Opinion

Why India needs a khichdi fix urgently

Nominating the dish a brand ambassador is the first official acknowledgement that the nation urgently needs to drain the toxins in the body politic.

Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal has announced that khichdi, that mishmash of rice and pulses, will be upgraded to “Brand India food” this week. She clarified that it won’t be named India’s national dish – but it should be. I can’t think of any other food this nation needs more than the original Indian body cleanse staple, handed down from generations.

We’ve been a sick nation for a while, and nominating khichdi as a brand ambassador is the first official acknowledgement that we urgently need to drain the toxins. It’s time to go back to childhood, to the basics, to rediscover the origin of our Indianness. Mix this with that and add that and whatever else you like and cook it all together seems like a recipe we urgently need to relearn. Besides, khichdi is a baby step in the never-ending battle for gender-equality. Even that original helpless householder – The Indian Man – knows how to make the popular, pressure cooker version of this one-pot dish.

I’m sympathetic with those who question the need for a national dish. I still wonder why the banyan is our national tree? What advantage did it have over the gulmohar, rain tree, neem, peepul and ashoka and coconut? I’m scared to tell you my other favourite tree because you will call me an anti-national Kashmiri sympathiser and stop reading this piece. But labels notwithstanding, a lightly-flavoured dish that soothes even the most distraught gut is exactly what the doctor ordered for New India, a foul-smelling cauldron of hate, venality and self-destruction.

For all tastes

It’s a reflection of our times that picking khichdi over the more obvious, sexier, Eid staple biryani, immediately became a communal issue on Indian Twitter. Responses unspooled as predictably as when the Supreme Court recently announced a ban on selling firecrackers before Diwali in Delhi and the National Capital Region. Many saw that as an “anti-Hindu” move.

One thing any food historian will tell you about khichdi – it has no religion. The Mughals loved it (even Tarla Dalal has a version called Shahjahani khichdi), and almost every state does its own thing with this supposedly boring staple. What is pongal if not a version of khichdi? This dish slices through our deep divides of caste, class and religion. Everyone from emperors to peasants have at some point in our history, sworn by the miraculous properties of khichdi.

Michelin-starred, Mumbai-born chef Vineet Bhatia has a fancy version of it, Rosemary Chicken Tikka, Chilli Pipette and Black Olive Khichdi, which takes only seven-and-a-half hours to prepare. He’s a fan of the dish and recreates it often. In one signature version, he tells an interviewer, he prepares lobster with ginger, chilli and curry leaf with a broccoli khichdi. The server sprinkles the dish with unsweetened cocoa at the table.

An international merger

A posh Dubai restaurant promotes its 48-ingredient Birbaal Ki Khichdi as the world’s most expensive and its most instagrammable dish. This experiment should be filed in the same category as $3,000 distressed, ripped jeans.

Food writer and author Vir Sanghvi references it many times in his writing. In 2016 his list of favourite meals included the fish khichdi at Gaggan in Bangkok. In another essay lamenting the lack of knowledge about authentic royal cuisine, he says that Mughal Emperor Jehangir “shunned overly rich food and preferred a simple Gujarati-style khichdi”. When discussing the origin of biryani, he points to the controversial premise that it was created by “merging India’s spice and khichdi traditions with the Turkish pilaf recipes”.

So while the victory of khichdi may feel like a cop out for a nation with such a deep and wide culinary history, it’s actually the healing miracle we were all longing for.

Priya Ramani is a columnist for Mint Lounge.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.