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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