Duniyata bhai ajab karkhana
Kei ba khaye khiri khechiri, kahar pete uda kana
[What a crazy theatre this world is! Some enjoy delicious food while others starve wrapping a wet rag around the belly (to minimize the pain of hunger): http://www.mcrg.ac.in/PP25.pdf]
My mother was around five years old then but she still clearly remembers those times like yesterday. From her earliest childhood, she loved eating khichuri. Even now, she is a big fan of this humble but nutritious and delicious dish. Knowing the extreme financial hardship both my parents faced as children, whenever I hear their childhood stories I am doubly grateful for how easy my life has been compared to theirs. As part of the many stories I heard growing up, my Maa often talked about a famine when she was a kid. However, as far as my knowledge went, there was no ‘real’ famine during the 1950s in West Bengal. The closest one was in 1943, caused by a devastating combination of crop failures in 1942, war-induced shortages and the heartless refusal of Winston Churchill to allow the US and Canada to ship humanitarian wheat supplies to the starving masses of undivided Bengal. After some research, I realized that the famine my mother referred to was most likely a rice crisis artificially created by rice mill owners and food hoarders, members of the rural upper class who formed the backbone of the Bengal Congress party then in power at the state level.
As she remembers it, there was a langarkhana/free kitchen in her neighborhood which distributed dahliar khichuri (a cracked wheat and lentil dish) and milor ruti/breads made from milo flour. Rice prices reached a level that put this staple right out of the common man’s budget, although rampant black marketeering ensured that the rich still ate well. With her own eyes, she saw people sneaking into the neighborhood at night to sell rice illegally. People used to come up with innovative ways to sell rice in the black market. They made long narrow tubes made of fabric and then filled them with rice, wrapped them around their bodies and then put on regular clothes to transport the rice to the black market. While the richer racketeers probably gorged themselves in the midst of widespread starvation deaths, their street agents were often caught and beaten badly by the police.
Needless to say, the artificial crisis didn’t affect the rich people. They could afford to buy rice but the middle and working classes suffered the most. A shortage of rice and devastating hunger (to my simple mother, the same as famine) spread like a cancer throughout rural Bengal. My mother was a little girl at the time, probably unable to grasp the true extent of the suffering around her. While her own family made just enough money to avoid the demon of starvation, their neighbors in the lower-middle class neighborhood of refugees from East Bengal were saved only by the free communal kitchens. Coming back to the beginning of my story, she used to wait eagerly with her tiny bowl for her neighbor aunt to come back from the langarkhana and give her a small share of daaliar khichuri. She loved it so much, fifty years later she still remembers the taste of it like yesterday.
Hunger, that most primal of animal sensations, ultimately drew hundreds of thousands to a mass demonstration on the Calcutta maidan, shaking the very roots of the post-colonial establishment in West Bengal. Eighty people were killed by the police that day, even more shocking because not a single shot was fired. The protest was organized under the aegis of the ‘Committee to Combat Famine’, primarily an initiative of the undivided Communist Party of India, so different from the pitiful farce that is communism in modern India. That day’s protest was the herald of the 1959 food movement was a turning point in the history of class struggle of West Bengal.
Cracked wheat/Dalia: 1 cup
Masoor daal/red lentil, mung daal/yellow lentils and motor daal/split pea lentils: ½ cup each
Ginger: one inch piece
Cumin powder: 1-2 tsp.
Red chili powder/cayenne (optional): ½ tsp.
Turmeric: 1 tsp. or a little less
Whole cumin seeds: one tsp.
Bay leaves: 1 nos.
Whole dried red chili: 2 nos.
Mustard/any oil: one tbsp.
Ripe tomato: one, medium
Water: 6 cups
Salt to taste (I start with four teas spoon)
Sugar: one tsp.
Garam masala (grind equal quantities of clove, cardamom and cinnamon to a fine powder): 2 tsp.
Clarified butter/ghee (optional): per taste
Optional vegetables (You may or may not add the vegetables. There are no hard and fast rules. Vegetables make the khichuri more delicious and healthy, but if you don’t have them handy, leave them out):
Cauliflower: few medium florets
Green beans: 8-10 no. cut into one inch long pieces
Carrot: 2 medium
Peas: ½ cup
Potato: one/two medium
Bell pepper: One (any color, I like the red one)
If you have squash, zucchini or broccoli handy, add them as well. More vegetables will not hurt, only make the porridge taste better and more wholesome.
- Toast the dalia and the mung daals separately until you get a nutty aroma. Keep the flame low medium and stir frequently.
- Once cooled, mix all the lentils and the wheat and wash them with several changes of water. Drain the water.
- Grate the ginger finely and mix the red chili, turmeric and cumin powder together to make a paste.
- Heat up the oil in a pressure cooker or in a deep heavy bottom pot.
- Add the whole cumin seeds, bay leaves and dried whole red chilies. Let them turn a shade darker. You will smell the aroma of the spices.
- Add the spice paste and sauté them for few minutes.
- Add the chopped tomato and mix it well with the spices. Cook the spice paste for few more minutes.
- Add all the vegetables except peas. Mix them well with spices. Cook them for a minute or two.
- Add the wheat and lentils and again give it a good mix. Cook it for few more minutes.
- Meanwhile heat up the water.
- Once the entire thing is nicely coated and the raw taste of the spice paste is gone, add the water, salt and sugar. Mix them well. Add the peas.
- If you are using a pressure cooker, put on the lid, bring the flame to medium and wait for one whistle. Turn off the heat and let the pressure release normally.
- If using a heavy pot or slow cooker, cover and let it cook for another 20-25 minutes. Check in between to make sure it’s not sticking to the pot. I have never cooked it in a regular pot/slow cooker. You might have to adjust the time.
- Check the consistency and seasoning. You might need a little bit warm water to loosen the porridge. Add the garam masala powder and the ghee, mix and cover it for five more minutes.
- Serve with pakoras, papad or Indian pickles. You can eat it by itself as it is delicious by itself.
- The vegetables will end up broken into a mush, that’s fine. They will add flavor to the porridge.