[Dedicated to my Periamma, who taught me how to make the 'as close to perfect as possible' sabudana khichdi. And through it, a desire to strive for excellence, at least in one dish of the vast canvas of cooking!]
Making sabudana khichdi is an exacting process as I have come to realise. One that has many variants, all of which need to fall into place for it to come into its own.
Right from the way it is soaked to how much of water it takes in, to the amount of oil used to cook it, to the number of peanuts you measure out to powder and flavor it, the steps have to be both precise as well as bended to flexibility, should the measure of exactness go awry at any point. And in this, it has my full and complete admiration. For something that requires so much of your stillness, concentration and presence, is something that is worthy of meditating upon. And I shall do just that!
I owe my love of this dish to my Aunt in Pune, who has understood every nuance and mood of this grain to master it so adeptly, and wields it to satisfy every sense of the palate. In a fit of self-confidence that can only come from the rushes of youth, I thought I could easily replicate her style and I made it at home. Over and over. And it was a washout every single time. I have lost count of how many packs of sabudana, I would have wasted in the process. And it never struck me that these failures could be turned on their head and fried as vadas.
Finally, there came a day when after sampling yet another one of her perfectly churned out batches of khichdi, I deigned to come down from the high horse of my own independent study of it and asked for the secret. How do you make it Periamma, I mouthed rather coolly, when every part of me was literally begging inside, grappling to understand where the key to all my struggles lay.
Secret 1 : With the very first step she laid out, I realised my mistake. You soak the grain in just enough water to cover it. No more, no less. More makes it soggy. Less makes it hard and chewy.
Also, different varieties need different hours of soaking. The ones I get in Chicago can easily do with the overnight soak. The ones in India, need just about an hour.
In this it is about balance. That perfect walk along the thin pole...with not even a balancing stick to hold on to. Either you get it right, or you don't!
Secret 2 : This needs lots of peanuts powdered to this semi coarse consistency. And also lots of oil to cook it in. So it can be the reward after a period of healthful eating. Or you can toss all such notions aside and cook it every other week.
In this, it is about excess and plentiful excess. Every time you feel it getting sticky, you add more oil without even batting an eyelid. And just when you think 20 peanuts is enough for those 2 cups, you add another 10 more into the mixie, and then another 5. Maybe just 2 more. 1 last?
Secret 3 : You need to mix in the peanut powder to the grains, before you cook it. It may work the other way too, but from all my repeated practise sessions, this works better.
In this it is about eccentricity. Why add the peanuts just a second later into the pan, when you can do it beforehand, and let the grains and the nuts become better acquainted? Why wait and delay the inevitable???!!!
Secret 4 : It needs careful monitoring over a low flame, with frequent stirring to make sure the undersides don't get sticky and clump together. And in the end, if its gets sticky anyways, let it cool in the breeze of the fan. The grains stop banding together so fiercely.
In this, it is about TLC. And micro-management. The kind where you don't take your eyes off of it even for a second, and even when you do it, it is done as a covert operation, before it develops the smarts to figure out the second's worth of neglect.
Secret 5 : A dash of lemon juice at the very end works wonders in bringing all the flavours together. As does, a big bunch of coriander greens.
In this it is about the pompadour touch. That little zing, that flair for the tart!
Suffice it to say, I have had enough intimate conversations with this process, to unearth all its secrets (or so I think! Foolish me!!!). For I have made several worthy batches of khichdi. Both the boys like it and if I space it out well in the course of a month, don't object to it in the least.
It makes for a hearty breakfast, an easy dinner option and can be a party hit, if the stars have aligned well in the charts that day! Making it each time is an act of mystery, where even the weight of my history with it will not guarantee success. It is thrilling because I never quite know what will come out at the end. Even if one step goes off the beaten track, it can become a slushy disaster or a clumpy, chewy mess.
But on the days it behaves itself and lends complicity to me in full and complete abandon and kindness....those are the days of true happiness. And today is one of those days!