Khichdi, khichri, kissuri, koshary; a multitude of monikers for a versatile and beloved dish cherished in the South Asian subcontinent and beyond. Khichdi is a savoury porridge, made with rice, grains or lentils.
In times of sickness, health, and, every Ramadan, the universally loved staple is there, ready to satisfy with its carby goodness. Like its name, the meal has many variations in the way it is prepared, often depending on where one hails from. Muslims and non-Muslims across India, Pakistan and beyond may choose to cook it with lentils, minced meat, or vegetables... whatever takes their fancy.
Every Ramadan, like clockwork, my Bangladeshi family and I prepare our version - kissuri - with its hearty, warm, soup-like consistency, garnished with ghee and fried onions. The soft consistency of khichdi means it’s good for digestion after a long day of fasting and slowly releases much-needed energy throughout the fasting month. Its softness and easiness on the palate also makes it an ideal food for babies and for those without an appetite during times of illness.
I found myself cooking this meal for the first time on my own while my whole family was sick with Covid. Without my mum’s signature eschewing of measurements in favour of her own estimations, I was left to figure out how to recreate the comforting meal alone. I watched enough YouTube tutorials until I had somewhat of a grasp of the intricate and loving ways to prepare the dish. And when I’d finished cooking, for a moment our home felt normal again, and not like a segregated battlefield I tried to navigate to avoid catching the virus. The aroma was more of a comfort to me than my family, half of whom had already lost their sense of smell.
While it is a popular Ramadan classic, khichdi is also a ubiquitous food for non-Muslims, particularly in periods of mourning and illness. In his memoir Brown Baby, author Nikesh Shukla recounts the familiarity of khichdi following his mum’s death. He writes: “Khichdi has become synonymous with wakes. Because it can be mass-produced, because it’s filling and delicious, and it can be made by anyone who might only have a cursory knowledge of your kitchen, taking charge of feeding people because you’re busy mourning.”
He continues: “This is the blessing and the cursing of khichdi. Each family serves it differently, some want it plain and stodgy, like pure carbohydrates. Some want it wet. Some want it drier. Some want it with black lentils, some with brown. Some want it with onion and garlic, some want it with ginger. It is the most versatile dish.”
Like Nikesh, many others have tried to recreate the items they knew and loved in childhood. Fatima Khanom, a mum-of-two, has also tried to mimic her mother’s and aunt’s take on the classic.
“Kissuri is the essence of Ramadan at home with my family. You could have all the delectable dishes from around the world on the table, but nothing quite fills you up with a feeling of warm satisfaction as does a plate of kisuri,” Fatima tells me.
“Every year, a fresh debate emerges with the question: ‘Are you team white or yellow’, referring to the colour and make-up of kissuri. It’s usually made from a base of rice, onions, ginger, and if you're team yellow, lentils and a sprinkling of turmeric. Pair it with a masala chickpea dish, a squeeze of lemon or dollop of mint sauce, and some salad and there really isn't much more you need after a day of fasting.”
“I grew up eating the yellow kind, adopted the white kind (also referred to as "zaow") after marriage, and often reminisce about the plateful of kissuri that my aunt from across the landing would send over for me over many a Ramadan we spent as neighbours. Kissuri will always be an integral part of our Ramadan traditions, and I hope it is passed through generations to come.”
Khichdi isn’t just a homely staple. Its mass production and hearty nutrients make it a good meal to feed the poor. Earlier this month, Ronita Ghosh, an entrepreneur from Pune, India, felt she needed to do something for families of patients in hospitals amid the pandemic, as they are unable to make arrangements for food.
“I wanted to make a wholesome meal for people and when we talk of wholesome meals, there is no substitute for khichdi. We found out that families of Covid patients at hospitals are struggling to eat a fresh and nutritious meal due to lockdown where most of the shops are closed and secondly due to their economic conditions,” she told us.
“So we decided to distribute khichdi because it is a complete food. Khichdi is a mish-mash of rice, lentils and vegetables. So it has carbs, protein and vitamins required for any person. In the past seven days we have delivered approx 1,500 dabbas (tiffins) and are overjoyed that our dabbas are able to spread little happiness.”
If you’ve never had the pleasure of trying khichdi, now might be an ideal time to have a taste. And for me, a few more lessons from my mum should do the trick.