Culture

A Tale Of 1.2 Billion Khichdis

A team of nearly two dozen people cooked khichdi on 4 November in New Delhi in an attempt to enter Guinness World Records at World Food India fair. (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • There are almost as many khichdis as there are Indians, and almost every Indian has a khichdi story. This makes it the perfect symbol of India, and entitles it to be India’s culinary brand ambassador.

I’m so glad we have all untwisted our knickers about khichdi being nominated as the national dish. As Union Minister of Food Processing Industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal tweeted it so pithily, “Enough Khichdi cooked up on a fictitious ‘National Dish’.”

Nevertheless, there is another important agenda to get out of our way.

It’s just that you don’t pooh-pooh away 125 kilograms of rice, 45 kg of moong dal, 20 kg of vegetables, 6.5 kg of salt, and Sanjeev Kapoor (and his 30 chefs) alone knows how many kilograms of jowar, bajra and amaranth and spices. Cooking 918 kg of khichdi in a three-layered, specially designed khichdi pot of 7 feet in diameter, with the final tadka prepared by none other than Baba Ramdev, using none other than Patanjali ghee, got us into the Guinness Book of Records as “the largest serving of rice and beans”.

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Now shouldn’t that inspire us to do something bigger?

So, Guinness Book of Records is all very well, but why not take a step forward? Why not declare khichdi as India’s culinary brand ambassador? As you would expect, there are many who would scream an outraged, “Why?” We could have idli-sambar, pav bhaji or vada-pav, which as Mithun Chakraborty once pointed out, is the chhati-pe-baal grandpappy of the burger.

The answer is quite simple, really.

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I know it’s the Prime Minister’s favourite food, but that can’t be the only reason why. And I know that both the Baba and madam Food Minister waxed eloquent about its supreme nutritious-ness, but there are versions of the khichdi that would startle a nutritionist.

Actually that is precisely why khichdi should be India’s food diplomat.

Let me explain.

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When we say khichdi, it is the broadest of terms that covers at least 20 different variants, many as different from each other as a Punjabi is from a Tamilian.

Starting with the name itself, for example, you could say khichdi, or khichri, or even more - khichuri, khechidi, kisuri, or if you are an Anglophile, kedgeree. (Only the English would think of ruining a perfectly ambrosial food by adding boiled fish and egg to it.)

And you’d still be referring to the same thing. Just as if you say Rajput or Keralite or Marwari or Kashmiri or Maharashtrian or Kannadiga or Gujarati, you’d still be meaning “Indian”. And so, the khichdi is a perfect representation of what it means to be Indian –even if you call it niramish (a vegetarian dish prepared with mixed vegetables.)

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Or aamish. Or baalee.

In fact, if you are from the south, you’d probably be calling it pongal (as they say in Tamil Nadu, ‘ven’ in doubt, just pongal). And since we southerners like to go the whole nine yards in everything we do (starting with our saris), not only do we have a proper dye-in-blood khichdi, which we assiduously eat ‘at the drop of a veshti’. Perhaps, it should be called ‘venever’ pongal and even as breakfast, we have a sweet version as well, sakkare pongal (sakkare, literally means sugar even though we use jaggery, but it also means sweet).

By the way, the Bengalis have one too, and we are so delighted by our khichdis... er, i mean pongals that we have a whole festival built around it – Sankranti. Incidentally, Wikipedia and other ignoramuses have called Karnataka’s famous bisi bele huli anna a khichdi, something that deeply violated the Kannadiga in me.

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Also, like India, the khichdi defies definition. For centuries, many have tried to define India. Or Indian. Or Bharat. Or Hindustan.

Much like the khichdi – everyone eats it, but there are khichdis and there are khichris. Rice and bean, may be. But which bean? Moong dal? Urad? Channa? Maybe even Masoor? Or all the four? (Sanjeev Kapoor added amaranth which is not even a bean.)

