Jiggs Kalra was an ambassador of Indian cuisine until his death in 2019. He wrote cookbooks and newspaper columns that shed light on sub-continental culinary traditions and elevated South Asian cuisine to a new level. level.
Although not a household name in Chicago, Kalra has cast a wide web of influence. The late great New York chef – originally from Mumbai – Floyd Cardoz, called him a culinary pioneer who prepared “the ground for me and all the leaders who follow.”
Kalra’s focus and passion was North Indian cuisine, something he passed on to his children. Now his son, Ajit, has opened his own restaurant in Chicago with his wife Sukha. Bhoomi debuted last week with the rest of the vendors inside Chicago’s newest food hall, Urbanspace Washington.
Most of the restaurants in Urbanspace are established names: Edzo’s Burger Shop, Happy Lobster, Budlong, and Isla Pilipina. Roberta’s Pizza from New York is making headlines in a batch of imports that have found success in other Urbanspace locations.
Then there is Bhoomi, a name derived from Sanskrit which means “Earth”. This upstart serves grilled Indian street meats. India, with its great focus on vegetarian cuisine, is not exactly known for its meat dishes.
“The fact that Indian grilled meats have not been exhibited in the United States continues to shock me to this day,” says Ajit Kalra.
Other South Asian countries have had more success celebrating street meats in the United States. For example, in Devon, Chicago’s main South Asian enclave, Pakistani restaurant Khan BBQ has established itself with a variety of grilled meats. But Indians are reluctant, in large part because of the complicated history between Hinduism and the Ox.
In America, customs are different and the Indian community is not so beholden to tradition. And that gave the Kalras an opportunity. They even looked for a tandoor to cook their meats. But given the size constraints of the city center, their first restaurant (they hope there will be more) will offer cooked meats on dishes.
The menu offers roti made from organic whole wheat. These are used for taco type items filled with steak, lamb, shrimp or paneer. The Kalras say a vegan option is coming. There’s also a lamb burger with salads and quinoa bowls.
Ajit Kalra holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and leveraged these connections to secure a stand at Urbanspace. Before the food stall, they functioned as a ghost kitchen inside the Hatchery, Garfield Park’s food incubator.
“Someone will someday create the next Chipotle for Indian cuisine,” he says.
Ajit Kalra starts talking about the history of kebabs in India, how the influence of the Mughal Empire brought kebabs to the country. His father is credited with popularizing one of the kebob variations, the galouti kebob in the form of a pancake – which originated in the town of Lucknow in northern India – encouraging restaurants to start serving what started out. as a local specialty.
For Ajit Kalra, what separates Indian kebobs is the spice blends – which are made up of more than one spice. This is a reference to a loosely put together rant by a Washington Post Magazine writer in August.
“Knowing my father, he probably would have taken it personally,” Ajit Kalra says. “He would have given himself the mission of getting to know this writer and making him discover food, a bit of what Padma [Lakshmi] made.”
He adds: “But [my dad] also faced a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding of Indian cuisine in the 80s and 90s when traveling the world.
Suku Kalra, who has her own business degree from the University of the Punjab in India, says she runs out of food at home in Delhi. She remembers the tasty food and vegetables. Even in the fast-casual area, she hopes Bhoomi can lead by example when it comes to quality ingredients, especially when it comes to environmental impact. They talk about sourcing organic paneer from a California dairy, farmed Atlantic salmon and pasture-raised beef. The name “Bhoomi” relates to the environment.
Indian restaurant owners said it is often difficult to find workers with experience in South Asian cuisine. It’s even harder to find workers during a pandemic, but the Kalras are doing their best. For example, if a worker has had previous experience with preparing halloumi dishes, it is a godsend; Sukhu Kalra says cheese is a lot like working with paneer.
When Ajit Kalra left India, he arrived in Florida. Indian families bought pita at the grocery store because they could find ingredients for roti or kulcha. This is not a situation unique to Indian immigrants, he notes, mentioning how Italians and Chinese went through similar hardships when they arrived in America.
“The time for Indian cuisine is here and now,” he says. “I compare it to the United States in London in the 1970s.”
Bhoomi, inside Washington urban space, 15. W. Washington Street, open 7 am to 9:30 pm weekdays; from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Saturday