When you get a call from the country’s best-known gourmet, you answer your phone at once, and snap to attention. When you get a call from a friend, you answer your phone, drop whatever you’re doing and make the time to break bread together. If the friend in question is the country’s best-known gourmet… well then, you’re one lucky ducky *insert smug smile.*
Jamavar at The Leela Palace recently showcased the cuisine of Mewar, Rajasthan in the form of a menu that the aforementioned gourmet/friend created through painstaking research into the history and culture of the region. He insisted that I sample the wares, and I gladly accepted.
The Man Behind The Name
J. Inder Singh Kalra, better known as “Jiggs”, has been called many things – “India’s Culinary Ambassador”; “L’enfant Terrible of Indian Cuisine”; “Celebrated Gastronome”; and even some unprintables. I first met Jiggs a couple of years ago, when I interviewed him for the now-defunct Taste and Travel magazine. We hit it off like a house on fire. Since then, we have indulged in several long-distance, food-centric conversations. It is always a pleasure to spend time with him.
If you can get past the sobriquets, Jiggs is – over and above anything else – a good human being. That alone, in my book, is worth a zillion bucks. Add to that a great sense of humor; a steel-trap memory; a gentlemanly manner with a (mostly harmless) bitchy streak; and, of course, an unsurpassed knowledge of, and passion for our culinary heritage, and it’s easy to see why people still have a healthy respect for anything that carries his name.
The Cuisine of Mewar
I arrived at Jamavar, Vacuum Cleaner in tow, to find Jiggs seated with The Leela Palace’s Executive Chef Rudolf Eichle . Several hugs and affectionately-traded insults later, we found ourselves discussing our respective bloodlines (my mother is a Rajput; Jiggs claims descent from suryavansh; therefore, we must be related) as Chef Rudolf watched bemusedly.
The conversation inevitably turned to food. If they think of Rajasthani food at all, most people remain unaware of its regional variances.
From a culinary perspective, the Mewar region is distinctly different from other parts of the state in two respects: one, because it’s a lake region, people consume a lot of fish, mostly of the freshwater variety; and two, they consume corn (makkai) rather than millet (bajra).
As Vacuum Cleaner clicked away with abandon (his job description for the afternoon was “photographer”; I thought it appropriate that he sing for his supper), Jiggs ordered a Sooley Kebab sampler for us. A trio of kebabs soon appeared: one each of fish, chicken, and kid (no, not the human variety). Jiggs was very excited about the last-mentioned because it had been tenderized with kaachri (bot.: cucumis pubescens), a wild variety of cucumber that looks like a gherkin. Dried kaachri is used as a tenderizer and souring agent, and added a definite flavor component to the meat.
As I inhaled the smoky aroma of our delicately spiced chhaas (buttermilk), I tried not to show my lack of enthusiasm for the impending arrival of the main attraction – Rajasthan’s famed dal-baati-churma. For one thing, I feel that this dish receives more attention than it’s worth; for another, it is rustic tribal food, and I associate Rajasthani cuisine with royal kitchens and rich ingredients.
Baati, Jiggs explained to us, were perfect for nomadic desert tribes and marauding armies alike. Both would carry wheat flour on their journeys, kneading and shaping little balls as needed, and burying them into heated pits to bake. When done, these were softened with ghee, sweetened with churma (crumbled, unleavened flatbread of wheatflour, ghee, and jaggery) and eaten with dal.
The dal-baati-churma served at Jamavar was outstanding. Jiggs instructed us to quarter our baatis, drench them in ghee, dip them in dal, then sprinkle with churma. The ensuing medley of textures and flavors belied the humble origins of the preparation.
Next, we sampled four entrees – Laal Maas; Murgh Ka Mokul; Gatte Ki Sabzi; and Ker Sangri – with corn as well as multigrain parathas.
Laal maas, like dal-baati-churma, gets too much attention, and is often badly prepared. Luckily, this was not so at Jamavar. In Mewar and other regions of Rajasthan, the fiery curry is prepared using Tonk chillies, which impart a sharp, smoky flavor and the characteristic crimson color to the dish. The Murgh Ka Mokul was a bit blah in comparison.
This was one of those rare occasions when the vegetarian dishes stole the show. Ker Sangri originated as a subsistence dish during times of famine, prepared from wild berries and long beans that grow in the arid Thar desert of Rajasthan. The dried berries of the ker tree (bot.: capparis decidua) resemble capers, and are tangy and peppery. When seasoned with spices and fried together with the long bean pods of the sangri tree (bot.: prosopis cineraria), the result is one of those “I’ve-never-tasted-anything-like-that-before” moments that, in my experience, are only possible with truly indigenous foods.
Gatte ki Sabzi isn’t a “vegetable” dish at all. Gatte are boiled gram flour dumplings; these are served in a seasoned yogurt-based gravy. In Jamavar’s version, the gatte are prepared as a log instead of as individual dumplings, and the yogurt gravy is flavored with tomatoes. The gatte were soft and spongy – someone had used a light hand while kneading the dough – and the gravy was mild enough to enhance rather than overwhelm the nutty flavor and earthy aroma of the gram flour. Delectable.
Somewhere along the way, Chef Rudolf disappeared for a while. When he returned, he had with him a huge bag of a cumin-like spice he called “kümmel”. “What is this in your language?” he wanted to know. “Is it available locally?” Jiggs and I peered, prodded, sniffed at, and tasted it – it was very like cumin (only black), until you bit into it, at which point it released a very different flavor. The Germans use it to flavor pork, we were told. My guess was ajwain, or Bishopsweed. Jiggs got it right in one – caraway. We call it – imaginatively – vilayati jeera (foreign cumin).
Jiggs insisted that we end the meal with mini-portions of ghevar, an obscenely rich, delicately filigreed Rajasthani sweetmeat. The minute the ghevar arrived at the table, my arteries clogged in protest. This is made with just three key ingredients: flour, ghee, and sugar syrup. Jamavar chose to top it with saffron, silver vark, pistachio nuts, and almonds, and a swirl of rabri (sweetened condensed milk).
I’d arrived for this meal expecting the food to be incidental; my agenda was to hang out with Jiggs, the man, not Jiggs Kalra the gourmet. I left feeling torn: which had I enjoyed more – the food, or the company? The food. The company. Thefoodthecompanythefoodthecompany… Oh well. All I can say is that if you ever have the opportunity to sample Mewari cuisine, you should – unhesitatingly. Especially if Jiggs has had anything to do with it.