I tend to recall my fondest memories with the foods associated with them. This Sunday night we decided to have Kitchidi. Growing up in my house this was standard Sunday night fare. A heartwarming bowl of bright yellow dal and rice pressure cooked together with a smidge of chilli powder, tumeric and pepper corns, to make a thick soup like consistency and tempered with cumin. Just the yellow brightness of it awakened the soul at the dinner table and quelled some of those Sunday night/tomorrow’s school, blues. Surprisingly this dish followed me to London and as a student in Goldsmiths College, kitchidi is what brought a few of us Indians together on those bitter cold winters and as the smells wafted through the halls of residence, it brought along with it the Greeks, the Italians and people from many other nationalities, that became good friends, who came to enjoy our soul food.
My good friend Sarnath Banerjee, a ragged artist type, who is a very talented and now highly regarded graphic novelist, with three excellent books to his name, who Wikipedia has called India’s first graphic novelist, was the only one of the two other Indians I knew at Goldsmiths and he was the only one who had brought a pressure cooker from India. He had many friends of many nationalities and would send out a text message which brought, from all corners of the different halls of residence, people bearing vegetables – 3 florets of cauliflower found at the back of the fridge, a few straggly carrots, a quarter bag of frozen peas and of course everybody brought potatoes. Sarnath was the master cook and would chuck whatever was humbly brought in to the cauldron (pressure cooker) along with rice and dal. We’d all sit around the kitchen table and wait patiently as the pressure cooker whistled away, counting them down like milestones to the end of a hungry journey. As we waited, smoking and drinking, the crowds would begin to swell. People would be drawn to the kitchen with the smells and soon there’d be an impromptu raucous gathering with what had started out as a simple kitchidi meal. Sarnath, anticipating the crowds, would make much more than was required and I’d be telling him it was too much but by the end of it, we’d be scraping the bottom of the pressure cooker. I have very fond memories of our “kitchidi parties” at Goldsmiths.
In college we never made the effort to make a separate vegetable dish to go with the kitchidi as it had all the vegetables, with their lives steamed out of it, in the pot. But when I was growing up, the kitchidi (sans vegetables) would be accompanied by chinna chinna aloo fry (small small potatoes fried). The potatoes are halved, then sliced, then turned 90 degrees and sliced again and again, in to thin tiny half match sticks. This is then shallow fried with only 3 spices: oil tempered with mustard seeds, then add the potatoes, sprinkle tumeric and chilli powder and salt to taste. It’s fried till the potatoes are crispy and well browned. You should hear a gentle clatter as the potatoes tumble in to a serving dish. This potato dish could have been our family Standard.
Six years later and I was still in London, this time in my own place and kitchidi and/or curd-rice and the chinna chinna aloo fry were my saviours after a long work day and too much drinking at the pub across from work or long nights of partying and drinking or returning home after too many days of fieldwork group discussions and citizen’s forums a.k.a public complaining sessions. I had miraculously managed to resist the chicken and chips phenomenon and when I went to England made a solemn promise to myself never to step in to a McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC. I’m proud to say that I kept that promise for 6 years (except for my last month living in Streatham where I scoffed down a fair few zinger burgers after being tormented by the munchies). So on those late nights home I would, even in my often tired, often drunken state, make chinna chinna aloo fry and eat it with rice and curd (my all time comfort food) and feel truly at home. No matter how horrible or great the day/night had been I felt like a king after I’d made that meal. Because unlike most civilized countries, the UK do not have a culture of drink and eat. It’s just drink. So one goes home ravenous. An employee exchange program brought a colleague from the Argentina office to work with us in London and she was positively repulsed by how early the drinking started and the total lack of good food to go with it. “Whan dhoo we eath”, she would ask every half an hour.
When the British came to India, they took the kitchidi home with them and adapted it to the Kedigree (pronounced Ked-jee-ree) as a Anglo-India breakfast dish. Frankly, I can’t see the resemblance – it’s made of flaked fish (sometimes cods, sometimes smoked haddock), boiled rice, hard boiled eggs, parsley, curry powder, butter or cream and sultanas. I never made any attempts to seek out a Kedigree preparation when I was in England. But at a picnic in a park for a colleague’s hen do, one of her friends brought Kedigree. Either she was an awful cook or the dish is itself not to an Indian’s taste buds but it was bland and fishy and looked nothing like the original khichidi. It was vile. I’m not sure anyone really makes Kedigree anymore, probably had it’s day in the 70s.
I was in London for the best part of my twenties and now that I’m married and settled and life is wonderfully slow and always happy, I find that kichidi and chinna chinna aloo fry have returned to my life. When my husband would go sailing and as always they were incommunicado on patrol, a week would go by and I’d make curd rice and chinna chinna aloo fry to make myself feel better and it always lifted my spirits. As I was making khichidi last night and my husband was poking his grubby fingers in to the pot to have a “quality control” taste, he told me that when they are out sailing, the day that the submarine starts to make its passage homeward, the cook will always make khicidi. It’s something of a submarine tradition. The day you have khichidi on board the submarine, you know you are going home. Nothing beats thesimple food that can nourish your soul.