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Khichdi: the humble dish takes centre stage

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Indian chefs have been proudly serving this dish, in either its humblest avatar or dressed up to the nines in their restaurants for some time now.

After centuries of silent service to the sub-continent’s rich and poor, the humble khichdi rose to become a top Twitter trend this week, after news broke that a giant quantity of the rice-and-lentil dish will be cooked at an event in New Delhi this week.

So much so that Union food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur had to slap down reports that khichdi was going to be declared India’s national dish.

What triggered such speculation was a statement Kaur made on Wednesday that an attempt will be made to cook a record quantity of khichdi at World Food India, an event being organized by her ministry to attract foreign investments and technology in domestic food processing. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor will supervise the exercise on Saturday to prepare 800kg of khichdi in a 1,000-litre pan.

The rationale for choosing khichdi was that it is a staple across the country, is considered healthy and is consumed by everyone. “Brand India khichdi symbolizes India’s great culture of unity in diversity at its best,” the minister said.

It didn’t take long for social media to speculate whether “Brand India khichdi” was just another way of trying to make the humble one-pot dish of rice and lentils—which many consider best for the ailing—the “national dish of India”. Much amusement followed, and as usual, outrage.

The politics of trying to foist one dish on a country with a diverse culinary landscape apart, khichdi is one preparation that does find expression across India. From the simple gruel served to ailing patients to the Bengali khichuriwhich is served as prasad (religious offering) during Durga Puja to pongalprepared in Tamil Nadu, every part of the country has its own version of the dish. There are even non-vegetarian and sweet versions.

“I think khichdi may be the closest the Indian sub-continent has to a universal dish,” Chicago-based food historian Colleen Taylor Sen said in an email interview. Sen has written books on Indian food including the most recent Feasts and Fast: The History of Food in India. “It (khichdi) is eaten pretty much everywhere (including in Afghanistan where there is a version, ketcherr quroot made with strained yogurt,)” Sen wrote.

The first reference to khichdi is actually in the Vedas where it is referred to as kshirika, a simple rice and lentil dish. Later, references to the dish popped up in writings by Al Biruni, a Persian scholar who travelled to India in 1017. The philosopher Chanakya around 250 BCE wrote that the meal of a gentleman consisted of “one prastha of pure rice, prastha of lentils, 1/62 prastha of salt and 1/16 of clarified butter”.

“In 16th and 17th century Hindustan, khichdi was the staple food of rural peasants and urban artisans and labourers…a simple dish of two grains, rice and lentils, boiled together in a little water. Every region had a variation of the recipe depending on what grain was the local staple. Millet could replace rice or chickpeas instead of lentils,” Sen wrote. The Mughal emperor, Prince Salim, or Jehangir, discovered this during his conquest of western India. In his memoirs, he wrote about eating bajra khichri and he concluded that “it suited me well. I ordered that on days of abstinence…they should…bring me this khichdi,” according to Sen. Rice and pulses were among the earliest crops grown in India. Together, they provide essential nutritional elements the human body needs. Vegetables added to this fulfilled the fibre requirements. In fact, most older civilizations, be it in China or Central America, have a dish that combines grains and beans to provide a wholesome meal.

What is intriguing, however, is the reputation the dish has acquired, rather undeservingly so, as a meal for the sick and ailing. It’s a classification that irks food historian Pushpesh Pant no end.

Khichdi can be festive as in the case of urad dal khichdi eaten on Makar Sakranti, it can and is eaten as a part of daily meal in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Hyderabad, there is a version of khichdi keema and then there is khichda,” he says. The khichda is a dish made of wheat, meat, lentils and spices. It is slow-cooked for hours before being served. In fact, khichda is quite similar to haleem, traditionally prepared only during Ramzan, but with a few differences.

The khichdi was also adopted by the British, with fish as an addition. This is the dish which came to be known as kedgeree. “Also, one should not make the mistake of dismissing the khichdi as a simple dish. The rice and the lentils need to be in the right proportion and cooking it is not without its challenges,” says Pant.

Kaur may have elevated khichdi as a trending hashtag, but Indian chefs have been proudly serving this dish, in either its humblest avatar or dressed up to the nines in their restaurants for some time now. Michelin Starred chef Vineet Bhatia who runs restaurants in London, Moscow, Mauritius prepares a Black Olive Khichdi which is served with Rosemary Chicken Tikka and Chilli Pipette.

“People are now waking up to khichdi, but I have always believed in it,” says chef Manish Mehrotra of the fine dining restaurant Indian Accent. For Mehrotra, khichdi is a complete dish because it combines different flavours, different textures and is comforting. His restaurant’s newly opened branch in New York has khichdi on its menu. “We are opening in London soon and even there, khichdi will be on the menu.” And the version he serves? A simple version cooked with gobinda bhog rice served with smoked papad and sweet yoghurt. “It’s comforting, it’s nostalgic and it’s a meal in a bowl. What else could one want?” What else indeed.

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