant is already hot and hip so my guess is that Floyd and Sameer should be planning on opening in Delhi next. They would destroy all the competition in Khan Market with this level of food and service, if they opened there.

From HT Brunch, March 8
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