Aah, so it’s not going to be mandated the national dish of India, after all. Thank heavens. Not that I have anything against khichdi. Indeed, it’s my dish of choice on rainy days, accompanied by deep-fried pakoras, papads and prawn pickle. But khichdi as national dish? That’s like saying drab is my favourite colour.
My objection is to foisting one national dish on a country that displays such culinary diversity. (For that matter, I believe it’s difficult to impose anything by diktat in a temperamentally-anarchic society like ours.) As food historian Pushpesh Pant says, it’s a “sad, bad idea to nationalise cultural heritage. People should have a sense of ownership, unprompted.
That’s what legacy is all about.” Two, I love my greens but don’t see why our national dish should be vegetarian. Which is why I hugely enjoyed all the sarcy memes and jokes that were sparked by the reports of the chawal-dal mix being singled out for national honour, and was just gearing up for a candle march to Jantar Mantar in protest when Union Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur clarified that khichdi was just being celebrated as a dish that represents Brand India; nothing more, nothing less.
Now that a few days have passed since the ‘outrage’ and I know we don’t need to click our heels and salute every time khichdi turns up at the table, I think the minister and celebrity Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who cooked over 800 kg of the stuff in a 1,000-litre capacity kadhai at the World Food India event in the capital on Saturday, to “symbolise India’s great culture of unity in diversity at its best,” may be onto something. Because after much mulling over our regional cuisines, the humble khichdi does seem to be the only dish that finds expression in kitchens across the country.
Sweet, salty, spicy, vegetarian, non-vegetarian, we have khichdis in all flavours. There’s pongal in Tamil Nadu and bisi bele bhath in Karnataka. Hyderabad has the spice-laden keeme ki khichdi. In addition to the watery gruel cooked for patients, Uttar Pradesh has the amla khichdi that must be had on Makar Sankranti; Bengal the ghee-soaked khichuri packed with cauliflower and peas, and Odisha the yummy mix that’s served as bhog to one lakh pilgrims a day at Puri’s Jagannath Mandir.
In the West, Maharashtra has the sabudana khichdi and Gujarat the sola khichdi with vegetables, cream and—wait for it—mincemeat. “Like other signature Indian dishes like the samosa, biryani and halwa, the khichdi too evolves, triggered by regional and seasonal imperatives like availability of produce and local palate,” explains Pant.
Not just geography, the dish works across history and religions as well. Historians mention Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya dipping their fingers in it while Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta talks about having kishri, containing rice and beans, during his travels in India around 1350. Later books have Aurangzeb chomping on Alamgiri khichdi, containing fish and boiled eggs, while Wajid Ali Shah’s favourite is said to have been a rich khichdi packed with almond slivers and pistachio. I wonder which version Minister Kaur likes personally.