On Saturday, when chef Sanjeev Kapoor answered Union Food Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s call to position the khichdi as gourmet fare, he was performing a feat that many khansamas in Mughal kitchens were required to accomplish for their livelihoods. The 17th-century text, Khulasat-i-Makulat u Mashrubat notes how the one-pot rice and lentil dish had to be adapted for fine dining. “Fry garlic, onion rings, cinnamon and cumin. Remove the mixture from the fire and set it aside. Fry mung dal in ghee. Add rice and mix well. Add the spice mixture along with ginger and hot water. Finally add ghee and slow cook to finish,” describes a recipe in the cookbook written during Aurangzeb’s time. The sixth Mughal Emperor was so fond of the dish that he gave it his name — Alamgiri khichdi.
There is food that marks opulence and indulgence and there are dishes that denote simplicity. Despite its association with royalty, the khichdi remained a quintessentially unostentatious fare. “In the 16th and 17th century,” writes food historian Lizzie Collingham, “the staple food of the rural peasants and also of the urban artisans and labourers was khichdi. Every region had a variation on the recipe, according to which grain they grew. Thus millet sometimes replaced the rice or chickpeas were used instead of lentils.”
Historically, in much of the world, kingly kitchens set the standards of high-class cooking. The khichdi too wasn’t impervious to social differentiation. But despite the embellishments by the royal chefs, it was its simplicity that made the khichdi the favourite of Mughal emperors. Aurangzeb ate frugally and the Alamgiri khichdi was in sync with the overall austere disposition of the emperor. Akbar — unlike Aurangzeb in almost every other manner — was an even more frugal eater than his great-grandson. Abul Fazl, his minister and biographer, notes that the emperor would fast on certain days, “avoid eating flesh” and usually eat khichdi.
For Akbar’s son, Jahangir, the dish was almost therapeutic in his long-battles against alcoholism. “It is not devoid of flavour and it suited me well. I ordered that on days of abstinence when I partake of dishes not made of flesh, they should frequently bring me this khichdi,” the fourth Mughal emperor wrote in his memoir, The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri.
The food historian Colleen Taylor Sen writes that Jahangir had acquired the love for the dish during his campaigns in Gujarat. “A food that is particular to the people of Gujarat is the bajra khichdi, a mixture of split peas and millet boiled together,” Jahangir writes in The Tuzuk. His chefs though had to devise a more spectacular version, lazeezan — lamb, nuts and saffron were combined with rice and moong dal — when the emperor was in a mood to indulge.
In modern times, Michelin-starred chefs have tried to tread the path of their predecessors in kitchens of Mughal emperors. There is a Black Olive Khichdi served with Rosemary Chilli Tikka and Chilli Pipette. There is a broccoli khichdi and a lobster khichdi. And there is a version that has almost 50 ingredients. But some dishes seem at odds with restaurants. They evoke the warmth of homes, aromas of kitchens and the fraternity of shared meals. The decorum of fine dining might not have any place for the unhinged licking of fingers after a meal of khichdi and brinjal fritters — or fried fish.
It remains to be seen if the food ministry’s enterprise turns the one-pot rice and lentil dish into the country’s culinary brand. But the dish may still hold its own in restaurants. After all, people eat less regularly at homes today. However, there is very little chance that the modern-day eater seeking comfort food will enjoy her rice and lentil meal like the 17th-century soldiers who the French traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier found “making khichdi more luxurious by dipping their fingers in bowls of melted ghee as they ate”.