Welcome to Bhog season. The Khichuri or Khichdi, is the epitome of desi comfort food, with various iterations around the country. While for most people it is a heartwarming thick gruel mostly had as convalescence, in the East, the Khichuri is a royal lunch affair served with an assortment of vegetable stir fries and fritters, is a celebrated feast served to goddesses, and is romantically linked to rainy days and fried Hilsa.
The word “Khichuri” or the Hindi “Khichdi”, etymologically speaking, denotes a mess. It is used to describe confusion and commotion, chaos and cacophony. Khichdi can be a troubled state of mind, a badly written essay, or an underwhelming film. Why was a word with such a negative connotation used to name such a delightful preparation, is beyond me. I presume it is the one-pot nature of cooking the Khichdi. Dump rice, dal, and veggies into a pot or pressure cooker, add basic spices, boil, and voila. My experiences with the Khichdi outside the East has been quite underwhelming. Khichdi is seen as a sick day meal, is redundantly referred to as “Dal Khichdi” (what else could you be making Khichdi with?), is cooked with long fragrant-less rice, and doesn’t have any vegetables in it. To make matters worse, it is served with raita or curd. The first time I was served Khichdi with raita, I politely excused myself from that very abhorrent scenario. Also, Khichdis are mostly loose gruels — which I have a lot of issue with — and lack flavour or olfactory personalities.
The Khichuri, on the other hand, is a different story altogether.
For starters, the rice used for the Khichuri in the East of India is the outrageously fragrant Gobindobhog variety, which is a sun-baked rice (referred to as aatop or cooked by the sun in Bengali and Oriya), short and stout in nature. The rice and the dal (the richer versions use moong, while the homelier loose version may use masoor) are first fried in mustard oil with bay leaves for a long time till they turn almost-golden, slightly-crisp, and more perfume-y. Then, powdered spices like turmeric and chilli powder are added, in goes lightly fried halved potatoes and coconut slices, and the whole thing is cooked to perfection. When done, steamed cauliflower florets, beans, and carrots (winter varieties), and fresh peas are added, and a tempering of whole spices is ladled on the Khichuri, as a final finishing touch. The pot is locked to allow flavours and fragrances to steep and do their magic. The amount of water depends on how tight you like your Khichuri to be. I prefer mine very tight and sticky, while I know people who prefer looser versions. The tight version is generally served as bhog or offering to goddesses along with a wide range of sides. The looser kind is generally one that is rustled up as a quick lunch at home.
Bangladeshis make a drier, almost-pulao-like Khichuri which is called Bhuna Khichuri, and is served during Lakshmi Puja in many East Bengali homes. They have also introduced the outrageously decadent Keema Khichuri which is an explosion of textures and flavours, cooked with succulent mince or chunks of goat. Many Bangladeshis and East Bengalis cook a version of the meat Khichuri and call it “Pish-Paash”, which I believe, could be a derivative of “mish-mash”. Unspiced, extra-boiled, and loose Khichuri and Khichdi is a common baby food in the sub-continent. In Hyderabad, Khichdi-Keema-Khatta (Khichdi, a dry mince stir fry, and a sour gravy or salan) is a common breakfast item. Fiji, surprisingly, also enjoys the Khichdi a lot. Finally, the Anglo-Indian Kedgeree, a true mess that includes rice, lentils, flakes of smoked Haddock, hard boiled eggs, and that thing called curry powder, is the Englishman’s attempt — and failure — at replicating the Khichdi.
For Bengalis though, the sides are as important as the Khichuri. A Khichuri lunch will include a line up of fritters, which can include potatoes, pumpkin, okra, brinjal (by itself or dipped in a gram flour batter), squash flowers dipped in batter, fried eggs, and fried fish, to name a few. Ghee is generously drizzled on the Khichuri at the start of the meal, and pickles are often had as accompaniment. During the monsoons, fat slices of Hilsa are fried for the Khichuri meal, along with deep fried fish eggs. For bhog offerings, a vegetable mish-mash, called Labra (originally called “Lafra”, the dish is simply spiced, cooked in a lot of oil, and includes a wide array of regular vegetables along with banana stalk, heart of banana blossoms, and taro) is the star companion. I have personally spent a lot of time trying to perfect the bhog Khichuri, and I have realised that because, during an offering, the Khichuri is basically steeping in its flavours for a few hours before being consumed, and is also being passively smoked by incense and camphor, the resting time and fragrance absorption lends it a different flavour profile altogether, making the bhog Khichuri a truly divine experience. I experimented with this by smoking a pot of Khichuri with camphor and incense for a few hours, and realised that it does make a difference. Just like kebabs are smoked before grilling, who knew getting unintentionally smoked during a religious ritual can lend such a wonderful facet to a pot of food.
The monsoons, Durga Puja and Kali Puja, and the winters, are the perfect occasions for Khichuri. Be it a humble quick meal or in its dressed-up avatar, the Khichuri/Khichdi truly ties our country together, and is a celebration of her produce.
If you haven’t read this, check out about Annapurna Leaves and the “Vanilla Of The East”