Ordinarily a gruel of lentils and rice, the good old khichdi for some is the ultimate comfort food while for others remains a reliable go-to in times of sickness. At World Food India, organised by the Ministry of Food Processing Industries of India, that has appointed celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor as its brand ambassador, the humble khichdi has been selected as the “brand food of India”. “Khichdi is consumed across the country. Everybody has their own version of it. Moreover, it is eaten in health and in sickness. It is made when someone is born as well as when someone dies,” says Kapoor.
In its simplest interpretation, the dish is a one-pot meal of lentils and rice with salt. But it morphs from region to region — in Gujarat, it takes on a slightly hot temper in Ram Khichdi while in Surat it is the mellow Sola Khichdi. In neighbouring Rajasthan, it is made with millets or whole wheat instead of rice, in Maharashtra it is made with tapioca pearls, and served as prasad in temples like Badrinath in Uttarakhand where it is cooked in a hot water spring. In Andhra Pradesh, keema khichdi is popular while Karnataka loads its bisi bele baath with vegetables. West Bengal and Tamil Nadu add a dash of sweetness to their bhog’er khichuri and pongal respectively.
“While it changes from state to state, it cannot be attributed to one religious community. But which region’s dish is being touted as the brand food of India,” asks Rana Safvi, historian and writer. She adds, “It is a popular dish and has found mention in serveral lores. The popular Birbal ki Khichdi made Akbar realise that when justice is delayed, it is denied. It is also believed that it was one of Jahangir’s favourite dishes cooked with pistachios, raisins, a motley of spices and ghee,” says , Rana Safvi. Food historian Pushpesh Pant reveals that “the most exotic khichdi was perhaps prepared in Wazid Ali Shah’s royal kitchen with almond slivers shaped as rice and pistachio nuts chiseled to mimic urad dal”.
This ancient dish, that has absorbed several native and external influences, according to Pant, is an “excellent example of our pluralism and diversity. Food is assimilative and evolving all the time and that is what khichdi illustrates.”
But people have not spared the chef for his choice, calling it “a bland idea” and also questioning if the consumption of khichdi will be a determining factor of their patriotism on social media. “Perhaps it is the association of khichdi to the poor man that is putting people off. It is after all considered to be peasant food, eaten only when one is abstaining from food that is considered lavish either due to ill-health or religious reasons,” says Alexander Moser, executive chef, AnnaMaya at Andaz.
With the three-day event, that will commence today, the Ministry is aiming to popularise and promote Indian cuisine along with pitching India as a potential destination for food production and manufacturing. To catch the world’s attention, they will be attempting to create a World Record by cooking 800 kgs of Khichdi on November 4 at the India Gate Lawns. “Trying to cook a record jumbo pot of khichdi is ridiculous. Many Sufi shrines cook titanic degs of biryani. Patriotic pride does not blend easily with the ambition to be plaited by the Guinness or Limca book of records. I think it’s finally time to say that food, ultimately, is too serious a business to be left to ‘celebrity’ chefs currying political favours,” says Pant.