The late Jiggs Kalra, who died in 2019 and whose full name was Jaspal Inder Singh Kalra, was a great promoter of Indian cuisine. He started his career as a journalist and that morphed into food writing, which then led to consulting for restaurants and hotels, writing cookbooks and hosting television programmes, including Daawat (“Banquet”).
The recipes Kalra presented on the show were not his own; rather, he invited chefs from all over India to “showcase the fabulous culinary heritage of India”, writes Pushpesh Pant in the long but entertaining introduction to Jiggs Kalra’s Daawat: The Television Series (2001). Pant, an Indian academic (in international relations and other subjects), television producer and historian who has written several cookbooks of his own (including 2010’s India: The Cookbook and 2018’s The Indian Vegetarian Cookbook), worked with Kalra on Daawat, which aired in 1991 over 32 episodes showing four recipes at a time.
It wasn’t easy being the pioneer of India’s first cooking show, as Pant writes in the book. “For Jiggs, this [television programme] was the natural sequel to his magnum opus, Prashad , that in print had arranged a wonderful encounter with Indian cooking masters for thousands of readers at home and abroad […] For Pushpesh, familiar with the mise en scène of filmmaking, it was an exciting initiation into the world of mise en place. Both of us were well aware of the complexity of the task. Our work would have to pass the test of two disciplines – video infotainment and gastronomy.
“The crew assigned to us had to grapple with problems of its own. They were veterans of many a creative battle – tested and tried in recording ballets, talk shows, quizzes and live OBs [outdoor broadcasts], plays, serials, and national programmes of music, but were strangers to the world of golden hued sautéed onions and aromatically crackling cumin seeds. They voiced their apprehensions candidly – on this show food was the star.
A page from Daawat by Jiggs Kalra. Photo: Jonathan Wong
“The cameras had to be positioned accordingly. Ditto for mikes to catch the fleeting sizzle and bubbling boil. How to balance this with the sparkle in the eyes of the peppy anchor and the magic fingers of the dexterous craftsmen?
“The chefs, wonderful cooks they may be, could not all be interestingly articulate. Not used to working in the glare of the spotlights they may become frozen-faced. How were we going to cope with this? Others had more prosaic, but crucial for the show, questions – like where would the water from the sink drain out on the set?”
When they finally sorted out the technical problems and started filming, they then had to contend with strong personalities – including their own. “Used to unquestioning obedience from their kitchen brigade, quite a few chefs, we realised, had become a bit like the doctors: ‘I am always right, how dare you dispute my dispensations?’ At the same time the shooting made us aware of our own not-always-charming foibles.
“The journalist in Jiggs was forever stealing a march over them and leaving them speechless with scoops – discovery of a forgotten grandmaster in the by-lanes of some obscure town, source of a rare ingredient, a lost recipe, scientific corroboration of his intuition. And the teacher in Pushpesh could not be left behind – the temptation was there all the time to correct mistakes, lecture long – burdening all and sundry with scholarly footnotes and cross-references.”
The recipes are arranged by episode, and showcase Indian cuisine in all its varied glory. They include kid/lamb kofta stuffed with dried plums in spinach gravy, pan-grilled spinach patties stuffed with nutty cottage cheese, Bengali fish in mustard-laced yogurt gravy, stuffed morels in saffron gravy, cottage cheese croquettes rolled in sesame seeds, oysters in velvety coconut gravy, quails marinated and cooked in pomegranate, coriander and mint chutney, stir-fried chicken and bitter gourd pies, and saffron-tinged yogurt cheese strudel.
A recipe from Jiggs Kalra’s Daawat – the Television Series. Photo: Jonathan Wong