And here’s a bit about the rice. In some versions it’s usurped by bajra. In some, by sabudana, and sabudana khichdi is supposed to be fasting food, but it is so delicious. I’m sure many people fast to just devour it. Should khichdi be a thick porridge-y puddle? Or firm with delicately separate grains of rice and dal like a pulao? Veggies or no veggies? If so, cauliflower or potato or brinjal? Or all? Spices? And, if so, where do you start (and stop) in the galaxy of the Indian kitchen’s spice universe? Do you vagaar or not vagaar? And if so, to ghee or not to ghee? (Not a question, you should ask Baba Ramdev, though.) And would the shudh vegetarian khichdi purists shudder when they learn that there are many who add chunks of meat to their khichdi? Or serve it with omelette or fried fish, or worse still, prawns?

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It is to simply say there are almost as many khichdis as there are Indians. And almost every Indian has a khichdi story (even Bachi Karkaria), complete with a favourite recipe. (Take that, Maggi. We beat you by a few hundred centuries.)

This makes it the perfect symbol of India, and it is time to tell you my stories; two actually, with recipes attached.

The first happened to my mother when my dad was posted in Gorakhpur – then still a sleepy little town in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), and far from being the quasi political power centre of UP as it is today. Life in the Railway colony was very “brown sahib” – large colonial mansions complete with sprawling gardens and maalis and outhouses and a battery of er, peons. Our head peon was Ram Khilona, who doubled as a dhobi. In his dhobi avatar, he’d wear only a baniyan with his uniform peon pants. The transformation into ‘peon’ was staggeringly simple and quick – he’d whip on the peon uniform jacket over the baniyan, slap on the peon topi and he was off to salaam the sahib and scurry behind him carrying the sahib’s files.

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And this was his recipe.

Equal portions of moong dal to rice cooked in two-and-a-half times of water (more if you like your khichdi squishy) with splashing of ghee, several slit green chilis (lest your khichdi be accused of BKK namby-pamby-ness), a large, smashed chunk of ginger, several large pinches of hing, a generous spoonful or two of jeera and enough peppercorns that can be crunched at every fourth or fifth mouthful. All simmered together ever so gently under a watchful eye, until the rice and dal are on the right side of the squishy texture (you decide which side that is). If the aroma doesn’t first make you drown in your own saliva, the resultant khichdi (eaten with large, cool, creamy dollops of curd and sweet mango pickle; or then just by itself) will take you straight to heaven.

The second experience is of the landlady of an accommodation in Mumbai, where I was a paying guest. Aptly named Hasi, because she was the sweetest, cheeriest, most upbeat person I have ever met. And she had very little to be cheery about. In her version, the dal took a back seat – only a third of moong dal to one portion of rice (and just for fun, she’d thrown in a bit of channa dal). And it was a pristine version. No spices. Just dal and rice pressure-cooked till they surrendered joyously to each other in a glorious, gluggy congee-ness, followed by an equally restrained tempering of mustard seeds, hing and dried red chilli in ghee. And voila! A khichdi that trembled on the edge of being beemaron ka khana, at the very first mouthful made it very clear that you would be soon cruising along on the same road that Ram Khilona’s version had taken you.

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Finally, about the cruel, uncalled for misconception of this wondrously, multifariously, delicious dish could be beemaron ka khana – sick bed food. We do give it to the sick and to babies because it is so nourishing, yet so gentle on the digestive system, or at least many versions are, including our 918-kg Guinness version. But I’d like to see which doctor would recommend the Hyderabadi keeme ke khichdi to the sick; or the one which was cooked in Emperor Akbar’s kitchens for that matter; or where the amount of ghee was equal in proportion to that of rice and dal. So, if our 918-kg Guinness version followed this recipe, it would have 300 kg of ghee in it. Patanjali’s of course, I like.

Therefore, in closing, as our dear madam minister has now made it very clear – khichdi as the national dish?

No.

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But up there as one of the foods that should be tom-toming what India is all about?

Oh yes.

Om khichdi namah.

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