Jiggs Kalra served as an ambassador for Indian cuisine until his death in 2019. He wrote cookbooks and newspaper columns that spotlighted subcontinental cooking traditions and elevating South Asian cuisine to a new level.
While he’s not a household name in Chicago, Kalra cast a wide net of influence. The late great New York chef — a Mumbai native — Floyd Cardoz, called him a culinary pioneer who set “the stage for me and all the chefs who are following.”
Kalra’s focus and passion was North Indian food, something that he passed along to his children. Now his son — Ajit — opened his own restaurant in Chicago with wife Sukha. Bhoomi debuted last week with the rest of the vendors inside Chicago’s newest food hall, Urbanspace Washington.
Most of the restaurants at Urbanspace are established names: Edzo’s Burger Shop, Happy Lobster, the Budlong, and Isla Pilipina. New York’s Roberta’s Pizza headlines a batch of imports that have found success at other Urbanspace locations.
Then there’s Bhoomi, a name derived from Sanskrit that means “Earth.” This upstart serves Indian street-style grilled meats. India, with its large focus on vegetarian cooking, isn’t exactly known for meaty dishes.
“The fact that grilled Indian meats have not had exposure in the U.S. continues to shock me to this day,” Ajit Kalra says.
Other South Asian countries have had more success celebrating street meats in the U.S. For example, on Devon — Chicago’s main South Asian enclave — Pakistani restaurant Khan BBQ has broken through to the mainstream with a variety of grilled meats. But there’s reluctance for Indians, much to do with the complicated history between Hinduism and beef.
In America, customs are different and the Indian community isn’t so beholden to tradition. And that’s given the Kalras an opportunity. They even searched for a tandoor to cook their meats. But given the size constraints downtown, their first restaurant (they hope there will be more) will feature meats cooked on flattops.
The menu features roti made with organic whole wheat. These are used for taco-like items filled with steak, lamb, prawns, or paneer. The Kalras say a vegan option is upcoming. There’s also a lamb burger with salads and quinoa bowls.
Ajit Kalra has an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and leveraged those connections to secure a stall at Urbanspace. Before the food stall, they operated as a ghost kitchen inside the Hatchery, the food incubator in Garfield Park.
“Somebody, someday is going to create the next Chipotle for Indian food,” he says.
Ajit Kalra starts talking about the history of kebobs in India, how the Mughal Empire’s influence brought the skewers to the country. His father is credited with popularizing one of the kebob variants, the patty-shaped galouti kebob — which originated near the North Indian town of Lucknow — encouraging restaurants to start serving which started out as a local delicacy.
For Ajit Kalra, what separates Indian kebobs are the spice blends — which are composed of more than one spice. That’s a reference to a poorly put together rant by a Washington Post Magazine writer in August.
“Knowing my dad, he probably would have taken it personally,” Ajit Kalra says. “He would have made it his mission to get acquainted with that writer and introduce him to food, kind of what Padma [Lakshmi] did.”
He adds: “But [my dad] also dealt with a lot of ignorance and unfamiliarity with Indian food in the ‘80s and ‘90s when he was traveling the world.”
Suku Kalra, who has her own business degree from Punjab University in India, says she misses food from back home in Delhi. She recalls flavorful food and veggies. Even in the fast-casual sphere, she hopes Bhoomi can set an example for quality ingredients, especially when it comes to environmental impact. They’re talking about sourcing organic paneer from a dairy in California, farm-raised Atlantic salmon, and pasture-raised beef. The name “Bhoomi” is about the environment.
Indian restaurant owners have said it’s often a challenge to find workers who have experience cooking 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 experienced making halloumi dishes that’s a boon; Sukhu Kalra says the cheese is a lot like working with paneer.
When Ajit Kalra moved from India, he arrived in Florida. Indian families bought pita from the grocery store because they could find ingredients for roti or kulcha. That’s not a situation unique to Indian immigrants, he notes, mentioning how Italians and Chinese went through similar trials when they arrived in America.
“Indian food’s time is here and now,” he says. “I compare it to the U.S. to London in the ‘70s.”