Comfort foods …(1)

If there is anything that is the vegetarian version of chicken soup (not that I have ever tasted it), it is a bowl of soupy, mushy, nourishing khichadi.

Picture a grey, rainy day, with cold winds blowing. You are loath to get out of the warm bed, but must, for the growling in your tummy is growing louder, and you cannot ignore it any longer. You are not in the mood for any fancy cooking. Just something warm, broth-like, and easy to make. And yes, it has to be hearty and filling. Enter khichadi.

Or you are down with a cold. Sneezy, runny, cold and red nosed. Taste buds gone awry. Enter khichadi. With a squeeze of lemon (for Vitamin C). And preferably maa-ke-haath ki (mom-made).

Or a winter’s evening. Friday night. You don’t want any more take-out pizza. Or canned soup. Just a one-pot meal. With loads of ghee. Enter khichadi.

On all these occasions and more, khichadi has found a permanent place in our household. So much so that, not a week goes by before making it. Be it for lunch-box or dinner.

It wasn’t always like this. Before I traveled and lived alone, in foreign lands. Before I knew what it was longing to get back home. But khichadi always came to the rescue. It brought me back home, be it London, Bristol or Hong Kong. It comforted like no other. And it was always so easy to make. You could get the ingredients everywhere. Or you substitute with whatever was available. And it helped you survive. In strange, far away places. And also make friends .. unexpected bonus that.

The simplest recipe called for split yellow moong dal, and some long grained rice (basmati is always a hit). And some splatter of spices – whole pepper, cumin, mustard, pinch of hing, ginger. But the substitutions worked beautifully as well. Be it chilta moong, whole moong, masoor dal or even toor (I am yet to try chana dal!). And then I discovered the whole garam masala shebang. So dalchini, badi and chhoti elaichi, laung, tej patta, curry patta, a whole lot of fresh coriander. And some ground garam masala – mom’s, MIL’s, Joshi’s (from Hyderabad) or plain Everest (or sometimes even sambhar or rasam masalas). Anything would do. These spices would be roasted in oil, their fragrance filling my tiny kitchens. And then I discovered ghee! (I mean making khichadi in ghee, ghee I had been having since I was a tiny baby). O the wonder, and the deliciousness…

Mom and MIL had given me these tiny pressure cookers. Which made for nice one-pot meals. And three whistles was all it took, to sit down to a hot meal, on cold days. I would later, go on to add, leftover, assorted veggies to the pot – making for a flavourful and colourful khichadi. And then came the palak and methi versions. And when I was in an extra generous mood, out came the pickle, and some fried papad. And some tangy kadhi. Or tomato rasam. Or some simple raita if it was summer-time. But always, always served with some more home-made ghee (I know, I know) topping the hot bowl (yes, hot, steaming straight from the pot).

And now for some tales, to go with it as you tuck into your bowl…

Khichadi in mom’s house deserves a special mention. That’s because come every Dhanur Maasam (the period marked by entry of the Sun into Dhanu rashi continuing for a month upto the time when the Sun enters the Makar rashi), khichadi was the food for the gods. Mind you, these are always the coldest periods of any given year. So what can be more comforting than tucking into the prasadam, which is always khichadi. And this time, it was dad who would make it. Perhaps because it was made on the shegdi (traditional stove using coal), or because it was toosimplistic with just roasted dhania-jeera powder, or because dad made it, and always added generous amounts of ghee, this was an affair that couldn’t be missed.

In the Scientist’s house in Nagpur, khichadi is a rather simple affair. Just plain rice and toor dal cooked with turmeric in a pressure cooker. But served with a mirchi tadka, and sometimes pithla (a besan based curry, of sorts). So one day, when as a new soon (daughter-in-law) of the house, I offered to make some, there were cautious nods. Yes, we will try some they all said, not to put me off. And so I hesitatingly made some. How did it go? Well, whoever ate last, had to do with only one helping. For the first ones to eat, had helped themselves to second, and perhaps a third. To this day, my MIL asks me to make it whenever I visit. So much so that my mother jokes, your MIL thinks you don’t know to make anything else!!

On my second visit to Taipei, the Scientist invited some of his office colleagues for lunch. This was probably the first time I was cooking for Taiwanese friends. I had no idea of what they liked, and what to feed them. Added to that one of the girls had some sort of food allergy. So no red chilly, pepper or even capsicum. The Scientist had asked me several times to tone down the spices, salt – make it very very bland by Indian standards (we don’t eat this way even when we are sick). So I decided to feed them khichadi. Whole sprouted moong, Thai jasmine rice khichadi. No frills, just plain cumin, not even mustard in the tadka, perhaps a pinch of turmeric. Hardly any salt to taste. A fair bit of crunch to the moong sprouts. Not the mushy, porridge-y kind. Did they like it? Well, let’s say the Scientist got more compliments that day than for any presentation he had ever made 🙂

And then there was this Christmas in Bristol. That is one day, when probably the city shuts down completely. Not even a convenience store is open. We had been warned, well in advance. And like the Sparrow in the Kau-Chiu story, or the Ant in the English Ant & the Grasshopper version, I was armed. But my unsuspecting male colleagues weren’t (boys, I tell you). So come Christmas morning, I get a call. Can we come around and cook maggi at your place? Why? What? Even before I had my coffee. Yes, everything is closed down. Serves you right, I said in my head. Aloud, do you even have maggi? No, we are trying to find some store. Then just come over in an hour. Wait, did I just say that? Well, what with it being Christmas and all that, the spirit of the holiday took over. Grabbing my coffee, I made the biggest batch of khichadi. And then roasted some papad, and made some salad. The boys came, and devoured every bit. Second, third helpings. Not a scrap of food left. We ate, talked, late into the afternoon. Later someone made chai. And they all cleaned up the place. There couldn’t have been a more wonderful Christmas.


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