Record-breaking 'khichdi' attempt stirs up debate in India

The dish of rice, lentils and vegetables is eaten across the country, but is it a 'national dish'?

epa06307645 Indian renowned Chef Sanjeev Kapoor (L), Indian Union Minister for Food Processing and Member of Parliament (MP), Harsimrat Kaur Badal (C), Minister for Food Processing Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti (2-L ) and Indian Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev (2-R) stir khichdi, an Indian traditional staple dish in a wok during an attempt to make a world record at World Food India 2017 in New Delhi, India, 04 November 2017. According to news report, Indian Chefs attempted a World record by cooking around 800 kilograms of  khichdi, an Indian traditional staple dish  at World Food India 2017. Later the dish was distributed to the underprivileged people in Delhi.  EPA/RAJAT GUPTA

The heavy iron wok, two metres wide and with a 1,000-litre capacity, had to be hoisted on to the stage with a crane. The stage was made of concrete to bear the weight of the wok, and the cooks who milled around it wielded spatulas the size of kayak paddles.

The attempt on Saturday to set a Guinness world record by preparing 800 kilos of khichdi, a one-pot dish of rice, lentils and vegetables, was meant to be the highlight of the three-day World Food India exhibition in New Delhi, organised by the government to promote the country's food processing sector. But the choice of dish generated a sideshow that illustrates the variety of Indian food and the politics involved.

Harsimrat Kaur Badal, India's food processing minister, called khichdi "the wonder staple food of India" while discussing the event last week. The dish symbolised "India's great culture of unity in diversity", she told reporters, and added that it had been selected as "Brand India Food".

The meaning of the title is unclear, but it was swiftly interpreted by the media to mean that Ms Badal had declared khichdi the country’s national dish.

The designation of a national dish in itself was no surprise. India is fond of declaring national entities: a national tree (the banyan), a national aquatic animal (the river dolphin), a national fruit (the mango), and even a national microbe (Lactobacillus delbrueckii, used to produce yogurt).

The purported choice of khichdi, however, drew approval and scorn alike. By the following day, when Ms Badal clarified that khichdi was merely being used as an emblem for the exhibition, a national debate was raging - on social media, in newspapers and on prime-time TV.

“When I first heard about it, the choice really stumped me,” said Rajiv Vasavada, a chef who runs a catering business in Mumbai. “Look, I love khichdi. Who doesn’t? But it’s comfort food. It isn’t the kind of dish you’d hold up as the gold standard of inventive cooking.”

Khichdi resembles a thick, savoury porridge; cooked for so long that the rice and lentils melt into each other and the vegetables go soft.

“This is why it’s sickbed food, or food for old people,” Mr Vasavada said.

Khichdi is also emphatically vegetarian, which endears it to the conservative Hindus who support Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu nationalist groups. Roughly 70 per cent of Indians eat meat, but the BJP’s leaders energetically promote vegetarianism.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP government shut down dozens of slaughterhouses earlier this year. Vijay Rupani, the BJP’s chief minister in Gujarat, said in April that he wanted to make his state entirely vegetarian. The BJP governments in several states have even stopped including an egg in the daily midday meal provided to poor children at school.

But in its defence, khichdi has a deep history, and is common, in various forms, across the country.

The Vedas, Hindu texts that are at least 3,000 years old, mention a dish of stewed rice and lentils called kshirika. The Persian traveller Alberuni, who came to India in 1017, and the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who was in India around 1350, both found similar preparations during their visits.

“This is what they call kishri, and on this, they breakfast every day,” Ibn Battuta wrote.

In a country with a myriad of food traditions that vary greatly from region to region, khichdi has a local but familiar form everywhere.

Tamil Nadu has pongal, made either spicy with peppercorns or sweet with cane sugar. In Andhra Pradesh, a variation is made with minced lamb; in several coastal regions, fish is an ingredient. Maharashtra replaces rice with sago seeds, and a rich Gujarati version includes raisins and pistachios, as once made for the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

A form of khichdi has even entered British cuisine, said Bridget White-Kumar, a Bengaluru-based historian of Anglo-Indian food.

Sometime in the 1700s, during the British Raj, cooks for a Scottish regiment realised that the colonial breakfast foods of kippers and porridge could be combined. “So they added smoked haddock and boiled eggs to this combination of rice and lentils,” Ms White-Kumar said, “and that’s what the British breakfast dish ‘kedgeree’ is. It’s a version of khichdi.”

She does not think khichdi qualifies as a national dish, although “some form of khichdi is cooked by every community in India”.

“The ingredients are so simple and so basic,” she said. “You have rice and you have lentils. Everyone cooked them together in one way or another.”