Remembering Jiggs Kalra with Vermicelli Pudding

Remembering Jiggs Kalra with Vermicelli Pudding

What could a celebrated gastronome and a college graduate talk about? Reethika Singh remembers the iconic Jiggs Kalra as a man whose body of work was larger than life, but remained disarmingly warm in every personal interaction.

Sevian wasn’t what I had planned to make for Eid. I already had figs soaking in honey for a refined-sugar-free festive dessert. But when I heard the news, I found myself walking to the bookshelf to pick out the cookbook I’d been gifted almost two decades ago. I looked at the note scribbled by the author on a page that was now a pale shade of ivory. It took me back in time to the summer of 2000. As student liaison for the Memphis In May festival, honouring India, I was in charge of escorting chef Jiggs Kalra who was flying in from New Delhi with his team. A bit in awe, I wondered what a recent graduate and a celebrated gastronome would talk about. But his easygoing demeanour and effortless charm put me at immediate ease. We talked about everything, from the nuances of Indian cuisine to the ingredients of barbecue sauce.

The icons of my youth are slipping away, and suddenly, I feel old. As I leafed through the book, I came upon this recipe. And I decided to replicate it, in the memory of a gentleman whom I had the opportunity to get to know. Our last meeting was a few years ago when he was in town to curate a Punjabi food menu. Over dinner, we chatted about Memphis and Delhi and food and the years that had passed. Articulate and witty as always, he was now in a wheelchair, and frailer than I remembered. His beard and whiskers had greyed, but his generous smile still curved upward to meet the twinkle in his eyes. The figs could wait.

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J. Inder Singh Kalra, popularly known as Jiggs Kalra, was a columnist, travel author, gastronome and food consultant whose career spanned close to five decades. He was instrumental in putting Indian cuisine on the global culinary map. But perhaps his greatest contribution was to chronicle traditional Indian recipes, particularly from the regions of Punjab and Awadh. “It is our hope that this quest for perfect — and standardised — recipes would clear any lingering doubts about Indian cuisine,” he wrote in the preface of his bestseller Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters (1986, Allied Publishers).

Jiggs Kalra authored over 11 books on Indian cuisine and was the first Asian to be inducted in the prestigious International Food and Beverage Gourmet Hall of Fame. He was also a part of many Indian diplomatic contingents serving royalty like Princess Diana, Prince Charles, and Heads of States like Bill Clinton. As guide and culinary director of Massive Restaurants, he conceptualised a chain of award winning restaurants including Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, Made in Punjab, Farzi Café, Pa Pa Ya and Bo-Tai.

I called in for supplies. Golden vermicelli was fried in ghee and simmered in milk redolent with cardamom and sweetened with sugar. Although the sevian was not hand-twirled, there were no healthy substitutions attempted (he would not have approved). This sevian recipe has been adapted from his book “Prashād; Cooking with Indian Masters.”

Remembering Jiggs Kalra with Vermicelli Pudding

Sevian (Vermicelli Pudding)

5 cups whole milk
60 gms sevian (vermicelli)
2/3 cup ghee
3 tbsp almonds, blanched and slivered
2 tbsp pistachios, blanched and slivered
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup raisins
6 green cardamom pods
A few drops kewra (screwpine)

Heat ghee in a kadhai/wok, fry the raisins until golden, then drain and set aside.
Add the sevian into the hot ghee and roast over medium heat, stirring gently until golden brown. Drain and set aside.
De-seed the cardamom, discard the skin and pound the seeds into a powder.
Boil the milk in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the fried sevian. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring until the milk is reduced by half.
Add the sugar and continue to stir until it dissolves.
Reserve a tablespoon of the nuts. Add the rest to the sevian along with the fried raisins and ground cardamom and simmer for 5 more minutes.
Turn off the heat. Stir in the kewra and serve hot or cold garnished with slivered almonds and pistachios.

Reethika Singh is a home baker , blogger and chef. You can follow her on Instagram.