United by Khichdi
Last November, at the Indian food expo, World Food India, in Delhi, Chef Sanjeev Kapoor broke a world record by preparing 918 kilos of khichdi in one go. Union Minister of Food Processing, Shrimati Harsimrat Kaur Badal, whose idea the expo was, said, “Khichdi is considered nutritious, healthiest food in India and it is eaten by poor and rich alike, irrespective of their class. It symbolises India's great culture of unity in diversity.”
We may not agree that it's India's national dish, we may not even agree that it's a worthy brand ambassador for Indian cuisine, but the minister is not inaccurate when she says that it’s a massively inclusive dish, and that versions of this simple rice and lentil dish finds variations on its theme, across states, communities and classes in India. It contains comforting carbs and fibre, a small dose of protein, and it fills us up, but keeps us light. It's a grandmotherly dish, making us feel better when we are cold, sick, fragile, sad or craving familiar uncomplicated stuff.
Geography, climate and history have helped in making khichdi easy for Indians for millennia. A couple of years ago, I discovered that there is evidence of rice cultivation and domestication as early as 5,440 BC in the Ganges Valley, and 6,500 BC in Uttar Pradesh. Carbonised moong dal (the most commonly used lentil in khichdi) has been found in archaeological sites in Punjab and Karnataka dating back about 4,000 years. Several articles connect the origin of the word to the Sanskrit term khicca, meaning a mixed dish of rice and lentils. At its simplest, these cooked in salt and water, make a khichdi.
But, as the minister noted, and food historian KT Achaya detailed in his book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, khichdi has been loved by commoners and emperors alike. Achaya's reports say that it was made in Mughal emperor Akbar's kitchen with equal parts of ghee, rice and dal, on the three days a week that the king was vegetarian. His meat-loving son Jehangir preferred an even richer version called lazeezan with as much ghee and plenty of spices and nuts – including lamb meat in the recipe on non-abstaining days. But centuries before the Mughals made it the food of their courts, travellers and chroniclers Ibn Battuta and Abdur Razzak noted that khichdi was eaten in its simplest form as the evening meal of agricultural labourers in India. Achaya pointed out that khichdi was a commonly reported dish by visitors, almost always made with mung bean, the most digestible (and least flatulent) of beans.
Khichdi has since been eaten across the country, and has found several regional iterations. As expected, every family has its own khichdi recipe, as it should. Here's a highly edited selection of some of India's loveliest khichdis.
Gujarat's khichdi-kadhi: An uncomplicated khichdi with tempered whole spices is paired with classic Gujarati sweet and tangy dahi kadhi.
Himachal's balaee: For this creamy rendition of khichdi, a masala powder of fenugreek, cumin, and coriander is sauteed into caramelised onions, then soaked rice and black channa are added over this base and cooked gently in buttermilk. It's topped with ghee before serving.
Karnataka's bisi bile baath / bisi bile huli anna: Literally translated to hot lentil-rice, bisi bile is a one-pot meal of lentils, rice, vegetables all heartily spiced with a mix that reminds you of the flavours of the state – tamarind, chillies, asafoetida, turmeric, chillies, cashews, cumin, coriander, curry leaves and more.
Andhra Pradesh's pulagam: What elevates this fairly basic steamed preparation of seasoned rice and split chilkewali moong is that it' served with a typically Andhra chutney of peanuts or coconut.
Tamil Nadu's ven pongal: Yellow moong is roasted and then pressure cooked with rice until it's mushy after which it's tempered with ginger, pepper, jeer, hing, curry leaves and fried cashews – in ghee, of course. It's served with a vegetable-loaded pongal sambar.
Rajasthan's shahi khichdi: Somewhat between a biryani and a khichdi, with mixed lentils, a medley of vegetables, garam masala, enriched with cashews and raisins and softened with saffron in hot milk.
West Bengal's bhuni khichuri: This is a more robust and robustly spiced version of regular plain khichuri. First moong dal is dry roasted, as are warm spices and chillies before being ground to a powder. Cubed veggies and whole spices are fried, followed by onions and a ginger garlic paste and tomatoes, before gobindobhog rice and dal go into the pan. It's typically served with fried eggs, meat or fish.
Make these traditional khichdi recipes in your own kitchen with a little help from the chefs at India Food Network: