The other Kejriwal
Does Arvind Kejriwal lay eggs? Yes, I know it is a silly question but you would be amazed by how many variations on that theme I have heard over the last few years. The question stems from the new-found popularity of a fairly old dish: Eggs Kejriwal.
If you live in Mumbai, you may or may not have heard of Eggs Kejriwal (I grew up in Mumbai and had never heard of the dish, by the way, for most of my life). It was invented apparently at the Willingdon Club, one of the city’s most exclusive (in the post-Independence period) clubs.
During the Raj, Indians were not allowed to enter the top clubs in every city. So any Indian would have been turned away at the gate of the Bombay Gymkhana (by another Indian, happy to work as a lackey for his British masters). Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata was sent back from the gate of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club for the crime of having a brown skin though he was a knight of the realm. Jamsetji vowed to build a grand hotel that would eclipse the Yacht Club, then the city’s most exclusive spot. Which, of course, he did when the Taj opened.
When Lord Willingdon was Governor of Bombay in 1917, he tried to take a Maharaja to dinner at the Bombay Gym and the Yacht Club only to be told that while his Excellency was most welcome, the brown fellow would have to eat somewhere else. A more decent and decisive governor would have forced the top clubs to end the colour bar, but old Willingdon took a different approach. Why not open another club where the white sahibs could mingle on equal (oh well; more or less equal) terms with the natives? And so, in 1918, he opened the Willingdon Club (named, modestly, after the great man himself) where Indians were allowed entry.
Over the post Independence years, as pressure forced the Bombay Gym, the Yacht Club (and eventually, even the notorious Breach Candy Club) to let Indians in, the Willingdon lost its special cachet. But its membership consisted of descendants of some of Bombay’s top families, people whose ancestors had been rich and successful in the days when Mahatma Gandhi was still in jail.
Many of the members came from old Parsi and Muslim families (among the builders of Bombay before it became Mumbai). And the Willingdon has always had a fair number of bania/vania members from rich Gujarati and Marwari families.
Many of these members lived in joint families and ate satvik food cooked by maharajs in their mansions. But when they felt like a drink or a bite of something more daring, they scampered off to the Willingdon or later, to such Bombay restaurants as The Other Room at the Ambassador. Most of these rich Gujaratis and Marwaris were not averse to a Scotch or two. Some wanted special dishes made for them (for years, The Other Room kept a Chunni Cutlet on the menu, for a rich patron called Chunnibhai) and often they hungered for something expressly forbidden at home.
Obviously meat was no-no at bania/vania mansions. But so were eggs. The story goes (and I warn you that it might be apocryphal) that a rich merchant called Devi Prasad Kejriwal would go to the Willingdon for his daily egg-and-toast. But because the food of the white sahibs could be a little boring, Mr. Kejriwal got the club’s cooks to tart up
Thus was born Eggs Kejriwal. It consisted of a slice of toasted pao bread (some versions of the story say that it was plain white bread) some grated cheese (probably Kraft from tins; there was no Amul in those days) topped by a fried egg (or two eggs) with a garnish of chillis and kothmir (coriander).
Long after the original Mr. Kejriwal has been forgotten, the Willingdon Club continues to serve Eggs Kejriwal as a sort of sad and weak-kneed Indian response to Eggs Benedict (invented by Delmonico’s in New York for a rich patron using bread, eggs, Hollandaise and a slice of bacon) as a signature dish.
I doubt if Eggs Kejriwal would have travelled very far from the tables of the Willingdon if it hadn’t been for Arvind Kejriwal. When Thomas Zacharias, Floyd Cardoz, and the rest of the team were putting together the menu at the soon-to-be-opened The Bombay Canteen, Arvind Kejriwal was in the news every day. Somebody remembered that the Willingdon had a dish called Kejriwal and wondered if they could do something witty with it.
Sameer Seth, one of the partners at The Bombay Canteen, told me the story. They had been working on a dish which never made it to the menu, and the chef, Thomas Zacharias (or Chef Zach as he is called by nearly everyone) had come up with a green chilli chutney that was terrific. They looked for uses for the chutney and thought that perhaps they could combine it with Eggs Kejriwal. There were some brioche rounds in the kitchen and they had the bright idea of throwing out the pao (or Britannia white bread, depending on which Willingdon recipe you prefer) and replacing it with brioche. They kept the grated processed cheese, used high-quality eggs, retained the chilly and kothmir garnish but elevated the dish with Zach’s chutney which gave it a zing that the boring Willingdon Club original sadly lacked.
According to Sameer, they put it on the menu when they opened the restaurant in 2015 because they thought the name Kejriwal would provoke some curiosity. The Bombay Canteen changes its menus regularly so they believed that Eggs Kejriwal would be a novelty item on the first menu and would disappear after a few weeks. But Sameer and his partners were staggered by the response. It became one of the fastest moving items on the menu and critics loved it. (I said at the time that it would become “the restaurant’s signature dish” on these pages.) Though the Canteen menu has been overhauled regularly, Eggs Kejriwal is one of the few dishes that they have never removed.
Marut Sikka opened his Delhi Club House with the idea of recreating the great dishes of Indian club cuisine.
It was not a concept I loved (as you can probably tell from the sneering tone of this piece, I have no time for clubs that restrict admission on the basis of ‘social acceptability’ or colour; and am a member of none of these so-called elite clubs) and in any case, club food has no great reputation for quality.
Marut started out by putting akuri on the menu to represent the egg dishes of clubland but now, even the Club House has its own version of Eggs Kejriwal. Like Zach, Marut was impressed by the idea behind the Willingdon Club dish but not overly pleased with the Willingdon’s execution. He uses his own kind of brioche as the base for the eggs. A spicy chutney, while not the same as Zach’s (which, with its coconut oil, is vaguely Malayali), is used to perk up the dish. It remains one of the Delhi Club House’s bestsellers and that’s no mean feat given that the rest of the food at the restaurant is of such high quality.
Both Zach and Marut have had the same basic idea. There are some interesting dishes out there in clubland but most of them work better as ideas than they do as complete dishes. A talented chef will take these ideas, use top-quality ingredients and convert boring dishes into gourmet classics.
The secret of The Bombay Canteen’s re-invention of Eggs Kejriwal lies in the quality of the bread and, more significantly, with the tasty, top-quality, orange-yolked eggs that Zach uses in his kitchen. So it is with the club dishes on Marut’s menu: none of them ever tasted this good in the hands of club cooks.
Which takes us back to Lord Willingdon and Arvind Kejriwal. I am not one of those rename-everything maniacs but I do find it offensive to celebrate anything with Willingdon’s name on it. At one stage, all kinds of places in Delhi were named after Willingdon and his pushy wife, from Willingdon Airfield (now Safdarjung Airport) to Lady Willingdon Park (now Lodhi Garden) to Willingdon Hospital (now RM Lohia Hospital).
And as for Arvind Kejriwal, I know that the dish has nothing to do with him. But is there a lesson for him in its popular revival? Take the basic idea and start all over again with higher quality ingredients and more imagination?
It’s a formula that may work in politics too.
From HT Brunch,September 10, 2017
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