We all know Punjabi food! Can life ever be complete without butter chicken or ‘dal makhani’?! Food has a special significance in Punjab; it is considered to be a gift from God and hence, has to be treated with love and respect.
Let us step back in the 1970s when life was organic and so were our ingredients. Food in Punjab has always relied on freshness, and quality of produce rather that fancy ingredients or complicated recipes. Punjabis were masters at utilizing ingredients in multiple forms to make a plethora of varied dishes. Take fresh milk for instance; it is abundant in villages since most villagers owned cattle and they used it generously to make curd, ghee, paneer, and kheer and the list is endless. Although back then food was basic and the number of dishes limited, the bold flavours and hearty portions were obvious.
These constants have led to the ever-rising popularity of Punjabi cuisine worldwide. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that it has become the epitome of Indian food all across the world. When we close our eyes and think of Indian dishes, the first picture that comes to mind is a tandoori chicken or paneer tikka, or butter chicken! And this is not just the case with Indians settled abroad! Even people having no Indian roots are savouring our food globally.
Michelin-star restaurants are dosing out Punjabi recipes in abundance and getting accolades for them! From starters like ‘samosas’ and ‘paneer tikkas’ to mains like ‘sarson ka saag and ‘makki di roti’, ‘butter chicken’ and ‘tandoori naan’, the list goes on and on. Having said that, it is not just the burst of flavours on the taste buds that makes the food of Punjab so widely popular, it is the love with which it is prepared and served! Punjabi food is just like the “Punjabis” – rich, robust and full of life. Bold textures, hearty flavours, and spices are the staples of Punjabi cuisine. Punjabi food has something for everybody… it never disappoints, whether you are a vegetarian, a non-vegetarian, or a desert lover, it can satiate all your cravings. Dan Bern, the American Guitarist, says “So often these days eating Indian food passes for spirituality. I don’t meditate. I don’t pray, but I eat two samosas every day”.
Talking about the international Punjabi food scene would be blasphemous without mentioning Jiggs Kalra. As they say, “Chefs never die. Their food makes them live forever”. One such chef is Jiggs Karla who has been endowed with titles like “Czar of Indian cuisine!” He was a renowned food critic and restauranteur who helped popularize Punjabi cuisine around the world. He made it a mission to unearth long-forgotten recipes and rediscover ingredients that had vanished from daily use and to document these findings. Kalra’s knowledge of cooking techniques was encyclopedic to the extent that he was called “the tastemaker of the nation”.
Food was in Jiggs Kalra’s DNA. He started by writing food columns in the 1970s and continued to author eleven culinary books. The first culinary show on Indian television was created by him in 1990. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that he was the secret ingredient of the Indian food industry. Apart from his contribution to the domestic food scenario, Karla was the face of Indian Punjabi food abroad. He was the first Asian to make it to the International Food and Beverage Gourmet Hall of Fame. In a career spanning over five decades, he experimented with novel fusion dishes like “tandoori salmon tikka” and galouti kebab, a Lucknow speciality.
Jiggs Karla’s restaurants Masala Library, Punjabi Grill, and Farzi Cafe are still famous for their innovative dishes and modern twist on classical recipes. Once upon a time, chefs huddled away in kitchens, relatively unknown and unsung, Karla brought them out into the limelight and transformed them into celebrities.
In conclusion, Punjabi cuisine has become synonymous with Indian food as a whole and this trend is on the rise. Chefs like Jiggs Karla and others have been instrumental in promoting the same to a wider audience, while the rise of Indian restaurants and food bloggers has helped to build a community of food enthusiasts who are all eager to explore the risks and diverse flavours of Punjab.