India’s oldest and most lasting food export to the West was the humble khichdi
The first traveler to refer to the khichdi was Afanasy Nikitin, a Russian merchant and one of the first Europeans to travel to India and document his visit here, in 1469. In his travelogue Khozheniye za tri morya (The Journey Beyond Three Seas) he wrote about how horses ‘were fed pulses and khichri, an Indian dish of rice, with sugar and ghee’.
Later, during the 1600s, French traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier came to India six times and noticed khichdi being prepared with green lentils, rice and clarified butter (ghee), and referred to it as a peasant’s evening meal.
While these Europeans travelers did talk about the khichdi, it was from the British barracks that this Indian staple of rice and lentils journeyed abroad.
During the 1600s, khichdi was considered a peasant’s evening meal
It first inspired the Anglo-Indian kedgeree, which is a non-vegetarian version of khichdi and still immensely popular in the UK. Food historian Lizze Collingham in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, writes ‘The Anglo-Indians had already added onions, fish and hard-boiled eggs to the rice and lentil dish. Now the aristocracy, who served kedgeree for breakfast during their country-house weekends, settled on smoked haddock as the definitive fish to add to the rice, and almost invariably abandoned the lentils’.
Kushari or koshary, a dish that can be found on street stalls and in kitchens across Egypt, also traces its roots to the Indian khichdi. It consists of rice, lentils, chickpeas and pasta are cooked individually, then tossed together and topped with different condiments and a peppery hot sauce called shatta.
Kedgeree is a non-vegetarian version of khichdi and is still immensely popular in the UK
Though locally the dish is assumed to have been invented as a way of using up all the leftovers in home kitchens, The Oxford Companion to Food suggests that kushari actually ‘came to Egypt in the haversacks of British soldiers who had eaten it in India as khichri’. The British occupation troops in India found this dish to be inexpensive, safe and very filling because of the blend of lentils and rice.