It goes with roti. It goes with rice. It’s whipped up in kitchens across India. It’s yellow and yummy. What is it?
I have no way of knowing, of course, but I’m positive that 99 per cent of those who tackle this question will alight on a single answer. So let me say it here and now. This column is not about dal. It is about another comfort food that is as yellow, as delicious and almost as ubiquitous.
The low-profile kadhi can be conjured up in 10 distracted minutes on a busy day. It is an appealing choice on an I-really-need-a-break-from-dal day. An easy choice on a low-on-ingredients-and-inspiration day. And a culinary creation so versatile that it has graced the feasts of Mughal emperors, but is equally at home in two-stool chaat stalls in Rajasthan.
I’ve always loved the clean flavours and velvety texture of kadhi . It was one of a handful of recipes in my arsenal when I went to Los Angeles to read journalism. Right up there among cheese sandwiches, dals and scrambled eggs. And, although my repertoire has expanded a bit, kadhi has retained its indispensable status.
What has changed is my understanding of the dish, and the realisation that there is no one size to fit all. For if you pop a Maharashtrian, a Gujarati and a Punjabi in a room for an hour, you will end up with 17 different versions, a lot of ruffled feather and names like aamchur kadhi , jeera-meera kadhi and radish kofta kadhi .
Kadhi , very simply, is a gravy made out of gram flour, water and dahi, to which various regions and recipes add their own tadkas and flourishes, resulting in hundreds of versions. The Maharashtrian version that I make is a silky yellow concoction that involves spluttering mustard and jeera seeds, fried chillies and garlic, salt and curry leaves. The Gujarati version is much paler, thinner and sweeter and is, for me, the highlight of even the most sumptuous thali. Rajasthani kadhi is spicier and punchier.
Almost every corner of India has, however, built upon these Kadhis 101. During early summer, the Maharashtrians often add raw mangoes into the dish, while the Gujaratis use the last bit of pulp clinging on to the seeds of ripe mangoes to create the unique ras no fajeto . The Rajasthanis use all manner of pep-me-ups: Papad, black dal, berries, gatte and the flowers of a shrub called phog . They also employ kadhi as a topping for samosas or kachoris while assembling an addictive chaat.
The Punjabis add crisp, fried pakoras into their kadhi. The Biharis add fluffy dumplings called badis . While Tamil cuisine adopts a more healthful approach and stirs vegetables, ranging from ash gourd to bhindi into their mor kozhambu . In parts of Pakistan, the kadhi is made with chicken. In Hyderabad, there is a mutton version. The Bohras whip up a delicious variation called khaloli , made with succulent meatballs. Sadaf Hussain, in his book Dastaan-e-Dastarkhan: Stories And Recipes From Muslim Kitchens , describes a kadhi cooked with sautéed apples and raw guava and flavoured with cashew paste.
Then there are kadhis that have done away with yoghurt entirely and use souring agents such as tamarind and kokum instead. Sindhi kadhi , for example, consists of vegetables — anything from drumstick to lotus stem — in a gravy of roasted besan and tamarind.
Given the manner in which kadhi has travelled across the country, it’s hardly surprising that the dish has a hoary past. It is widely believed that the kadhi originated in the deserts of Rajasthan, where cooks started using dairy products to supplement scarce vegetables. “Some also believe that the yogurt-based Karhi is from Northwestern India and is a precursor to what came to be known as the British curry,” writes food historian KT Achaya. “The British were exposed to this saucy dish much earlier than to the foods of the south; they had entered India in the early 1600s through the northwestern city of Surat, making kadhi quite possibly the original curry.”
Naturally, then, kadhi features in a number of ancient texts and recipe books. My favourite is the Nimatnama , written by the medieval Sultan Ghiyath Shah of Malwa and addressed to the King of Cockroaches with the request, “Please do not eat this, my offering to the culinary world”. It’s fortunate for us that the King of Cockroaches heeded this plea, allowing us to enjoy this extraordinary cookbook with its recipes, miniature paintings and insights into the mainstream dishes of the India of the 1400s.
Kadhi features in the Nimatnama , as it features in modern cookbooks and five-star menus. If the Mughals once adorned it with saffron and gold foil, experimental chefs are now topping it with spinach-and-tofu morsels and dehydrated bhindi, broccoli and asparagus. They are serving it as a side with grilled prawns and onion rings. And making sure that the kadhi khandaan continues to grow and multiply.
Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author