Remember the ’90s show Akbar Birbal on Zee TV? Anyone who has watched the serial or spent a significant amount of time in the company of North Indian grandparents will know the phrase ‘Birbal ki khichri’. The khichri in the popular story is not an actual dish but a proverbial one, and the moral is that a ray of hope is all it takes to inspire a hardworking person to realise his dreams.
Drawing from this story, Michelin-starred chef Suvir Saran has created a recipe by the same name. “With this, I wanted to share that even humble beginnings can take one soaring with pride into the stratosphere. If a bimaaron ki khichri (khichri for patients) can be turned into a gourmet dining experience, humans too can reach for the stars with their own drive, vision and determination when there is a level playing field and societal support,” says the sprightly chef who has returned to India after a successful stint in the US and launched The House of Celeste restaurant in Gurgaon.
Why a khichri though? “When I crave comfort food, it is most often dreams of khichri that captivate my imagination,” he says.
Back to roots
Khichri, perhaps one of India’s most-loved soul foods, is essentially a one-pot meal of lentils, rice and vegetables that is transported to another dimension via multiple layers of spices – every bite is a new discovery of tastes and textures. The ‘Birbal ki khichri’ that the chef grew up eating at home includes panch phoran (a spice blend of whole cumin, fennel, fenugreek, nigella seeds and mustard seeds) that are fried in ghee or clarified butter with coriander and tomatoes, and then a second boost of spice from a ghee-bloomed blend of more cumin, some cayenne, and oniony asafoetida.
It is such an incredible dish that there is even a legend behind it, says Saran. This khichri originated in mid-16th century India, when Birbal, an official at Emperor Akbar’s court, taught the emperor a lesson by claiming to have cooked the khichri.
“At our house, we like to say that if it’s good enough for Akbar and Birbal, it’s good enough for you,” laughs the chef. “This dish is so lovely that I often just serve it with nothing but some raita, achaar if you’re craving spice, and perhaps crispy poppadum on the side. Follow the recipe a few times and then begin to play with the flavours and simplify it as you like,” he adds.
How did this dish make it to his home? “I belong to the Kayasth community, who were the first Hindus to marry into the Muslim community. They were the epitome of the Ganga-Jamuna culture. Our foods, music, dance, dress, language and traditions take the best of the two communities and put them together into beautiful mosaics that make the individual elements shine and remain relevant,” explains Saran. “In Kayasth homes, khichri, tehri, Kabuli pulao and biryanis are common fare. The pairing of rice and lentils is a given exercise almost daily in some way, shape or form.”
Twist in the tale
While the medicinal rice-and-lentil porridge or mareezon ki khichri is made when the stomach needs rest, a sabz-daar or vegetable-rich khichri is made when the mind needs a reflective moment to meditate on the senses of taste, touch, scent, and sight.
Saran adds a tweak to the traditional home recipe. “I fry the moong dal in a pan to make it darker in colour and for its natural oils to be released. This nutty flavour becomes the faint yet easily-savoured spine of the dish. My family and relatives make many versions of khichri with vegetables, but none has the sequential addition of flavours that my recipe has!” he winks.
Saran recalls how his dad’s uncle, a retired IAS officer, made this for his family when they briefly moved from Delhi to Nagpur where his father, a bureaucrat, was posted. “Mausaji and mausiji were visiting us and he made this for us for dinner. A most beautiful gift. I am sure mausaji’s work with the Nizam of Hyderabad might have had some role in the roots of this dish. Perhaps this memory also gave me the confidence to cook without caring about the bullying I might face as a boy who cooked. We found the khada masalas (whole spices) and the use of vegetables a most incredible departure from the usual boring-yet-comforting khichri. Mom’s adoption of the recipe in our family culinary repertoire was quick,” says Saran who has found this dish comforting since he was six years old.
With his ‘Birbal ki khichri’ recipe, Saran honours his mausaji’s legacy with a 21st century update. “This is my homage to his skills, his nurturing nature, and his confidence in being a man who could cook with carefree abandon. Memories of food remain with us until our very end. This is one memory that will forever keep any other khichri from seducing me,” he says.
Recipe: Birbal ki Khichri (serves 10-12)
For the topping
6 to 8 cups/1.4 to 1.9 l peanut oil
4 large red onions, halved and thinly-sliced
1/4 cup/4 g finely-chopped fresh coriander
2-inch/5 cm piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and thinly-sliced into very thin matchsticks
1 -2 green chillies, finely minced (remove the seeds for less heat)
1 tablespoon/15 ml lime juice
1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder
For the khichri
1 cup/190 g split and hulled mung dal
2 tablespoons/30 g ghee or clarified butter
10 green cardamon pods
8 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
2-inch/5 cm cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon panch phoran
3/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/8 teaspoon asafoetida
1 cup/185 g basmati rice
1/2 medium cauliflower, divided into very small florets
1 medium red potato, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
10-ounce/285 g bag frozen green peas
For the first tempering
2 tablespoons/30 g ghee or clarified butter
1/2 teaspoon panch phoran
1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoons kosher salt or sea salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds
2 large tomatoes, finely diced
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Second tempering oil
2 tablespoons/30 g ghee or clarified butter
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pinch asafoetida
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven (use enough oil to fill the saucepan to a 2-inch/5 cm depth) over medium-high heat until it reaches 350°F/177°C on an instant-read thermometer. Add the onions and fry until crisp and browned, about two minutes, turning the onions occasionally. Use a slotted spoon or frying spider to transfer the onions to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.
In a small bowl stir the coriander leaves, ginger, jalapeño, and lime juice together and set aside.
Place the mung dal in a large skillet over medium heat and toast it until it is fragrant and lightly golden for three to five minutes. Transfer the dal to a large plate and set aside.
Place the ghee, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, panch phoran, turmeric, and hing into the pan and roast it over medium heat until the spices are fragrant, about two minutes.
Add the rice, toasted dal, cauliflower, potatoes and carrots and cook until the rice becomes translucent and the cauliflower sweats, three to five minutes, stirring often. Pour in seven cups/1.65 l water, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the peas, bring back to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
While the rice and dal mixture cooks, make the first tempering oil. Heat the ghee and panch phoran in a large skillet over medium heat until the cumin in the panch phoran begins to brown, for two to three minutes. Stir in the onions and the salt and cook until the onions are browned around the edges and soft, for about 10 minutes. If the onions begin to get too dark or stick to the pan bottom, splash the pan with a few tablespoons of water and scrape up the browned bits. Stir in the coriander and cook, stirring, for two minutes, and then stir in the tomatoes and the cayenne, cooking until the tomatoes are jammy, six to eight minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Once the rice and dal are cooked, remove the lid and use a potato masher to smash the mixture until only a few carrots and peas remain whole (remove the whole or large spices while mashing if you like). Stir in the first tempering along with the remaining three cups/720 ml of water. Return to boil and cook for two minutes. Turn off the heat.
Make the second tempering oil. Wipe the pan from the first tempering oil and heat the ghee for the second tempering oil over medium heat along with the cumin, cayenne, and hing and cook, stirring often, until the cumin begins to brown, about two minutes. Immediately stir it into the rice and dal mixture.
Divide the khichri between six bowls and top with some of the ginger mixture, a pinch of garam masala, and the fried onions and serve.
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From HT Brunch, August 23, 2020
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