On Kitchari

Yellow split mung dal, used to make kitchari.

Kitchari is a simple spiced dish made of rice, lentils (usually yellow split mung) and a range of vegetables. Eaten throughout the Indian subcontinent, it is a balanced meal providing a complete protein thanks to the combination of rice and dal. It has the consistency of risotto and is sometimes described as a savoury porridge. (I’m sorry but I think savoury porridge sounds weird, I’d probably describe it as a sort of stew.)

Indians often reminisce about eating it when unwell, the dish your mother makes you when you’re sick. We ate it as a sort of default. My mother would make a big pot when she was tired or had a busy day, the ultimate batch cook, the sort of dish you can make with whatever you have in stock. She made kitchari with the leftover ingredients in my fridge and cupboard when she and my dad helped me move out of my shared flat in final year after graduation. It’s comforting food, warm and filling.

It was served sometimes at the temple, usually to grumbles of disgruntlement, sometimes for breakfast or lunch, probably the day before the shopping had been done and there wasn’t much in stock. If someone wasn’t much of a cook, they might only be able to make kitchari. It was also yellow, very yellow. We reached a low one week at the chronically understaffed, under-resourced Belfast temple when there was nothing but yellow kitchari in place of the usual lavish Sunday feast. (My mum’s kitchari was always better than the temple kitchari and was often accompanied by fresh chapattis.)

If you’ve ever had the free food served near SOAS and UCL in Bloomsbury, you’ll have an idea of the sort of kichari we ate at the temple. It is made with donated ingredients and varies from day to day. Sometimes there is yoghurt in there, sometimes even pasta. It’s hardly a poster child for vegetarian food but they give out hundreds of plates a day. This is part of the concept of sharing prasad or sanctified food; eating it is believed to bring you closer to God. Prasad is accepted by the eater as a form of blessing but donations are welcome.

The free kitchari is not photogenic, but it’s been very tasty every time I have had it. (There’s something quite fundamental about a stew-like dish made of things chucked in a pot. For hundreds of years, the English ate pottage, which was made of whatever they had and cooked in a pot over the hearth.) Sometimes at work we have a big meeting at the University of London Union on Malet Street and an army of careers consultants troupe out to lunch. A big group of us stop to get some free kitchari and sit in nearby Gordon Square or Russell Square. Sitting on a bench, a man in a velvet waistcoat ate his kitchari from an ornate Moroccan patterned ceramic bowl and passed me a salt shaker, suggesting that my ‘Krishna lunch’ as he called it, needed salt.

Kichari is mentioned eighteen times in KT Achaya’s A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. It also mentions four different spellings: khichadi, kicchadi, khichdi and khichiri. Kitchari and kichadi are used by Meera Sodha and Padma Lakshmi respectively. (There is also a fashion brand called Kitri which sells beautiful shirt dresses for £145.)

Liz Cunningham mentions kitchari eleven times but does not vary her spelling. She chronicles the fascinating culinary relationship between the Indians and the British in her book Curry: A Tale Of Cooks and Conquerors. British travellers in India noted how people across the subcontinent ate a simple spiced dish made of ghee, rice and lentils, often served with pickles. Depending on the region, millet might replace rice or chickpeas would be used in place of lentils.

Humayun (1508-1556), son of Babur and the second emperor of India, spent fifteen years in exile in Afghanistan and Persia. In Persia he served the Shah kitchari, who was said to greatly enjoy it. The Mughal emperor Jahangir (1569 – 1627) adopted a number of Hindu customs, including following a regular meat-free fast day on which he ate kitchari. He was said to be a great fan of it, having tried a millet-based version in Gujarat and immediately employed a Gujarati cook. The humble Hindu peasant dish thus became part of the Mughal courtly repertoire. A French visitor to Shah Jahan’s court in the early 1600s tried a Bengali variation of kitchari, described as costly and made with almonds, raisins and fragrant spices.

The British in India ate an eclectic range of food from across the subcontinent, adding various garnishes and pickles to rice and curry. To kitchari, they added the Persian garnish of chopped boiled eggs along with fish and fried onions, giving rise to the Anglo-Indian dish of kedgeree. It became a British breakfast staple, with the lentils omitted. Recipes published in the Jewish Chronicle in the late 1800s included kedgeree (Panayani, 2008) During the second world war, the Ministry of Information issued a kedgeree recipe made with pearl barley, a departure from the rice-based recipe in Edward Palmer’s 1936 cookbook. (Edward Palmer opened Veeraswamy, London’s oldest Indian restaurant in 1926.) Some recipes include white sauce (we’ve talked before about the disturbing British habit of making curry with a white sauce) or milk.

The simple dish of kitchari which many ate growing up seems to have shifted in status. It has been rebranded as Indian risotto by Gaggan Anand, star of his own episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix. Kutir in London’s Chelsea charges £18:50 for their kitchari! (When I told my mum about this, she suggested that they must have put the decimal point in the wrong place.) It seems to have been co-opted by the clean eating, Goop crowd. A quick Google brings up recipes on websites belonging to white women who use words like ‘nourish’, ‘heal’ and ‘cleanse’ and ae interested in alternative health and Ayurveda or traditional Indian medicine. According to Ayurveda, kitchari brings balance and is recommended as a cleansing food. Most of these recipes feel very familiar and are made with rice, yellow split mung, a mix of vegetables and a range of different spices, including asafoetida rather than onions, as per the brahmin diet.

Kedgeree isn’t eaten terribly widely any more, it seems quite old-fashioned although Felicity Cloake dedicated one of her ‘How To Cook The Perfect Columns’ to it in 2011. Kitchari on the other hand has moved into the zone of wealthy women who shop at Whole Foods and go on expensive yoga retreats. And so I am yet again left scratching my head that the things my mum has been doing for years are now fashionable and associated with wealth and status. That said, if it’s good enough for the Persian shah, and three Mughal emperors including Shah Jahan, who had the Taj Mahal built, it’s good enough for you and indeed Gwyneth Paltrow.

References

Achaya, K.T. (2002) A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Cloake, F. (2011) How To Cook The Perfect Kedgeree – Guardian article available at  -https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/feb/24/how-to-cook-perfect-kedgeree

Collingham, E. M (2006) Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. New York: Oxford University Press

Paniyani, P. (2008) Spicing Up Britain: A Multicultural History of British Food. London: Reaktion Books.

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