Cooking up a khichdi of a story


Call it your comfort food, devour it as a religious offering or seek solace in the mere convenience of it- khichdi has to be the most versatile and wholesome meal for every Indian. Widely considered as the national dish of the country especially since times in the immediate past, this one pot wonder of an array of every element of nutrition is truly a hearty delight to indulge in. Simple in its seemingly bland blend of rice and pulses with veggies, a serving of khichdi can however encompass a panoply of flavours so subtly standout in their goodness that has led it to be associated with a range of emotions, of the epicurean or otherwise.

For sick patients, khichdi is the panacea; to puja revellers this blend of all things healthy conjures up also all deliciousness as the bhog of the divine; for winter enthusiasts a steaming pot of khichdi laden with all the fresh seasonal veggies is the way to warm up their heart and soul; the romance of rainy days is as party to the khichdi platter as it is to the chai- pakoda craze and of course to everyone for whom today is their ‘feel lazy’ day, khichdi is the quick fix ‘jugaad’ that allows a respite from cooking charades, providing simultaneously also the relish of insatiable cravings.

And of course for any servings of a dish as khichdi that is as much indulgent as it is mellow, the accompanying servings of delectables are no less pompous even in their humble extol. Savored along with a wide range of batter coated, deep fried veggies- green leafy or otherwise or accompanied by a divine coming together of a range of such vegetables that sum up the mushy comfort of a preparation called labra, with also a wide range of condiments on the sides- ranging from roasted papads to spicy chutneys and zingy achaars to a certain sweet and sour tomato preparation and sometimes rendered even the more delectable with a bowlful of creamy payasam, especially as part of the platter that has devotees and foodies gorging alike in numerous puja pandals, khichdi truly is the dish fit for a king or rather a queen, called as it has been the ‘queen of all foods’ in recent times.

Equally versatile is this dish in its range of variations that render it so gentle to the belly as to be the preferred food choice for the ailing and infants and yet that can be made so rich with addition of ghee and tempting in its fusion of a wide medley of spices and flavours that makes khichdi a distinctive diversion from the adage that does not deem it possible for anyone or anything to please everyone. Also quite adaptive a food choice that finds resonance in cuisinal manifestation across regions within India, with a tweak here and a twist there, khichdi indeed has all it would take to be the ultimate national dish of India, if ever there should be one. Because despite its resting in a dimension that makes it a potpourri of rice and lentils at its most basic, with veggies and spices being often preferred but largely optional additions, the versatility of a one pot khichdi is such that it can also be as easily incorporative of a wide range of meat choices as well. Not just as a contemporary preparation though, meat based khichdis are as traditional delights, like the mutton based Sola khichdi of the Bohras, the fish based Bharuchi vaghareli khichdi of the Parsis or the beef based Hyderabadi khichdi, kheema, khatta, the latter being no less indulgent than the famed flavours of the Hyderabadi biryani itself. Of course this meaty taste finds extension to the choice of khichdi accompaniments as well, with an omelet or a piece of fried fish further upping the soulful comfort so exclusive to khichdis.

But how did this dish, so wide ranging in its demeanor and so loved in sophistication despite its clamorous cooking essence come to define an identical food experience throughout the Indian subcontinent? One of the most ancient foods of the country, and one that finds mention even in the traditional practice of Ayurveda as a food that help cleanse the body in its mildest of forms, khichdi is also as rooted in the Indian experience in its etymology. Deriving from the Sanskrit word khiccā, that refers to a dish made with rice and legumes, khichdi perhaps appeared as a dish in times as early as those of the Mahabharata and is also rather well documented in history, alluding somewhat to the place of eminence it has been accorded all through.

Finding mention in the account of the Greek king Seleucus during his campaign in India as being very popular among people of the Indian subcontinent, this staple concoction of rice and pulses occupies similar place in the account by Greek historian Strabo. But perhaps the most recounted of the khichdi tale happens to be the one stemming from Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta during his travels to the country in the 14th century who wrote about a dish of mung boiled with rice, buttered and eaten everyday as breakfast.

