Last week, laid low by a viral infection and a bad back, I asked Mani, my cooking help, to make me something mood-uplifting and, yet, light on the palate and easy on the stomach. She looked perplexed. Understandably so. The happy hormones usually take some coaxing to respond to the combination of flavours I was asking for, and viral infections are known to make them act even more pricey.
Mani popped cumin seeds and snapped a small green chilli in a kadhai (wok) with minimal oil, and in an instant, added moong dal and rice to this tempering. The spluttering of the masalas and the splash of water in the kadhai was the signal to my clogged sinuses that relief was on the way. And as if to assuage them a little more, Mani grated some ginger, added salt and a pinch of sugar. The plopping sound of the mixture coming to a boil did wonders. The muse was itching to return to work, when I asked Mani to dice some potatoes and chop some carrots and French beans. And, the therapy was almost complete when she added a knob of butter to this runny one-pot meal. I was even happier because the dish was a close version of what my grandmother and parents thought to be the cure for all viral fever-related eccentricities — the khichdi, or the “khichudi”.
It would be unfair, however, to slot this rice and lentil dish as just another antidote to wicked microbes. Admiration for the khichdi is known to have extended over centuries and its devotees have ranged from Mughal emperors to peasant and artisan communities to Michelin-starred chefs. The food historian KT Achaya writes that “the recipe for khichdi made in Akbar’s kitchen specifies equal proportions of rice, moong dal and ghee, along with spices. Jahangir’s favoured food on his days of abstinence from meat was a very rich Gujarati khichdi called lazizan with nuts and spices”. And Aurangzeb was so fond of the one-pot dish that he gave it his name, the Alamgiri khichdi.
When it rained, my mother would make a variation of this rice-lentil dish using masoor dal. It was enriched by thinly-sliced onions, fried till they were golden brown. She would add a large dollop of ghee at the end. And to celebrate the weather, she would roast papads and make fritters of onions, potatoes, and brinjal — even green chillies. Some mango pickle and a raita of cucumber completed the monsoon smorgasbord. The best khichdis are made with sturdy and short grain rice varieties like the parmal, mother would often say.
But at times, she would use the more deeply-flavoured gobindobhog rice. The moong dal would be roasted more intensely at such times. This khichdi requires meticulous attention to detail, my mother would say, stirring the rice and lentil vigorously to coat them with the flavour of the masalas. Some of this flavour would make its way into the halved potatoes that my mother had dropped in. And again, it was ghee that would bring the flavours together — or, perhaps, it was the bonhomie, as my mother would say. The dish that Mani had cooked for me didn’t have any ghee or any fried accompaniments. But as I slurped it down, I couldn’t help recollect the unhinged licking of fingers after a meal of khichdi and fries during monsoon days gone by.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Bon Appetit! Simple pleasures’
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