(From my food writing files, in honour of the weather, this August 2010 piece on khichdi, carried in the Business Standard.)
As the rain clouds settle in and the skies darken, a primitive instinct kicks in: like so many Indians, I must make or eat khichdi, preferably with the accompaniments, but at need, just the plain rice-and-dal dish that has travelled down to us from the time of the Vedas. (Note: There are recipes for rice dishes in the Upanishads, too, but they may have unintended consequences–see below.)
Khichdi is perhaps one of the universal Indian dishes, found in some form or the other across all regions; and yet it’s rarely found in restaurants, and outside of Bengal, khow-swey parties would be more common than khichdi parties. This is not so much household food as langar food, puja pandal food; it hasn’t yet migrated to coffee shop menus. (Given the number of road warriors who look eagerly for home-style food in their fancy hotels, I’m willing to bet it would be a hit if anyone took the plunge and introduced it.)
The closest equivalent to khichdi-on-the-menu is Karnataka’s Bisi Bele Bhath, a complex union of toor dar, rice, tamarind, spices and an assortment of vegetables that may have originated in its present form in the Mysore Palace. Bisi bele bhat enthusiasts will argue hotly over such minutiae as whether one can add green peas (no, say the purists, and I agree), what accompaniments may be served (none or an assortment of vegetable dishes, according to taste) and whether bisi bele bhat tastes even better reheated the next day (no, but it remains edible, unlike leftover sambar-rice).
The Bengali version of khichdi I grew up with had many variations: there was the soupy invalid dish that resembled nothing more than the gruel described in the grimmer work of Charles Dickens’, flavoured austerely with salt, and then there were the infinite variations on the grand “party dish”. Perhaps this is why khichdi doesn’t make it to restaurant menus: anyone can make an average khichdi, but it takes a master to blend the deceptively simple array of spices, lentils (roasted moong dal, the humble masoor), rice and vegetables to the correct pitch.
In that sense, a khichdi is closer to the paella than to the risotto: everything depends, not on the grain of the rice or the release of starch at the right moment, but at the cook’s ability to add in ingredients at just the right stage of cooking. It’s also a dish best made in quantity and served steaming hot; reheating dries out the lentil grains (my theory is that the tamarind sauce in bisi bele bhat makes it slightly more amenable to reheating than the classic khichdi/ khichuri).
Just a few restaurants in Calcutta offer khichdi—these used to be the old “canteen stalwarts”, formica tables, plastic chairs, the haunt of the working class clerk who will settle down in comfort, secure in the knowledge that the smart set will not invade his privacy. Kewpie Kitchen’s offers, in season, grand khichuri-thalis—platters of either hilsa-khichdi, meat curry-khichdi, or the not-to-be-despised niramish or vegetarian version. The accompaniments are classic. The purest of ghee is a must, and will be ladled on to khichuri in quantities that demolish any faint idea that this is a meal for the health-conscious.
Fried vegetables in besan batter—or in the case of aubergines, thinly sliced or cut in fat wedges and fried to an irresistible meatiness—will accompany the khichdi. As with the North Indian obsession with making different kinds of pakoras, delicacy and skill is everything: the highest praise is reserved, as the author Bulbul Sharma noted in her collection of food stories, the Anger of Aubergines, for single leaves of spinach lightly coated in besan batter, introduced briefly to a cauldron of hot oil, and flash-fried, in the same manner as parsley might be fried in the West. Meat and fish accompaniments are permissible, but not really classic.
Which brings me to another pet theory: the first restaurant to set itself up as a langar-specialist, bringing together Amritsar’s gurdwara classics alongside Bengal’s puja-pandal khichdi and labra and Kerala’s temple payasam will make a killing. All we need is the right backer, and a chef who understands the importance of the perfect plate of steaming-hot, delectable, nostalgia-laden khichdi.
The Upanishads on the cooking of rice:
Now, when the monthly sickness comes upon anyone’s wife, for three days she should not drink from a metal cup, nor put on fresh clothes. Neither a low-caste man nor a low-caste woman should touch her. At the end of the three nights she should bathe and should have rice threshed.
14. In case one wishes, ‘That a white son be born to me! that he be able to repeat a Veda! that he attain the full length of life!’–they two should have rice cooked with milk and should eat it prepared with ghee. They two are likely to beget [him].
15. Now, in case one wishes, ‘That a tawny son with reddish-brown eyes be born to me! that he be able to recite two Vedas! that he attain the full length of life!’–they two should have rice cooked with sour milk and should eat it prepared with ghee. They two are likely to beget [him].
16. Now, in case one wishes, ‘That a swarthy son with red eyes be born to me! that he be able to repeat three Vedas! that he attain the full length of life!’–they two should have rice boiled with water and should eat it prepared with ghee. They two are likely to beget [him].
17. Now, in case one wishes, ‘That a learned (pandita) daughter be born to me! that she attain the full length of life!’–they two should have rice boiled with sesame and should eat it prepared with ghee. They two are likely to beget [her].
A. Now, in case one wishes, ‘That a son, learned, famed, a frequenter of council-assemblies, a speaker of discourse desired to be heard, be born to me! that he be able to repeat all the Vedas! that he attain the full length of life!’–they two should have rice boiled with meat and should eat it prepared with ghee. They two are likely to beget [him], with meat, either veal or beef.