Peasant Food, Posh Transitions: From Khichari To Indian Risotto
Image Credit: Khichdi | Image Credit:

Smoky, salty fish, spiced rice, and hard-boiled eggs on top—this combination is very familiar, very comforting, and was once a very common breakfast dish in posh British households. They call it kedgeree, or, as we know it, khichari. The early colonists developed a rather great fondness for our own khichari—just rice and lentils—because it reminded them of nursery food. Aw. Those little babies Fish was also a mainstay on their breakfast table, and the Indian cooks they had employed put the kichari and the salty fish together, put an egg on top, and tadaa, kedgeree. When this concoction traveled to Edwardian country homes—either via eager letters or rich regiments returning—the lentils got the boot and flaked smoked haddock took their place, apparently a Scottish intervention. It was no mere humble khichari anymore. Florence Nightingale – OG nurse – and Queen Victoria were partial to this now posh kedgeree.

Khichari, of course, does not have such posh origins. Although its very first iteration is hard to pinpoint, by the 16th and 17th centuries, khichari was already the staple food of rural peasants, urban artisans, and laborers, who formed the majority of the Indian population. Khichari then, as it remains largely now, was a simple dish of two grains, usually rice and lentils, boiled together in a little water. Depending on the staple crop of the region, rice and lentils could be switched for millet and chickpeas, and so forth. Ghee and khichari are a great combination now, and so it was even back then, as Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a 17th-century French gem merchant and traveler, noted on his visit to India. The richer the household got, the more spices were also incorporated into the humble khichari. So much so that Tavernier goes on to note in his diaries that at one meal prepared for the princes of Aurangabad, the khichari was so spice-forward—meaning the household was so rich—that he left the meal still nursing a very good appetite.

When Babur conquered the northern part of India, one of the things that troubled him most was Hindustani food—he simply did not like it. Where he grew up and in Islam, food has always been considered a great pleasure. Indeed, one of the perks of going to heaven was the extraordinary food and drink. The new subjects he had come to reign over, he realized, thought of eating more as a "medico-moral" activity than a pleasure, Lizzie Collingham notes. Yet he decided to retain a few Hindustani cooks in his kitchens. In Baburnama, he speaks of what ensued: after a Friday evening meal of "rabbit stew, saffron-flavored meat, and one or two titbits from a Hindustani dish of meat dressed in oil, served on a thin chapatti" prepared by these cooks, it was a night of vomiting. Worried that he had been poisoned, he made his dog eat the vomit. The dog took ill, as did the others who ate with him. Indeed, he was poisoned! At the behest of the mother of the deposed ruler Ibrahim Lodi, the Hindustani cooks poisoned Babur’s food. He recovered without incident but is now further disillusioned by Hindustani food and its cooks. This was not to be the case with his successors. On a trip to Persia, Humayun, his son, is believed to have entertained the Shah there with, well, khichari, a dish the Shah apparently took a liking to. Humayun’s grandson Jahangir is believed to have introduced the Gujarati khichari into the Mughal repertoire. It was his choice of meal on his vegetarian days. 

Now that humble khichari had royal approval, it took on a life of its own, and in its future iterations, like in Shah Jahan’s time, the Portuguese traveller notes that khichari was prepared with an excess of "almonds, raisins, cloves, mace, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, and pepper." Very rich indeed. And sounds a lot like the make-your-own khichdi using the various state-specific ingredients of India that Tresind, the restaurant in BKC Mumbai, serves as their grand entree on their tasting menu.

With the new overlords of the subcontinent, the khichari continued to evolve, including in its name. It was now kedgeree in British households, not unlike Deolali becoming Doolally or milagutanni becoming Mulligatawny. In Anglo-Indian cuisine—perhaps the first pan-Indian cuisine—this kedgeree began to acquire newer garnishes to suit the white palate. Fish, eggs, and onions came to the most favoured of these garnishes. As the kedgeree moved to the British Isles and into aristocratic households, the garnishes continued to pile on. Smoked haddock is now the latest in this new khichari. Colonialism and indentured labor ensured that we have versions of khichari in places as far-flung as Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Tonga, South Africa, etc. Of course, posh restaurants in the west would also serve it up as Indian risotto.

Whatever its iteration, whatever its spelling, whatever its garnishes... khichari/kedgeree continues to be peasant food that has stayed pleasant across countries and across cultures.