Childhood illness in my Indian grandmother’s New Delhi home was treated with khichdi.
When pressure-cooked together in her battered stainless steel pot, rice and toor dhal and salt and turmeric and whole cumin seed became, if not a physical cure-all, then at least a psychological one. Part of its magic is in the simplicity of familiar flavours drawn together without the heavy hand of complex spice: cumin and turmeric are, particularly in the north of India, the smoke and bitter that form the aromatic base of almost any dish. With salt there as a booster, khichdi’s softened texture contains the savoury seed of a rich culinary heritage.
Of course my Ammi, my grandmother, wasn’t unique in her nurturing use of this dish: universally across India khichdi is cooked and served as both nursery food and common culinary medicine.
When khichdi was brought to my attention again recently it wasn’t because I had impetus to revisit my early girlhood but that, apparently, everyone else did.
I work casual hours in a fine foods deli (choosing to live in remote and regional south west Western Australia means choosing to live away from a viable media career). Mostly the cash register rings through with biodynamic flours, imported cheeses and locally raised and butchered meats. But then one day to the next I’m selling katori-loads of dhal. Moong, mainly. Sometimes toor. For the chemical-conscious it’s organic channa.
No matter what the varietal of lentil or pulse these customers have two things in common. First up, they’re all cooking khichdi. And second? Not a single one claims Indian lineage.
Discover how quick khichdi is to make with this Gujarati version.
Growing up as an Anglo-Indian Hindu girl living and moving between two cultures and geographies I was well aware of the concept of prejudice. I don’t call it racism because, for me in any case, the slurs or slights experienced in the regional Australian town where I spent much of my childhood were based on ill informed cultural caricatures and were void of vitriol.
The genesis of these comments – curry muncher or choccie frog – was rooted in protectionism. That is to say, my presence was a threat to how a few of these white, middle class, ‘Australian’ primary school kids understood their world. My difference opened a door to the possibility that there was more than one way; it’s an expansive thought for anyone at any time. Their verbal swordplay was an attempt to slam that door closed.
The reason I KNOW this to be true is because something about a horde of obviously non-Indian Australians cooking khichdi brought out this exact same emotion in me.
In my life khichdi is a dish that contains many of the messages and inheritances with which I choose to identify: to me it speaks of connection to my ancestral home of Kashmir; khichdi is the flavour of my Ammi’s love; it’s the gift she gave to me that is the knowledge of spice and culture. To have other non-Indians connect with this dish with such open enthusiasm initially felt as a confrontation.
Thankfully I’m no longer in primary school and – unlike those once-upon-a-time playground pot-stirrers – I have the maturity and the desire to breakdown my own unhelpful prejudice. The result of my introspection has shown me the origin of my strong emotion is no different to the genesis of theirs: When others from outside our own cultures turn to embrace the ways of life that we see as distinctly and uniquely belonging to us, we are forced to reconsider the frameworks we have sat comfortably within for a lifetime.
Such reconsideration brings up tough questions that demand addressing. Does your adopting my custom make my custom mean less? Does keeping my culture closed to outsiders make me feel stronger? Am I threatened by your interest in adoption of my ancestral legacy because I’m frightened that YOUR connection might grow to be stronger than MINE?
The short summation as regarding my recent experience was that holding too tight to any cultural validation is a practice of self-harm: I don’t want to feel resentful and diminished that another desires to embrace my culinary birth right – cultural appropriation is not only toxic to my health, but it sows within it the seed of prejudice.
Openness and invitation makes me a better person. Being strong enough in my own identity to share it with you encourages reciprocal vulnerability. Breeding humility and inquisitiveness in the face of moving cultural boundaries engenders understanding, connection and unrivalled opportunity for profound personal growth both in and out of the kitchen.
If we can cultivate this manner at the dinner table then perhaps we might find the courage to see the overflow engulf conversations around our faith, our political leanings and our cultural origins.
Food is a cultural foundation. Our relationship toward it exposes us and that exposure is necessary if we are to build cross-cultural friendships through familiarity.
So, as far as recipes go at least, I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm). Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.
“These flat breads are absolutely delicious, they are flaky and slightly crisp. They can be plain, or cooked with a spice or flavour or even stuffed with a vegetable before they are cooked. My two favourite types are below but you can add any flavourings you like. You can make them with vegetable oil, butter or ghee - needless to say the butter and ghee ones have more flavour but the ones made with oil are also delicious.” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories
“Dosa are spongy, yet thin and crisp pancakes made from a fermented lentil and rice batter. As they take a long time to prepare, I started making this quick version from a ground rice batter. While they don’t have the unique flavour of authentic dosa, they make light and crispy envelopes for this lovely, spiced potato filling. To add more protein to the dish, I add more lentils to the potatoes than normal and serve it with coconut chutney on the side. You can buy dosa batter from Indian shops if you prefer a more authentic experience. The coconut chutney is very easy to whiz up – especially if you have store-bought grated coconut in the freezer (which I highly recommend doing).” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories
A classic from my Ultimate Curry Bible, this dish is such as favourite with the British that I have to include it here. You could think of this recipe as "vindaloo light". It has the garlic, vinegar, black pepper and chillies - in this case chilli powder - that a vindaloo requires, but in gentle quantities. Serve with plain rice.