On a bitter cold evening, we sat in the courtyard of my great uncle’s home in Raniganj, listening to stories about life around the collieries, while plump brinjals and luscious tomatoes sat on the glowing embers of a clay oven in the corner. As the skin on the vegetables crinkled and charred, and the fire crackled sporadically, a nutty, smoky aroma melded into the winter air.
I assumed the roasted vegetables would be scraped, mashed and mixed with onions, green chillies, fresh coriander and mustard oil to make begun pora or beguner bhorta. Instead, my aunt sautéed onions in mustard oil, along with ginger, green chillies and garlic, before tipping in the smoky mash of roasted brinjal and tomatoes along with turmeric and chilli powder. The warm notes of the spices wafted from the pan, making everyone hungry. Then came the surprise.
She broke a few raw eggs into the pan, in which she had created a well by pushing the mash to the sides, and quickly whisked them with deft moves. The whisked eggs were folded into the smoky spicy brinjal mash, and lots of stirring later, she finished the dish with a few drops of mustard oil to add a soft sting to the spicy heat. The dish was a revelation. My aunt called it Deem Beguner Bhorta. That night, I ate four chapatis, instead of my usual two.
Ever since, I have often brought up my aunt’s Deem Beguner Bhorta in conversations around culinary ingenuity and diversity of regional kitchens. During one such conversation, I was painting the details of the dish when someone identified it as khagina. That’s an odd name, I thought at the time, attributing it to the Bengali knack for quirky nomenclature. Only that wasn’t the case.
The word khagina comes from the Persian word for eggs – khaag – and refers to a kind of omelette. “There is no dish [in the Persian repertoire] that can be created on the spur of the moment, except for a sweet version of an omelette known as Khagina and an onion soup with coriander known as ishkana,” writes Shireen Mahdavi in her 2002 essay Women, Shi’ism and Cuisine in Iran. The khagina has been around in Persia for centuries, in one form or another. Amir Khusrow’s 13th century Bagh o Bahar mentions it, as does some other classic Persian literature. Also known as Gheyganakh, the cardamom-scented Persian khagina is served in bite-sized pieces soaked in syrup.
More than the khagina, the Iranian dish that comes closest to Bengal’s beguner khagina is perhaps Mirza Ghasemi – a spiced mash of roasted aubergines and tomatoes, jazzed up with other fresh spices, into which raw eggs are dropped and poached.
Khagina was not unknown to the royal kitchens of the Mughals that often took cues from Persian cuisines. But in those kitchens, the khagina got a spicy update. Food historian Salma Hussain’s book The Mughal Feast, a transcreation of Nushka-e-Shahjahani, a Persian book of recipes from Shah Jahan’s time, features a recipe for khagina-e-baize, a frittata-like dish made by whisking eggs with onions, ginger, fresh coriander and a blend of finely ground cinnamon, cloves, green cardamoms and black pepper, that is cooked on a griddle in ghee. A touch of opulence comes from a sprinkle of soaked saffron on top.
A slightly more complex khagina is recorded by Sanford Arnot, a 19th century British Indologist who translated Mughal recipes from Persian and Hindustani into English. His khagina calls for ingredients like flour of peas, onions and coagulated milk, along with pounded cardamom, cloves and coriander, all of which is mixed and cooked in melted butter on coal fire.
Byanjon Ratnakar, one of the earliest cookbooks published in Bengal, features a recipe for a savoury fennel-scented Khagila, a colloquial distortion of khagina, finished with an opulent garnish of saffron like the khagina-e-baize. Although written in Bengali and published in 1858 under the patronage of the Burdwan royal family, Byanjon Ratnakar didn’t feature a single Bengali recipe. Instead, like Pak Rajeshwar (1831) before it, Byanjon Ratnakar was a tribute to the royal kitchens of the Mughals. The book, in fact, features another recipe for khagina – the Madhuramla Khagila, a minced meat and egg pancake finished with sugar and lime juice. Of all the recipes in Byanjon Ratnakar, the dish that comes closest to the beguner khagina of today is perhaps the Shirazi Bhorta. Shirazi means from the city of Shiraz (in Iran), and the recipe is an extravagant mash of boiled eggplant, boiled eggs, onions, ginger, a host of spices, yoghurt, raisins, paneer and ghee.
