( Sumbul Farah is a comrade in arms in many a meals, coffee-breaks in DSE canteen where we shared anecdotes about Elmas (a tea room in HKV) to Prabasi( a Bengali restaurant in Dwarka) . In this guest-post, Sumbul brings to you her memories around Moharram. Sumbul Farah works on Sociology of Religion. Her areas of interests are Islam, the idea of ethics in everyday life and a new-found enthusiasm for photography!)
Some of my most enduring memories of the month of Moharram1 have as much to do with the sombre and subdued atmosphere of mourning as with the delights of the niyaz(ritual aimed at transfer of merit) of khichda (a variety of meat porridge). Niyaz refers to the ritual of consecration of food in the name of a saint through the recitation of Quranic verses over it.2 The blessings of Allah are invoked by doing so and it is believed that merit is transferred both to the saint for whom the niyaz is offered as well as the believer who offers it. Niyaz is usually a community event where relatives, neighbours and acquaintances are invited to partake of the niyaz food although sometimes the hosts send out portions of the niyaz food to everybody instead of inviting them over.
As a child, I remember the niyaz of Moharram being particularly welcome because of the preparation of khichda. Khichda is not a dish that is prepared frequently in most houses because of the cumbersome process of cooking it. Composed of various cereals, grains and mutton/beef cooked over a long period of time the khichda requires both patience and skill and is therefore considered a speciality. For the niyaz of Moharram, however, it is prepared in almost every household at least once in the entire month. Although niyaz can be offered on any food item for the invocation of blessings, as per tradition the niyaz of certain saints has come to be associated with specific food items and the custom is widely followed. In accordance with such a tradition it is almost mandatory to offer niyaz on khichda during Moharram.
In Bareilly, almost everyone is familiar with the most commonly cited rationale for the preparation of khichda on Moharram even though the version is often contested by ulema (religious scholars). It is believed that after the battle of Karbala, the women and children who were left behind when the men departed for battle were driven to desperation by hunger. Therefore, they brought together all the varieties of grains and meat that was left in their houses and mixed them all before cooking. This dish, many claim, became what is called khichda today. Apart from the khichda numerous sweetened beverages (sharbat) and maleeda3 are almost exclusively associated with Moharram. Stalls dispensing sweet milky drinks or sharbat of different varieties are ubiquitous in Moharram because they symbolize an abundance of water, which is particularly poignant because the family of the Prophet was deprived of water in the Battle of Karbala.
I remember that apart from the invitations to numerous niyaz around the neighbourhood, very often generously laden containers would arrive from relatives and neighbours. The arrival of khichda caused much excitement because it served to spice up (sometimes literally so!) the regular fare that would otherwise constitute lunch or dinner. It was then devoured with much debate over the flavour, texture and quality of meat. Apart from the flavour, the most striking as well as the most closely examined aspect of khichda is the level of spiciness. There is huge variation in the hotness of khichda in different households, ranging from the intensely fiery kind that brings tears to the eyes to the comparatively milder versions. For the most part, it is widely agreed upon that the khichda tastes better when the spice is on the higher side. The consumption of khichda, therefore, is almost inevitably accompanied by involuntary gasping and wheezing sounds that serve to point out the level of its hotness to the others! The more faint-hearted ones relish it with curd, which serves to offset the spiciness the khichda.
Haleem and shola are variations of the same dish with some differences that imparts to them a substantially different character. In the preparation of khichda the cereals are cooked till they are completely softened. It is possible that the word khichda is a derivative of the term khichdi that refers to lentil-rice porridge. While khichda has porridge like consistency it is ensured that the pieces of meat in it retain their shape and stay soft but whole. In haleem, on the other hand, the meat is cooked under pressure so that it softens and shreds throughout the body of the dish. The consistency of khichda and haleem is, therefore, markedly different from each other.
As with all elaborate culinary items, the khichda fell off my mental map after I started college in Delhi and moved out of Bareilly. The Autumn and Winter breaks scheduled by the University never really coincided with Moharram and Delhi never had the khichda on its menu anyway. The khichda and my fondness for it was thus consigned to memory until my PhD work brought me back to the city specially in the month of Moharram. During my fieldwork in Moharram I was invariably offered a bowl of khichda in the houses I visited and I saw families exchanging huge pots of khichda just as I remembered. Sure enough, one day I came back to my house in Bareilly to find a huge tub of khichda sent by a relative.
However, this time around when I came back to Delhi, I had a way out. ‘Shan Masala’ of Pakistan has started to package what they call ‘Haleem Mix’ that has a packet of the cereals pre-mixed in the appropriate proportion and a packet of the spices that go into it. Whether it replicates the ‘authentic’ flavour of the khichda will always be open to debate because there are many who believe that pressure cookers and gas burners had already robbed the khichda of the flavour that was imparted by slow-cooking over wood-fired chulhas. I, for one, am not bothered as long as I have my reasonably good substitute in Shan’s Haleem Mix. The recipe can be tweaked in order to ensure that the dish is closer to the Bareilly khichda and it works perfectly for me. Garnished with caramelized onions and served with wedges of lemon, chopped green chillies and fresh coriander the khichda is a reminder of Moharram, of childhood, of sobriety and of pleasure – all at once. By the spoonful!
1 Moharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and is significant for Muslims because the Battle of Karbala was fought in this month. The first ten days are spent in mourning for the family of the Prophet who were martyred and those who suffered great hardships in the battle.
2 Anybody familiar with sectarian and denominational differences within Islam in the subcontinent would immediately identify the term ‘niyaz’ with the Barelwi (or Ahl-e-Sunnat or Sunni) form of practice.
3 Maleeda refers to a sweet dish made of crumbled dough, ghee and sugar. It is ritually prepared during Moharram.