Bhoger Khichudi — The Ultimate Love Recipe for Bengali Pujo
I wake up on Kali Pujo morning with a very specific hankering. In Delhi, the air is already beginning to get crisp in the mornings, but it lacks the smell that should filling up any Calcutta neighbourhood on a day like this — the aroma of Bhoger Khichudi.
Right about now, the cooking must be at its peak at the local clubs and temples. Gigantic handis sizzling with oil and spices, rice soaking in equally large pots, smell of roasting moong dal rising from the kadhai that could feed fifty people. And somewhere there in the open-air, makeshift community kitchen, a hassled thakur moshai (the cook) must be stirring a mop-sized ladle in a cauldron bubbling with panch mishali labra torkari — a melange of autumny vegetables that takes bhoger khichudi to a whole new level.
As my mouth begins to water, all I get in my Delhi apartment is the smell of burnt firecrackers from last night. But hey, it’s Sunday and the shops are open.
Time to get my own cauldrons bubbling...
In a bowl, I wash and soak two teacups of gobindobhog rice (or whatever rice rice you have in stock). We choose gobindobhog for its short grains and aromatic flavour that binds everything together in khichudi.
Heating up a kadhai is a little heated, I dry roast one cup of unwashed shona moong dal till that familiar nutty scent fills my kitchen. Mmm, that’s my childhood right there! Was it just me, or would you sneak up to your mum too when she’d be roasting moong dal and beg her for a spoonful of that crunchy, nutty goodness?
As the dal turns slightly pinkish in colour (never stop stirring, lest it burns), pour the dal back into the bowl and leave it to cool off. Once it has, wash it thoroughly.
Now, we come to the veggies…
From my pantry, I pick out two large potatoes — gosh, what wouldn’t I give to have chandramukhi aloo right now! But I make do with what I have, peeling, washing and dicing the little buggers into 2cm cubes.
From the fridge comes half a head of a small cauliflower, a cup of green peas, a couple of green chillies and about an inch of ginger. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some grated coconut, bring that too!
The cauliflower gets chopped into small florets; the peas, if frozen, can use being blanched; the chillies are destalked and slit, and the ginger gets ‘hammered’ in the mortar pestle.
Now that my prepping is done, it’s time for some cooking…
I like my oil mustard; all that fancy olive oil and sunflower oil doesn’t bring home the flavour you need for Bengali cooking. Although, for khichudi, most grandmamas reach for dollops of ghee — not a fan!
So I begin my bhoger khichudi with two tablespoons of mustard oil. Once slightly fuming, in goes two pods of cardamom, two cloves, an inch of cinnamon, one large bay leaf, half a teaspoon of cumin and two dry red chillies.
As the spices pop and sputter — and before they go brown! — drop the dollop of ginger paste in the oil. And please, step back after this!
The oil will sputter like crazy now. Lower the heat as much as possible and risk your good hand to stir the mixture before anything goes brown.
When raw smell of the spices finally leave, pour in the roasted dal. Your kitchen will now begin to smell more and more of the sumptuous khichuri smell as you fold the dal in with the spices.
Here, I toss in about a teacup of water, some salt and the green chillies let the concoction come to boil, before the veggies go in — the potatoes go first, then the cauliflower, then the peas.
When everything nicely boiling on medium heat, I finally slide the rice in. Gobindobhog takes very little time to cook, so keeping it on heat for too long increases its chances of going mush.
With a large khunti (spatula, duh), I fold everything in. Ah, the smell is heavenly! But that’s not enough, so don’t forget to taste at this point—
Damn it, I forgot the sugar! What Bengali food is complete with a dash of sugar? Haters, don’t answer.
Anyway, so in goes about half a teaspoon of sugar, half a teaspoon of turmeric and two teacups of water. If you like, drizzle some ghee, butter or grated coconut at this point. Cover the lid and let it simmer on low heat for about 10-15 minutes.
By the way, if you’re in a hurry, you can just toss this concoction into a pressure cooker right about now. But be careful, things can go really ‘mushy’ really quick in there!
When the water has reduced and the consistency has come to perfection (thick, but not solid or paste-like), I turn the heat off and revel the smell for some time.
In Calcutta, right about now, children and grownups alike must be lining up in queues outside the temples and pandals. In dry leaf bowls, piping hot bhoger khichudi will be served, scooped out from cauldrons that can fit two fat babies. If you’re lucky, there’ll be some labra torkari too, maybe even some nadu. There’ll be chaos and there’ll be complaints; some will say this is unhygienic and an invitation to diarrhea. Some, meanwhile, will sneak up for a second or a third helping.
Miles away from this beloved pandemonium, I sit at makeshift, desk-turned-dining table and bring the spoon of my homemade bhoger khichudi to my mouth. The taste of home bursts from the juicy grains of rice, and longing drips the tender vegetables.
Eating homemade bhoger khichudi from a microwaveable bowl by myself may not hold a candle to the feast of Kali Pujo back home in Calcutta, but for now, this is enough.