Nearly 140 years after Byanjon Ratnakar came another iconic recipe book with a similar recipe of khagina. Minakshie Das Gupta’s The Calcutta Cookbook describes a khagina that is made with roasted or boiled eggplants mashed with boiled egg yolks and a host of spices and then cooked on mellow heat until the mash leaves the sides of the pan. Finely chopped boiled egg whites, garam masala and paste and green chilies are stirred in, and the dish is finished with a sprinkle of coriander leaves. This recipe was contributed by Swarupa Das, the granddaughter of freedom fighter Chittaranjan Das. In an essay on Das’s wife, freedom fighter Basanti Devi, her grandson, former West Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, wrote that khagina was one of his grandmother’s signature dishes and she would take it to her husband when he was in prison.
In contrast to Basanti Devi’s khagina stands the khagina of many Muslim households across India and the subcontinent. For them, khagina simply refers to spicy, moist scrambled eggs – a comforting quick fix that comes handy when kitchens are running low on time or supplies. In Lucknow, khagina paired with saffron-tinged, sweet sheermal or soft roghni roti makes for a comforting yet luxurious breakfast. In Pakistan too, khagina is a breakfast favourite. Author Sumayya Usmani’s recipe for khagina, featured in her book Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, is a soft and fluffy scramble of eggs, with spring onions, chillies, onions, fresh coriander, garlic, finished with a sprinkle of chaat masala. Usmani recommends pairing her khagina with flatbread, cholay ka saalan or curried chickpeas and aloo ki bhujia.
“Khagina is frequently touted as a classic Pakistani breakfast dish, but I have mostly come across either Punjabi or Mohajir family variations,” said food blogger Maryam Jillani. “By Mohajir, I’m referring to Urdu-speaking communities that migrated from India to Pakistan during Partition. It is a popular Afghan breakfast dish as well.”
While recipes vary from household to household, the Pakistani khagina, Jillani says, is similar to the Parsi akoori in which eggs are cooked with spices to a creamy consistency. On her blog Pakistan Eats, Jillani recently posted her mother’s khagina recipe that calls for thin crescents of potatoes to be added to the creamy, spicy scrambled eggs laced with chilli-red oil. A friend from Lahore, Muhammad Bilal Saeed, told me he is not familiar with khagina, only to call back later and say, “Oh, it’s anda bhurji. In Punjab we call it anda bhurji.”
Also unfamiliar with khagina was Hazeena Syed, a champion of the cuisine of Southern India’s Ravuthar Muslim community. From the description, Syed drew parallels with one of her community’s favourite egg dishes: mutta chikki. Finely chopped onions and green chillies are boiled in a little water with a dash of turmeric. Once the water dries out and the onions soften, eggs are broken into the pan, seasoned with salt and pepper, and scrambled. “The mutta chikki is best served with soft rice flour rotis or pathiri,” said Syed. “It is the go-to dish when the kitchen is running low on supplies or when sudden guests drop in.”
One of the most famous versions of khagina is served in Hyderabad and it is called Hyderabadi Ande ka Khagina. A whole different ball game, it is neither an omelette nor a scramble. Onions are allowed to sweat in oil, minced garlic, ginger, lots of tomatoes and spices (cumin, coriander, red chili, turmeric and garam masala) and cooked to an unctuous mush. Into this fiery masala, raw eggs are broken in and allowed to cook. Technique is crucial here. The eggs are allowed to cook before being gently turned, nudged around and only lightly broken down to create a texture that is reminiscent of the soft, crumbly magaz or brain curry. Gourmets say Hyderabadi Ande ka Khagina is best paired with flatbread or Khichdi, a one-pot dish of rice and red lentils.
To some, the Hyderabadi khagina is evocative of the Levantine shakshouka (eggs poached in an onion and tomato stew) or the Turkish menemen (eggs scrambled in tomatoes, cooked with peppers, herbs and sometimes onions). While the khagina is likely to have arrived in the Mughal kitchen with Persian cooks, the story of the Hyderabadi Ande ka Khagina perhaps alludes to the city’s connection with Turkey and Hadhrami Arabs from Yemen. It is just as possible that the dish was first called khagina by Dakhini speakers.
The journey of khagina in the subcontinent testifies to the anfractuous route that food takes, constantly evolving, overlapping and diverging. With every path it takes, it might get a new name or identity but the sepia memories it creates remains the same.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.