• Khichdi connects Ahana Dutt to special moments. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Khichdi is the lentil dish that reminds Ahana Dutt of colourful festivities in Kolkata and conjures smoky mornings at Sydney's Firedoor restaurant.
By
Lee Tran Lam

3 Jul 2020 - 10:30 AM  UPDATED 3 Jul 2020 - 6:21 PM

You could smell the jackfruit and mangoes before you saw them.

Their knockout scent travelled far in the Kolkata neighbourhood where Ahana Dutt lived in India.

"You can smell it from your balcony," she says. Even though the fruit stalls were a block away from her home, their distinct tropical fragrance signalled that warmer days were here.

The spice shop also had a telltale aroma.

"You walk by the store and you can smell it. Especially, I remember the turmeric, because it's so potent," she says. The freshly ground ingredient had a fragrance unlike anything else.

"It's super earthy, quite pungent – you know not to use too much of the spice."

Unlike going to an Australian supermarket where spices are pre-packed, this was a heady experience. The store would be filled with jars of fresh spices and staff would grind your garam masala, turmeric and cumin to order in massive wooden bowls. It was something Dutt enjoyed doing with her mum. "During the week, she'd work a lot, so the weekends were really special," she says. Rituals often revolved around food – like shopping for macher matha diye dal (translation: "lentils made with fish head").

"It's super earthy, quite pungent – you know not to use too much of the spice."

"Procuring the fish head was a performance on its own," she says. They'd go to the Sunday market and ask the fishmonger for what they wanted. "While the vendor scaled, cut and weighed the fish, the process of bargaining for a suitable price would begin. The best deal would be if you could get a reduction in price and get the vendor to throw in a fish head for fau (free)," she says.

Once the fish head was theirs, they'd fry it and enjoy it with toasted moong dal (yellow lentils), warm spices and hot rice. It counted as the perfect Sunday lunch – the meal unspooling at a lazy pace as you enjoyed every tiny scrap of fish from the bones.

Ahana Dutt, who's originally from India, now works for Firedoor in Sydney.

Back then, Dutt's kitchen duties included storing ingredients with height-enhancing help from a stool ("that was a very big accomplishment at that time"). Nowadays, she's the junior sous-chef at Sydney's Firedoor and, since joining in 2016, she's contributed to the menu in many ways.

"The mustard we make at Firedoor was very much me trying to replicate this specific condiment we get back home: kasundi. It's not the tomato kasundi that the rest of the world knows of. To be honest, I didn't even know such a thing even existed before I moved to Sydney," she says. "To me, kasundi is a hot mustard sauce, enjoyed with anything fried. It was our ketchup growing up." Her Firedoor version is fermented with buttermilk.

For Fireshop, Firedoor's take-home menu, she has added a spiced potato dish from Kolkata called alu'r dom. That was something she'd have for Sunday breakfast – or with khichdi, another Fireshop contribution of hers.

"You add the tempering to the hot lentils and that splutters as well. It's those two smells that are so transporting."

This dish is the inspiration for British kedgeree and is typically a humble rice and lentil dish finished with curry leaves and garlic tempered in ghee. The version she created for Firedoor wasn't her childhood staple, "but one that reminded me of home when I was living on my own, on the other side of the country". Dutt was staying at a hostel in Mumbai – where the food was not great – so she'd escape with her roommate to a small restaurant five minutes away. There, they ordered khichdi and it would remind them of their Kolkata childhoods and cure their homesickness.

It's the tempering – the key step of adding aromatic ingredients and spices to the lentil mix – that gives khichdi its full-impact flavour.

"It's the smell of curry leaf and onion cooking, it just takes me back," she says. "You add the tempering to the hot lentils and that splutters as well. It's those two smells that are so transporting."

Even on cold grey days in Sydney, starting the fire in the restaurant with grapevines actually reminds Dutt of her Kolkata home. The cold air and the smoke reminds her of late-year festivities in India.

Chhena poda is a type of ricotta cake.

"In Kolkata, one of the biggest festivals is the Durga Puja, it goes on for five days and you just celebrate," she says. "You celebrate the gods, but you also celebrate food and people."

Khichdi is a key part of the event.

"The version I grew up with, that's completely vegetarian, that's what you offer to the gods," she says. It's different to the khichdi of her Mumbai hostel days – there's no garlic or onion in the tempering, but cumin and ginger instead. And the offering is served in terracotta bowls. "All the flavours intensify and it gets a bit smoky, because there's an open fire that you're performing the puja (an act of worship) on," she says.

You normally fast until you perform the puja, then you eat at lunchtime and the festivities are incredibly colourful. People dress up (Dutt will wear a sari) and the roads are decorated with intricate alpona designs and patterns, done with paint or the more traditional rice flour.

That's the power of khichdi, that it can connect her to these moments – from these ultra-vibrant festivities in Kolkata to her homesick spell in Bombay and her current restaurant shifts in Sydney, warming up the Firedoor restaurant with burning grapevines. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.


Khichdi (dal khichdi tadka)

Serves 2-3

Ingredients

  • 1 cup shortgrain rice
  • ½ cup moong lentils (or any other husked lentil)
  • 2 eschalots (French shallots)
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp ghee
  • 8-9 curry leaves
  • 2 dried red chillies
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • ½ bunch coriander
  • 1 wedge lime
  • Salt, to taste

1. Rinse rice and lentils together. Add to a pot and cover rice and lentils with enough water to cover them three times over. Add salt to taste. Cook in a pot on a medium-high flame for about an hour. The mixture should be slightly overcooked and there should still be some liquid left in the pot.
2. Make sure to keep skimming the pot as the mixture cooks.
3. Peel and slice the eschalots into circles. Mince the garlic.
4. In a small pan, add the ghee over high heat. Add the curry leaves and, as they start to splutter, add the red chilli, eschalots and garlic. Cook until the eschalots and garlic start to turn golden. Add the turmeric and chilli powder and take off the flame.
5. Add the tempering (garlic, eschallots and spices) to the rice and lentil mixture. Cook the khichdi for another 5 -7 mins.
6. Take it off the heat and serve with plenty of coriander and a squeeze of lime.

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