Furthering this global exploration of a dish, unlike the unfussy premises of what khichdi presents itself as in its simplest avatar are the mighty Mughals whose experiments with the gastronomy are as much a source of historical wonder as their remarkable periods of rule. Inarguably the most mighty of the Mughal rulers had a special penchant for a khichdi preparation that made use of rice, dal and ghee in equal quantities. His son Jahangir’s affinity for the same also saw inclusion of more exotic ingredients like lamb and pistachios, raisins and aromatic spices in the mix, that which churned out a dish so delectable that came to be known as the lazeezan. No less pronounced had been the preference of Aurangzeb for this essentially one pot dish, who used to gorge over a certain Alamgari khichdi, that which would be a non vegetarian’s delight in its inclusions of fish and boiled eggs. Interestingly for someone who did not concern himself much with pursuits of the epicurean, it is remarkable that Aurangzeb’s version of the khichdi later assumed an identity of its own. Known as kedgeree now in the Anglo- Indian food horizon, this was the khichdi that held the fancy of the sophisticated Englishmen who took it back to their country along with them, in the process introducing England to a cosmopolitan breakfast/ brunch staple that which remains popular even now.

Moving beyond the Mughal influences however and concentrating more on such khichdi tales that derive their taste from more local elements will find us exploring the equally opulent culinary experiments characterising other stately kitchens in the country of the regal times. The Hyderabadi khichdi, kheema, khatta we already mentioned before is one such rather extravagant take on this dish that sounds humble enough in its dal- chawal references. Privy to similar level of extravagance would also be one particular preparation of the dish at the dastarkhwan of Nasir-ud-din Shah, erstwhile king of Oudh, where ingenious khansamas or royal chefs slow cooked khichdi entirely of almonds and pistachios, sliced to resemble grains of rice and lentils respectively, cooked in equal or double the amount of ghee. Even more exotic but as rarely encountered a khichdi would be what has been recounted as the sweet and savoury khejurer khichuri. A lesser adhered to sweet take on the dish that by now has surely established itself as immensely protean in its many leanings, this stupendous version of the khichdi sees dates, almonds and pistachios along with a host of aromatic whole spices stewed in sugar syrup. The syrup is poured into the partially cooked rice- dal mixture, and then allowed to cook until the liquids dry up completely. Layering it off with the reserved, syrup-soaked dates and nuts with thick cream, cut in diamonds and served, this indeed is a rendition of the dish unlike any that was conceived even in the most royal of kitchens.

Throughout the country even today there exists such takes on this comfort dish that are nowhere near to being just a basic cooking together of rice and lentils. A rather elaborate version happens to stem from the region of Bengal, most celebrated however for its classic bhoger khichuri. The exotic take on the dish in this instance infuses it with the magic of sesame seeds or til with also such assortments as saffron and asafoetida to cook up a rather differentiated gourmet serving of health and deliciousness. Another version made with coconut milk and bak-tulsi variety of fragrant rice called the malai bhuni khichdi is as indulgent while yet another coconut based preparation is the aloo bokhara khichuri enriched with fresh coconut cream and aromatic spices like cinnamon and clove.

The Parsi take on the khichdi platter is no less extensive. Apart from the fishy Bharuchi vaghareli khichdi, there’s also the prawn based kolmi ni khichdi, cooked with coconut milk as is a certain layered khichdi, quite intensive a pursuit in its offbeat preparation. The typical Parsi khichdi, in its most basic is as unique, tends as it does to be but a dry preparation of rice only freckled with lentils and paired then with any number of sweet or sour gravies or sometimes with a somewhat soupy curry of kheemo.

Elsewhere in India, khichdi variants tend to be as incorporating of the country’s enormous diversity. The Himachali khichdi for one is a rather protein rich dish that comes loaded with kidney beans and chickpeas. In fact, there exists a range of the khichdi interpretation that do not derive most of their prominence- or even the entirety of it- from rice. Haryanvi kichri for instance is made from pearl millet and jowar with mung dal pounded in mortar, and often eaten by mixing with warm ghee or lassi, or even yogurt. Of similar leanings is the Rajasthani bajra ri khichdi, subtly spiced and based sometimes also on whole wheat instead of millet. Spicer versions exist in other regions of the country like the Ram khichdi from Kathiawar or the really different but still essentially khichdific rendition of what is the bisi bele bath of Karnataka that once again is a royal recipe, having originated in the kitchen of the Wadiyar rulers of Mysore. This particular rice- lentil mashup or ‘hot lentil rice’ is however only a distant draw on khichdi, more related being the preparation that assumes the name of Huggi.

