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Stirred up over khichdi: India can never have a dish that claims to be national

We have always imbibed diverse influence and adapted and adopted alien cuisines. It is ridiculous to associate delicacies, attire, art or music with a religion or insist that only the parochially local can be truly national

analysis Updated: Nov 09, 2017 17:47 IST
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor attempting a world record by preparing 800 kg of khichdi at the World Food Event in New Delhi, November 4. (Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Good old khichdi has finally managed to hog the culinary limelight. Long looked down upon as the prescribed diet for the aged and the infirm, it edged out more aristocratic contenders such as melt-in-the-mouth kebabs, aromatic biryanis and exotic confections to almost get designated the ‘national dish’. But in the end, what was touted as the Big Bang turned out to be a bit of a whimper. The storm in the social media tea cup compelled the minister of food processing to issue a statement that no such move was being contemplated. All that was afoot was an effort to cook a titanic pot of khichdi that could find a place in the Guinness Book: Just some innocent fun and games to generate a buzz so as to attract visitors to World Food India.

Still, we must thank whoever thought of the tamasha for making our compatriots aware of more than 10 avatars of the khichdi — vegetarian and non-vegetarian — that are rustled up in India. Different regional recipes as well as ritually and culturally significant variations were highlighted much to the amusement of the audience. However the aborted coronation has left in its wake some serious questions for us to grapple with.

Why are we Indians so obsessed with prefixes ‘national’ and ‘international’? And why should the term ‘national’ be reserved only for things sprouting out of the native soil? Some unfortunate souls who dared to raise a dissenting voice contesting khichdi’s claim to the throne became targets of ultra-nationalist fury. What could be a better contender for a ‘national’ dish than a satvik delicacy claiming a lineage dating back to Vedic times? Anyone with an iota of political correctness among performing celebrity chefs and their patrons must have been aware of the hazards of touching the ‘alien’ biryani or kebab. From architecture to language, costume to cuisine, religious zealots have polluted what is fashionably referred to as the ‘dominant discourse’. The controversies that continue to smoulder — from the national anthem and the national song to national language and national animal — leave us little time to accomplish anything truly remarkable at the international level.

To return to matters culinary and our resplendent intangible heritage in the realm of food, khichdi may be a deserving candidate to represent the nation, but there are other signature dishes from diverse regions and cities that too bear testimony to India’s syncretic cultural ethos.

India has imbibed diverse influences through millennia adopting and adapting everything from costumes to cuisines. It is ridiculous to associate delicacies, attire, art or music with a particular religion or insist that only the parochially local can be truly national.

Much before the birth of the ‘nation state’ in Western Europe, great Empires had spawned globalisation of trade encouraging cultural cross-fertilisation. The historic Silk Road(s) and the legendary Spice Route connected Asia with Arabia and Mediterranean Europe.

Food that many consider Indian today may have come to this land from foreign shores. How easily we forget that the samosa, the popular snack we gleefully gobble, descended from the Central Asian samboosa that is fried, boiled or baked from Kazakhstan to Iran. It is mentioned in Abul Fazl’s Ain-e-Akbari as samushak and has many regional variations. By the time it travels from the Gangetic belt to the borders of Bengal both the name and the filling change. The singhada here is prepared with finely chopped and differently spiced stir-fried potatoes. The refugee Punjabi Delhi population insists on ‘enriching’ it with paneer and nuts while in Bhopal and Hyderabad the keema samosa challenges the potato and peas filling. Luqmi in Hyderabad seems to resurrect the original recipe of delicate Iranian pastry best that had a pine-nuts and mince filling. Then there is the sweet samosa that tantalises us with some intriguing questions: Is it the Lobong Lotika that has inspired the mawa-packed saffron laced meetha samosa or the other way round? The misspelt ‘biff’ samosa, which we chanced upon in Aurangabad last year, is the poor thing that like Oscar Wilde’s love, dare not utter its name in these intolerant times.

The halwa set foot on Indian soil, most likely on the Malabar Coast, when the Arab seafaring traders anchored their ships here. The Habshi Halwa has an Abyssinian connection. It has grown roots and spread its branches in all directions. From kesari and badam halwa in southern India to Karachi halwa, also known as Sindhi or Bombay halwa in Mumbai to lockjaws such as Sohan halwa in Delhi to Gajar ka in Punjab, Seb ka in Jammu and Kashmir to the ubiquitous Suji ka and Dal ka halwa in the Hindi Heartland, the regional and seasonal variations are countless. The more exotic recipes are the Khus Khus ka (poppy seeds) halwa, Ande ka halwa and yes, Gosht ka halwa. The upma bears testimony to the fact that not all halwas need to be sweet!

Not only khichdi but also halwa and samosa, along with paratha and pulav celebrate our resplendent diversity and inclusive pluralism. These dishes have never recognised man-made frontiers or political boundaries reset by linguistic states. Why then, waste time contesting ‘ownership’? It’s much better to enjoy what we have imported or inherited from ‘others’. Isn’t it enough that by improvising on ‘alien’ themes we continue to experience ecstasy?

Pushpesh Pant is a food historian, author and TV anchor

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 09, 2017 13:19 IST