In Kitchen Diaries II, Nigel Slater begins his July 20 entry with “I am no kitchen pedant”. I totally agree with him, with a major exception. It is about equating gorgeous and unique Indian dishes to well known non-Indian classic dishes where the resemblance is very fleeting indeed. I think it does Indian cuisine a disservice and creates very incorrect impressions of the diversity, precision and regional aspects of this amazing food.
It has to be conceded that describing Indian dishes to people outside of India is a challenge. How do you describe the wonderful dosa, a lentil-and-rice-flour based flat, pan or griddle cooked, carrier of hot and delicious fillings. How else to describe it than use “pancake” (or “crepe”), yet it is nowhere near an egg-and-wheat-flour based comfort food of many Western nations. Technically speaking, a dosa is a thin (but eggless) “cake” cooked in a pan. The problem lies with the widely accepted definition of a pancake as a breakfast, egg-based, pan-cooked dish often served with sugar, jam or other sweet toppings. You see the problem?
It is so difficult to not use comparisons to non-Indian dishes, and I also have called a dosa a pan cake, and some are very crepe-like indeed. But not all – the ubiquitous crispy dosa is as far from a Western pancake as you can imagine. As dosa become more popular outside of India, there is less need to equate it to a more familiar term, and there is also a definite role for using opportunities to educate people about foods like dosa. And at least, precede it with “Indian” ie “an Indian pan cake”. It has also been called “flatbread” which suits some dosa, but not all. It is a term that at least is closer in function if not in texture or visually.
With Kitchari, it is less necessary to equate this dish to well known, non-Indian dishes, partly because kitchari has a long standing and growing popularity of its own, and partly because it is easier to describe a dish of lentils and rice quite succinctly without the need for comparisons.
What do you think?
I am really interested in hearing your opinions on this.
Nigel’s take on non-Risotto dishes being called Risotto
Nigel goes on to say that he does have a thing about Risotto. “Take Risotto” he says.
“If I order a risotto, then I want a plate of warm, slowly oozing, short grain rice that has been continuously stirred with stock and enriched with butter and parmesan till the grains are swollen and creamy. I do not want something that can stand up in a castle shape or presented as a patty. I don’t want it as a smear on a plate as if someone has been careless with the rice pudding, or cut into a cake. It may be totally nice to eat, but you cannot call it after the Italian classic dish risotto, because it has a totally wrong consistency.”
Kitchari (with many variants of spellings)
A delicious dish of mung or toor dal and rice (with some variations on this) with spices, highly recommended. It is eaten across India and is well known as a delicious and comforting dish.
It is very similar to Ven Pongal, the dish of South India and Bisibelebath of Karnataka and beyond. There are variations of kitchari across India and elsewhere. However, it is also not the same as Chinese and S.E. Asian congee, which is rice cooked until it has disintegrated in water or broth. Congee is truly porridge like, made from rice only, and condiments are added to the finished dish, such as red or black vinegar, peanuts, crispy fried onions, soy sauce etc.
Many call Kitchari as Risotto, or Indian Risotto. While it may seem to some that it is similar to risotto in texture when cooked well, it varies substantially from risotto not only in texture but also in implied background, method and taste. In my humble opinion it is misleading to refer to Pongal or Kitchari as Risotto.
Kitchari is cooked from short grain rices in the South, and long grain rice in the North. Ayurveda prefers kitchari cooked with basmati for digestive and health reasons. Short grained rices produce a stickier result; with long grained rice it is more pilaf light with separate grains.
Using the word “Risotto” to describe any dish implies
1) it is Italian in style and made with a risotto rice,
2) the preferred method of cooking is by continually stirring the rice and gently ladling in stock for 20 minutes approx, stopping when the rice is al dente – the rice still has a little bit in it rather than cooked to a porridge or mush consistency
3) wine is often used in the stock
4) Cheeses such as parmesan are usually added at the end, with butter
4) risottos can be soupy or dry, depending on the ingredients, style, regions and tradition. They are always creamy.
6) They may or may not contain vegetables, which are pre cooked if necessary and added at the end.
In contrast, Kitchari is a dish that can vary in consistency from wet to semi-solid, with the rice and lentils almost mushed. It contains mung or other dal, and short grain rice, usually cooked together in a pressure cooker these days, but can be cooked on the stove top, open fire or in a rice cooker. It can be cooked in water or in milk. It may or may not include vegetables. Usually those vegetables are cooked with the Kitchari rather than added later. It does include a range of spices and a little ghee or other oil. It is not stirred continuously during cooking. It is not usually creamy except when cooked with milk which provides the creaminess.
And finally, the final dishes are very different in taste.
What do you think about the challenge to describe Indian dishes to others?