Much like Karnataka, the khichdi versions from other regions down south tend to also take on distinctive names. Most popular are the range of pongal dishes from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, that includes the essentially spicy milagu pongal or pepper pongal and the still savoury but less spicy ven pongal, and the rare sweet take on the khichdi as what is the jaggery infused sakkarai pongal. Quite diversive would be the really tangy valachi khichdi from Maharashtra, made with such interesting ingredients as field beans, groundnuts and grated coconut. Somewhat toned down in its sour quotient is the unique Himachali preparation of Balaee that is native to the state’s Kangra region. A khichdi made with rice and Bengal gram, subtly spiced with roasted coriander, fenugreek and cumin, the Balaee is cooked in buttermilk, which gives it its distinct tang. Garhwali khichdi is also somewhat different a type of khichdi, made with urad dal, sesame seeds and a medley of warming spices. But perhaps the most ‘hatke’ working upon khichdi would be the unique tribal specialty called the asur khichdi, that which is spiked with mahua flour made from the seeds of the hallucinogenic mahua flower.

Amal khichdi would be another striking and even healthier mention of the one pot dish, typically made with rice and mah/kali dal (split black gram) rather than the usual moong or masur dal and some amla or Indian gooseberries from which it derives its name. Native to Uttar Pradesh, this amal khichdi is a Makar Sankranti specialty in the state. Even in other parts of the country, Makar Sankranti is celebrated with preparations of khichdi as a symbolic celebration of life and regeneration — with newly harvested rice and grain.

Another festival where khichdi finds religious reverence apart from the pan Indian revelry of pujas is one pertaining to the Kashmiri Pandits, celebrated as Khetsimavas when khichri is offered as sacrificial food to Kubera, God of the Yakshas. Relished with kadam ka achaar or pickled knol khol in Kashmir, khichdi as a religious offering occupies also special place in Orissa. Adahengu khechidi or ginger-asafoetida khichdi is a popular offering at the world famous Jagannath temple in Puri while the Baldevjiu Temple in Kendujhar sees a type of green colored khichdi made with whole black moong offered to the deity. In fact at the Jagannath temple, not one but five varieties of khichdi are offered to Lord Jagannath in continuation of a tradition that has been in vogue since at least the 12th century. While many pots of Tata Khecudi, Nukhura khechudi, Taila Khechudi, Sana Khechudi and Majuri Khechudi are offered everyday, it is a certain sweet khichdi, the kanika or mitha khichdi flavoured with cinnamon sticks, cloves, bay leaf, cardamom, cashew and raisin with a pinch of turmeric and garnished with grated coconut that is considered the favorite of the deity. A similar sweet, cardamom-scented khichdi, made with rice and moong dal, ghee, grated coconut, dried fruits and nuts and loads of ghee, is a treasured recipe in the Konkan region.

But not just in India, this rather uncomplicated affair between dal and chawal has since spanned its presence across the world. As perhaps one of the oldest known of Indian dishes, that which found mention in the ancient text Kamika agama as Krusaranna, Khichdi has had its own share of origin and evolution. What started as a dish that saw rice having been cooked with ingredients like milk, curd, and even sesame, khichdi emerged soon to be as prominent in its many legumes and lentils and pulse, replacing also at times the primary component of rice in favour of other millets. Quite popular across the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh very unsurprisingly since they were a part of India at one point of time, our beloved khichdi however also has gained far more global exposure. Apart from the British staple of kedgeree, another very prominent world class dish inspired by this one pot classic is koshary, for sure the national dish of Egypt unlike the distinction not pertaining wholly as yet to its origins in India. A rather inventive dish of rice, macaroni and lentils, koshary sounds also as comforting a food as our very own khichdi, rendered even uniquely flavoursome through use of a local Egyptian sauce that lends it its distinctive taste. A similar dish in the Middle East takes the name and form of Mujaddara that which again is similar to the Cypriot preparation of fakes moutzentra, or the Iranian addas polo. To believe that it is the mere convenience of khichdi as a one pot dish that has influenced diverse worlds of the culinary each into eking out something similar for themselves would be a discounting of the wholesomeness encompassed by this miscellaneous coming together of all things palatable and nutritious. It in fact is the versatility of this comfort food of dal chawal that which has endeared it to the masses across time, whether they be the ones piquant in royal taste or someone more happily indulgent in all foods as worthy as this.