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The quiet charms of Khichdi

It now appears that there is no proposal to anoint Khichdi as the national dish of India, but regardless of whether khichdi deserves that title or not and glossing over the question of whether in a country like ours, any one dish can or should be classified as such, it certainly gives us an occasion to talk about something that has been a significant part of most of our lives.

The sniffy comments about this simple dish made by assorted food snobs tell one part of the story. The experts on health and culinary tradition have other stories to tell. As someone who has grown up relishing khichdi, what follows is a very personal tribute to this humble dish.

The simplest possible combination of the two major food groups, khichdi is food at its comforting best. A hot meal of khichdi shushes the senses, evens out temperamental stomachs, and satiates without leaving any residue behind; khichdi burps taste of nothing.

My memories of khichdi are many. In our Gujarati household that lived outside the state most of the time, khichdi was most commonly our Sunday lunch. It was a meal that was looked forward to with quiet pleasure; it had a wholesome quality that made for hearty satisfaction.

The consistency that was most preferred was wet without becoming runny, with grains just a little bit squished up. Ghee was poured in generous quantities; as children it was fun to make a mound of the khichdi dig a little hole in the centre and fill it up with ghee. Into this mixture went some spiced potatoes, a special jeera-clad onion salad, chaas, papad and some mango pickle. Together, this unfussy confluence of simple tastes came together week after week in a very precise way.

The masterful simplicity of each ingredient in the meal bears reflection. Rice, dal with almost no spices, cooked without ceremony. Unlike the idea of khichdi as mish-mash (kya khichdi paka rahe ho?), an ungainly dumping together of disparate ingredients, the reality about it was the wordless harmony that existed between the two major food sects.

Khichdi blended rice and dal together as if they belonged. Ghee, which makes the world feel plumper, adding a rich emulsion of pleasure to anything it is poured on, accentuated the bland fullness of the taste. Potatoes, that staple filler of blank spaces with several kinds of awesomeness, cooked with mustard seeds and left dry. Papad, the provider of crunchy service on demand, the attendant always ready to confer its crackle on a meal. Pickle, the little bite sized compression of a universe of very expressive flavours, seething naughtily in its own juices. Onion, the simple slice of a food that served as spice, an ingredient that turned any dish slightly sideways, a dash of knowing worldly wisdom added to things bland.

In our house, with khichdi, and only with it, the onion was slathered in oil with jeera and salt sprinkled on it, and set off the potatoes particularly well. And to top it off, Chaas, gentle and kind, making one’s stomach, and by extension the world, a calmer place.

In some parts of the country, khichdi is looked down upon as the diet for those convalescing. This makes it the poor cousin of food, the stuff we make do with when our bodies are not quite ready for the real thing. I have never quite understood this view of khichdi, for it passes up on the pleasures of simplicity and confuses it with ordinariness.

The idea that food must always perform, that it must necessarily transport us somewhere else, is a rigid view of its role in our lives. There is a time and place for that, indeed there must be for food is travel, and food is music, but food is also home.

And the thing is, getting simple meals right is not easy. A cup of tea, scrambled eggs, nimbu-paani, coconut chutney- these everyday foods are very elusive when it comes to getting proportions just right. Khichdi is no exception, and getting the balance of the ingredients right was both very easy and extremely rare.

With some people, notably mothers, getting khichdi right was effortless while in other cases, something always seemed a little off. With simple foods, it all comes down to proportion, timing, touch, restraint, love- there is no particular technique or skill involved, nothing dramatic by way of ingredients or presentation. The person cooking works with very little, and do so with instinct, as a habit. Perhaps, simple staple foods are nothing but an organic overflow of the person cooking.

Khichdi derives its power from what it is not. It chooses to sidestep the flashy culinary razzle dazzle, choosing instead to let the taste come to the food, rather than the other way around. There might well be other ways of defending this noble food, perhaps from the perspective of health, perhaps even from the standpoint of culinary heritage, but personally, the truth that khichdi spoke had nothing to do with these. It held things together, it sat in the middle of everything, right at the centre with no interest in anything that lies at the edges. Khichdi is home, comfort without any reason, taste without any credentials.

The stomach full with a hot meal sleeps easy. We regain an alignment with the world, things slip back into place, afternoon heat settles on us, and our eyes find it no longer useful to stay open. Slipping into khichdi-induced sleep on a hot summer Sunday, under a reluctant fan, the distant buzz of some insect, life takes on a timeless drone of inevitability. The complex, the layered and the textured can be great, but only the simple can be perfect.

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