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Storm in a hot-pot

Pritha Sen | Updated on January 20, 2018

BLink_monsoon food in cal.jpg   -  Dipankar Bhattacharya

Fit for the foodie: Restaurants ranging from the low-end to the five stars host khichuri and hilsa (in the picture) festivals during monsoon, knowing well that a Bengali will, at a crunch, even swim to this meal.

Fit for the foodie: Restaurants ranging from the low-end to the five stars host khichuri and hilsa (in the picture) festivals during monsoon, knowing well that a Bengali will, at a crunch, even swim to this meal.   -  Shutterstock

Crackling up: As far as tempering is concerned, there are innumerable permutations and combinations — from the humble jeera and garam masala

Crackling up: As far as tempering is concerned, there are innumerable permutations and combinations — from the humble jeera and garam masala   -  Shutterstock

How the Bengali dreamt up an entire monsoon culinary spread revolving around the ubiquitous khichuri or khichdi

Undisputedly, Indians are in love with the monsoons, albeit for different reasons. Recall the scene from the film Lagaan — ominous dark clouds on the horizon, rumbling thunder, the wind gathering speed, a brilliant streak of lightning and then the silver sheets of rain. The entire village, in some remote corner of western India, erupts into joyous dancing and singing. And perhaps, there’s more singing over chai and sizzling pakodas.

Cut to Bengal, where the monsoon lasts a good four months. Yes, there is exultation at the first drops of rain. But the song and dance happens in the kitchen. And yes, Bengal alone, in all of India, holds the distinction of having conjured up an entire menu dedicated to the rain gods.

True, the country welcomes all six seasons with equal verve and joy. The innumerable festivals bear testimony to this. However, varsha or monsoon holds a very special place in our hearts. A season captured in all its glory in music, poetry and painting — at once as delicate as the tinkling of Radha’s anklets and as furious and destructive as the war drums of Kurukshetra. From Kalidasa’s Meghaduta to Tansen’s Mian-ki-Malhar, from our folk music traditions to Tagore’s songs on varsha rwitu, the season’s bounty of love, longing and creation on one hand and destruction on the other have always held us in thrall.

For the Bengali, gastronomy perhaps adds the umami element to the heady smell of wet earth and romance associated with the monsoon. The housebound Bengali of yore, besides writing poetry and composing love songs to the rhythmic beat of the incessant rains, also dreamt up an entire monsoon culinary spread. It revolved around the ubiquitous khichuri or khichdi, a mix of rice, pulses and assorted vegetables, slow-cooked into a gruel. And it was served with cow’s ghee, an array of pickles sweet and sour — mango, tamarind, jujube, Indian olive, lime — made painstakingly in the summer, and a variety of vegetable fries and fritters, before slowly moving up the food chart to include eggs, various kinds of fried fish — the crowning glory being hilsa and its roe — and, at the height of extravagance, slow-cooked mutton curry. The meal ended typically with tomato chutney, papad and sweets.

So it was then, and so it is now. Every Bengali home eagerly looks forward to the khichuri meal even as the downpour threatens to become a deluge. Not to be left behind, restaurants ranging from the low-end to the five stars host khichuri and hilsa festivals at this time, knowing well that a Bengali will, at a crunch, even swim to this meal.

The rest of India is not that emotional about their khichdi, associating it more with sickbed or infirmary food. An exception is Gujarat, which has a few variations to its credit. A popular saying in north India goes — “Khichdi ka chaar yaar, ghee, papad, dahi aur achaar (Khichdi has four pals: ghee, papad, curd and pickle)”. Not so for the Bengali, though, who has raised the bar many times over. The dish begins as a thin watery gruel, which slowly evolves through many avatars to become a fine-dining experience during the rains. Celebrated author Mani Shankar Mukherjee, better known as Sankar, writes in his book Bangalir Khaowa Daowa (The Eating Habits of the Bengali): “All of India knows that the khichuri exists for the Bengali and the Bengali exists for khichuri.” This communal love is expressed in the 13th-century Manasa Mangal Kabya, a compendium of narrative folk poetry dedicated to the snake goddess Manasa, where Shiva asks Parvati to cook him a meal of moong dal khichuri with daab (tender coconut) water. Manasa acquires a special status among Bengal’s rural communities during the monsoon because it is also the season of snakebite deaths. Perhaps the tradition of celebrating the monsoon with khichuri began with Shiva’s request to Parvati.

The origin of the name ‘khichdi’, also known as kushari, lies in the Sanskrit ‘khiccha’, meaning a rice-and-pulse-based dish. The formal Bengali name of the dish is a rather curious ‘khechranno’, with ‘anno’ meaning rice. Further digging has revealed that ‘khechar’ in Sanskrit means birds. So khechranno literally is bird-feed! I suppose the practice of scattering mixed grains for birds is at the root of the nomenclature. The Charak Samhita, an ayurvedic medical text, extols the virtues of the khichuri. The dish also finds mention in the writings of Seleucas Nicator, the emissary of Alexander the Great, and in the medieval travelogues of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Tavernier.

