As a transplant from another place, you reach a point in your life when you think you’ve gotten a handle on things, culinarily speaking. The cooking and consumption of foods from your original home strikes a somewhat fragile balance with foods you’ve grown to love in your adopted home. You’ve tried most of what is on offer here and have gathered together all the food you miss from there. Or you think you did.
Then out of the blue, the balance shifts. A word, an image, a smell…and something stirs in your memories.
It is not like I had forgotten all about this dish. I came across the straightforward recipe often in my precious file of mom’s recipes. Yet I passed it over because of its simplicity, engrossed in the pursuit of the more flamboyant and vibrant ones. While my mind was engaged in chicken curries and palak paneers, this one sort of got lost in plain sight. Now, I realize that it has been ten years since I last ate this dish. How did I go that long without craving it?
The last time I enjoyed it, I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen. It was a day before I was about to leave for the other side of the world. It was also the day my mom finally told me how much she was going to miss me. All this time, for over a year, she had been brave about the decision her erstwhile stay-at-home middle daughter had made to leave. Videoconferencing wasn’t yet the norm and she wouldn’t see me for a long time. For a whole month leading up to the day, she had been cooking all my favourite things. There were so many last meals I requested because I love practically everything my mom makes and knew I would miss it all. I’d already made my way over the culinary map, home food and restaurants, as I knew it then. My bags were packed to bursting with mom’s pickles and snacks, my uncle’s veggie patties and chicken cutlets (he’d dropped them off just earlier that morning as he stopped by to wish me luck). These would extend the old-home experience a bit more in the new place I was to call home. I was excited and scared and sorry to leave all at the same time.
This last evening, she was fasting and she made this dish, as she always did when she fasted. It was simple, satisfying and I loved it so it was apropos. Somehow, in that one dish, my mom managed to put a lifetime’s worth of love and blessings. Then she braved one of her fabulous smiles and told me she had complete faith that I would be alright, just as she put a steaming dish in front of me. I remember the bouquet of grated coconut, intermingled with the slightly singed notes of roasted peanut and the tingling ones of green chilli. I don’t know how I haven’t eaten this since then. Until now.
Sabudana khichdi is a prime fixture of Maharashtrian households, especially around the times of religious fasting, which often involves abstinence from meat, onions, ginger and garlic among several other things. I remember being fairly delighted my mom fasted as often as she did because on those days, among various other delicious fare, we got to eat this. (Gotta love our cuisine, even the austere food is delicious!) It involves some planning ahead but is one of the quickest and easiest things to cook. Did I mention delectable? Excuse my fervent repetition. Now that I’ve rediscovered it, I’m in ecstasies over it.
You need half as much coarsely ground roasted peanut as you do the sago pearls. My mom always roasted her own peanuts (they were divorced from their hard outer shell prior to the light roasting they received). I remember standing outside the door, my mom holding a large steel plate; the *chack-chack-chack* of the peanuts hitting the plate as she tossed them around, my sister or me blowing off their golden skins that then rained lightly on the garden ground. Once they were devoid of skins, she whizzed them in the little mixie for a bit until they were coarsely broken up.
Khichdi falls squarely in the list of comfort foods for most Indians. Generically speaking, it is a quick rice and lentil dish. In this case, they are substituted by sabudana (sago pearls) and the crushed peanuts. The sabudana gets soaked for a half hour, then it needs to be drained and put aside for 7 to 8 hours. It’s a great last thing to do before you go to bed. (I’ve heard of a variety of quick soak sabudana. It doesn’t take this long. I heard of it from my own mum too, but just in this case, I’ve chosen to be suspect of them newfangled things.) The peanuts can be prepped at any time and stored in an airtight jar in cool place for quite a while. You grab a couple of potatoes, slice up a couple of chillies. Simple as that, you have everything you need. The house smells spicy and divine and whets your appetite in the twenty minutes that everything cooks. Then you dig in with your spoon and are treated to a divine dish of lovely textures. There is the almost gnocchi like texture of the sago, the soft bite of the potato, the sweet and slight crunch of coconut and the snap of peanut. It is a wholesome bowl of good.
Sabudana (Sago/Tapioca) Khichdi
Sabudana (sago pearls) – 1 1/2 cup
Potatoes – 2-3
Dry-roasted peanuts – 3/4 cup, skinned and crushed coarsely
Canola Oil – 2 tbsp
Mustard seeds – 1 tsp
Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Serrano or Thai green chillies – 2 to 3, sliced fine
Curry leaves – 3-4
Sugar – 1 tsp
Fresh grated coconut – 2 to 3 tbsp
Salt to taste
– Wash the sabudana and soak in water (enough to cover it) for half-an-hour. Then drain the water, squeezing the tapioca firmly to remove any excess. Put in a bowl, cover and keep aside overnight or for 8 hours or so.
– Parboil the potatoes, then peel and cut into cubes and then 1/2 inch slices.
– Heat oil in a pan and temper with mustard and cumin. When mustard starts to splutter, add green chillies and curry leaves.
– Add the potatoes, salt, sugar and mix to incorporate
– Add the sabudana, mix and cook on low flame for a few minutes.
– Now add the coarsely powdered peanuts and grated coconut. Cook for a couple of minutes.
Serve hot on its own or with a nice dollop of plain yoghurt.
Whoever decided that this was what people should eat on fasts long, long ago was pretty brilliant. This bowl of starch makes sure your fasting does not leave you weak and without energy. I’m not much of a fast keeper as mom so having rediscovered this dish, I eat it whenever the feeling takes hold and/or I’ve remembered to do the pre-soak. Thinking about it, I guess I passed over this recipe because I’m bad at advance planning of meals unless they are new to me. This one requires one small yet crucial such step. Also, I don’t know why but I have this irrational need to roast peanuts on my own. Call it nostalgia. My friend Vandana has told me she uses store-bought pre-roasted ones with hardly any difference to flavour and I believe her. Feel free to do so too.
Coconut is a necessary component of this dish. Fresh grated is the essential call, but I’ve made it with dried coconut powder when I didn’t have the patience to break and grate a coconut. Sure, the fresh coconut is better, but this worked too. Use the frozen grated kind if you wish (pre-thawed of course).The chilli is the only thing adding zing to the recipe so be sure to use it. Use more if you like things spicy but at least the quantity mentioned, if not. It is essential flavouring. Amey loves to pour yoghurt on his. Traditionally, it is often served that way. I prefer mine without.
Make sure you squeeze the sago pearls firmly to drain any excess water before you set them aside. Wet sabudana will make for a sticky, badly seasoned disappointing khichdi. (We always called it sago but googling ‘sabudana’ gets you links to sago and tapioca. I don’t think they are the same but I don’t know for sure as I write this. Do tell me if you find out. Until then, I’m covering all bases.) You can find sabudana very easily at your nearest Indian grocery store.
This fast food is ready pretty fast and is such a joy to eat. Often, the best things in life, are the simplest.
Update: It definitely is sago, not tapioca. Thanks to TheKitchn for confirming this (and Sudha for first explaining the difference.)