How did Rampuri khichdi made with Urad dal become a staple for both nawabs and common people?

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I’m a khichdi-challenged Rampuri, a closet khichdi-hater, and if people come to know about my gastronomic abnormality, it will basically translate to sort of social ostracisation in Rampur, the land of urad-khichdi fanatics. I can never comprehend this fascination for the boiled urad dal and rice dish which is a staple winter afternoon diet for Rampur Muslims across all social strata. The non-Muslims are less passionate about it. It is what a sarson saag and makka roti meal is for the Punjabis,
although they do not eat it nearly every day throughout winter.

Enter any Rampuri home in the old city at lunch time and you’ll find a piping hot khichdi lunch in progress with condiments according to means. My mother is shocked at my strange behaviour and annoyed with me every winter. I think the surprise is less due to intentional amnesia rather than the belief that I will get over this unnatural repugnance. I can only blame it on my non-Rampuri father who ate khichdi reluctantly, saying that it were the condiments and accompanying dishes that gave it any taste. Since my father is not around to defend me, I trudge along with my khichdi-loving Rampuri husband to khichdi dawats. Yes, khichdi dawats abound throughout winters – a nightmare for me. Let’s say that khichdi in winters has more social life than pulao.

A khichdi dawat has several subtexts and social layering. It indicates certain amount of closeness, a bond – a genial mix of informality and hospitality. Close friends often invite themselves over for khichdi – this is highly appreciated and indicative of deep kinship.

The newly wed groom, after numerous lavish dinners, finally becomes a part of the family when he is invited to khichdi at his in-laws’ place. To refuse a khichdi dawat is tantamount to rebuffing an extended arm of friendship and bonhomie. To confess a distaste for the dish is social death. Tongue-in-cheek remarks will echo down generations, and the labels of being too snobbish and angrez will stick forever. We have welcomed a few vegetarian daughters-in-law with open arms but a khichdi-denier is unforgivable. So, khichdi it is throughout winters within the loving, informal ambit of ‘Rampuriyat’, with fingers dipping into mounds of khichdi and glistening with ghee.

In the time of our ancestors, when the notion of communicable diseases and infections had not marred social proximity, khichdi was served in a large, round, clay dish with dollops of ghee buried in its centre. Three or four people sat around it on the dastarkhwan – a cloth spread on the floor or bench to serve food in Muslim households – and ate, with the ghee percolating down the edges of the dish, frantically mixing chutney, mooli achar, gobhi gosht before it all turned cold. The bonding effect of eating from the same plate now exists in the realm of fantastical food stories.

Luckily, when the Rampuris mean a khichdi meal, it includes gobhi gosht, saag kofta, qeema and chicken, along with a host of other condiments – chutney, dahi bada, muli achar, ghee, til oil, etc. So, khichdi is just the base and you add in different combinations of condiments. A chronic conformist, I disguise my gastronomic aberration by taking a tiny spoonful of khichdi and piling it with the curries.

Some Rampuris are so loyal to the dish that they start eating khichdi from late September and gorge on it till April. But the traditional khichdi-eating can only begin when freshly harvested rice and urad dal become available. The new rice is softer and can be cooked with very little water and there is a fresh edge to the new urad dal. But before the khichdi season is declared, the lady of the house must prepare the mooli achar, which consists of boiled radish slices in spicy water, kept in the sun till it matures. The mooli slices and water are also put into the khichdi and the water is gulped down after the khichdi meal for digestion.

Rampuris who are forced to leave this land of winter khichdi complain that the khichdi never tastes the same abroad. I remember that new rice and dal were brought from Rampur every winter at my grandparents’ house – the umbilical cord never severed after decades of moving to Aligarh. Some fanatics living outside Rampur even carry water in large plastic jars in the belief that the taste of the khichdi is enhanced by Rampuri water. The urad dal khichdi is only confined to the earlier Rohilla Pathan belt centred around Moradabad, Bareilly and Shahjahanpur. East of Shahjahanpur, according to Rampuris is, all poorab, the land of the arhar dal and moong dal khichdi.

Moong dal khichdi (which I prefer) is allowed only in case of an upset stomach. Till the 1980s, khichdi was cooked only with ‘tilak chandan’ rice, a highly aromatic, small grained local variety, which has become almost extinct now, ousted by the high-yielding hybrid varieties. Old-timers still lament about the disappearance of tilak chandan rice and its fabulous aroma, which announced that khichdi was on boil.

Today, Rampuri khichdi consists of rice and urad dal boiled with salt, peeli mirch (dried yellow chillies) and slivers of ginger. It is the simplest dish in itself as no oil or aromatic spices are ever used. But the proportion of rice and urad dal as well as the soft, slightly fluffy texture comes with years of practice.

The khichdi used to have elaborate versions too, as I found in my translation of the manuscripts of Persian cookbooks. There used to be a ‘khichdi pulao’, which had meat cooked with spices – to make a yakhni stock – and married to the moong dal khichdi. Similarly, recipes of dhuli khichdi and muqasshar khichdi have moong pulses, rice and meat, cooked with ghee and spices. Gujarati khichdi and bhuni khichdi were the non-meat khichdis, and dated back to the Mughal era. The most interesting recipe is of khichdi Daud Khani, possibly named after the founder of Rohilkhand or a Mughal nobleman; it consists of moong pulses, rice, mincemeat, spinach and eggs – a complete meal for a warrior! Interestingly, most of the khichdi recipes use moong lentils and rice as the base, but the quintessential Rampur khichdi uses urad lentils, maybe because urad is more commonly grown in the area. There is no mention of urad dal khichdi, which we call Rampuri khichdi in the Raza Library manuscripts.

Probably, the humble urad dal khichdi was too simple to be included in the cookbook manuscripts which drew inspiration from the grand Mughal and Awadhi cuisines. However, oral history is replete with instances of the Nawabs of Rampur relishing the urad dal khichdi.

My grandfather-in-law, Ameer Ahmad Khan, riyasat engineer and chief secretary to Nawab Sayed Raza Ali Khan (ruled 1930–1949), was sometimes called for a khichdi meal at 3 am. The Nawabs stayed up all night entertained by music and dance mehfils. Urad khichdi was a great favourite of Rampur Nawabs who enjoyed both the royal as well as the plebeian cuisine.

Excerpted with permission from Degh To Dastarkhwan: Qissas And Recipes From Rampur: Qissas and Recipes from Rampur Cuisine’, Tarana Husain Khan, Penguin.

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