It is believed that the love for khichuri spread across India through pilgrimages, as it was the easiest to cook. The variety that Bengal makes is attributed to the Bengali’s famed wanderlust, with the ideas for different khichuris gleaned from travels to different places. One of Bengal’s earliest printed cookbooks, from the late 19th century, Pak-Pronali lists at least 17 variations. The khichuri section typically runs into several pages in many of these cookbooks and they even record meaty khichuris such as Mughlai, Kabuli, Jehangiri, Zarda, Daudkhani and Makeswar — clearing showing the influence of Muslim rule in Bengal. Other influences include Gujarati, Armenian, Yehudi (Jewish), Afghani and English.

The mindboggling variety notwithstanding, there are two broad categories of Bengali khichuri — geela or liquid and gruelly, and bhuni or dry and rich. And both kinds lend themselves equally to vegetarian (sans onion and garlic) and carnivore versions. A whole range of dals, from the Bengal special sona moong to masoor and urad to chana (both polished and whole), are paired with various kinds of rice like the prized gobindo bhog or the indigenous brown unpolished rice or the fine Dehradun variety. As far as tempering is concerned, there are innumerable permutations and combinations with spices ranging from the humble jeera to the imported hing to fragrant garam masalas cooked with a plethora of vegetables or fish, prawns or egg, and reaching a crescendo with meat. And, of course, when it comes to the accompaniments, the more the better.

In more modern times, Pragyasundari Devi, the niece of Rabindranath Tagore and doyenne of Bengali cuisine, elaborates on the ideal accompaniments for khichuri. Apart from the usual crisp potato, brinjal, pumpkin, cauliflower, fish and fish roe or egg fritters fried with rice flour and besan, or monsoon greens cooked with poppy-seed paste, she lists the Anglo-Indian chicken country captain, prawn dopiaza, mutton jalfrezi, various vindaloos, fish kalia, fried liver, crumbed fish fry, among many others. When recommending a tomato chutney to go with the above, she makes a concession saying: “Khichuri doesn’t taste too bad either with plain curd”. She goes on to expound on at least 20 kinds of vegetarian khichuris alone. These include the phensa khichuri made with moong or masoor dal; zafrani bhuni khichuri; malai khichuri, til or sesame seed khichuri, alu bukhara khichuri; jackfruit kofta khichuri and more.

It’s not without reason, then, that author Sankar devotes a whole chapter to the khichuri in his book. Additionally, every family in Bengal has its favourite version. Curiously though, at the end of the day, every Bengali swears by the vegetarian khichuri with an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian accompaniments, chief among them being the ubiquitous begun bhaja and fried hilsa.

My personal favourites are the Ananda khichuri served at the Ma Anandamayee Ashram and the bhuni khichuri served by my grandaunt Parul Sengupta, who has two mouth-watering cookbooks to her credit. I leave you with the recipes for both.

Ananda khichuri

(Serves two)

1 cup gobindo bhog rice

3/4 cup yellow moong dal

3 tsp refined oil

3 tsp ghee

2 tsp sugar

1/4 tsp cumin seeds

1 inch ginger, chopped

2 whole dry chillies

2 bay leaves

3-4 green chillies

Salt to taste

Vegetables (sweet potato, red pumpkin, pointed gourd or parwal , ridge gourd and cauliflower), diced

1 Wash rice and dal and keep them soaked while you cut the vegetables.

2 Heat oil and temper with cumin seeds, bay leaves and ginger. Add the vegetables and fry on high heat quickly for a few minutes. Add the rice and dal, and mix well. Add salt and sugar.

3 Add enough water to cook to gruel consistency. Take off fire with ghee and green chillies.

4 Serve hot with fritters of your choice, or the Bengali labda — a mixed vegetables dish.

Bhuni khichuri

(Serves two)

1 cup gobindo bhog rice

1 cup roasted yellow moong dal

3 tsp ghee

Coconut slivers

2 onions, sliced

2 tsp ginger paste

2 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp red chilli powder

2 whole dry red chillies

2 bay leaves

2 tbsp curd

Whole green cardamom, cloves and cinnamon

Button onions and grated ginger

Sugar and salt to taste

Method

1 Bring dal to boil. When 3/4 cooked and the water dries up, take it off the fire and keep aside. The grains must be separate and semi firm.

2 Wash rice and keep ready

3 Heat some ghee and fry thin coconut slivers golden and keep aside. Fry the sliced onions in the ghee as well and keep aside.

4 Now in the same ghee, add dry red chillies, bay leaves, cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon.

5 Add ginger paste, coriander powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder and red chilli powder, all mixed together in curd. Fry this masala well, add four-five cups of water and let it all boil a few minutes. Remove from flame.

6 In fresh ghee, add the rice and fry it well till all grains are coated with ghee and separate. Add button onions, sliced ginger, the dal and mix well again. Add the masala mix, salt and sugar to taste. Bring to boil and cover.

7 When water evaporates, add the coconut slivers and green chillies and put on slow cook for about 15 minutes on a tawa.

8 Serve with fried hilsa, fried liver or mutton bhuna.

Pritha Sen is a food writer based in Gurgaon

Published on June 03, 2016

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