While khichdi, biryani, dal, and other dishes might be popular across the country, it’s near impossible to crown one as the national dish of India. In a country so diverse, with a different dialect at every turn, one would be hard-pressed to do so without alienating communities.
What constitutes a national dish?
In simple terms, it’s essentially an integral part of the nation’s identity and self-image. A dish earns the spot when it can globally represent the country it belongs to, a taste preferred by all.
Switzerland have fondue, Canada has poutine, and Australia has the traditional meat pie as its national dish. What makes a national dish so is not so much it being voted by organisations or the popularity of a dish. It’s not the most viral dish. Rather, it is a dish that is eaten most regularly by people spread across the country.
For example, a country such as Japan has made waves time and again on a global level for sushi and ramen. Even in India, numerous eateries feature the two deliciously trendy dishes to cater to the evolving palates of consumers. However, it’s actually Katsudon, a rice bowl topped with meat and veggies of your choice that qualifies as the national dish, given the frequency and scale of its consumption.
India is a complex amalgamation of numerous communities and languages. Even if a dish were to be identified, the variations of it across the country would be far too many. Additionally, each state and even city has a culinary culture deep rooted in history. To pick one dish, therefore, would be to insult the heritage of all others.
A few years back, khichdi was touted as the national dish of India. It was an erroneous assumption based on its accessibility and the fact that every part of India eats some form of khichdi. In any case, it was a rumour and was dissed by the government soon enough.
Like khichdi, there are several other popular dishes that have been hailed as the national dish of India from time to time. From biryani to dal, or even egg curries, these delicious comfort foods have made a mark across the country. The lack of one particular style of preparation, however, is what makes the dish and eliminates the possibility of a national dish crowning at the same time.
That being said, the variations across the country are definitely worth exploring. What makes dishes like biryani and khichdi so popular among Indians?
50 shades of khichdi
A quintessential part of our diet, most of us would have grown up with regular khichdi meals. Quick to make, and ever so delicious when paired with papad and pickle, this is as wholesome as it gets. What makes the dish memorable is that while it provides a much needed respite from long days, it’s also equally satiating in times of illness.
The combination of lentils with rice is the perfect recipe for instant energy and provides a host of other health benefits.
What makes the dish versatile, and a contender for the national dish of India, is the manner of preparation. Each part of India has adapted the basic dish in its own way, adding native spices and condiments. This largely affects the colour, texture, and even taste, making it a whole new experience every time.
For instance, while khichdi has traditionally been a vegetarian dish, the keema khichdi from Hyderabad includes ground meat. Credited to the Nizams of Hyderabad and their culinary genius, the dish tastes similar to biryani but is prepared differently. Consisting of rice, lentils, and ground meat, it is served with khatta, a tangy side similar to salan.
Another departure from the traditional route is the Bisi Bele Bhath, found in Karnataka. Made with toor dal (as opposed to the usual moong dal) and a unique masala mix boasting 30 different spices, it makes for a sumptuous variation of the humble khichdi.
In states such as Tamil Nadu, the take on khichdi has several subsets. Pongal, made during the harvest season, is a delectable combination of lentils, rice, and indulgent amounts of ghee. The dish has both spicy and sweet takes, namely the sweet or Chakkara pongal, or the Melangu pongal. While the former is loaded with roasted dry fruits, the latter is garnished with powdered pepper.
As far as the West is concerned, it’s all about creating stable, comfort flavours. Since rice is scarce in the state, Rajasthani khichdi uses sorghum (jowar) or bajra (millet) as the main ingredient. With Gujarati khichdi it doesn’t matter what variant of the dish you opt for, it will always be accompanied by some sweet Gujarati kadhi.
Towards the north, it’s the traditional Bihari khichdi that has garnered immense popularity. Especially around Makar Sankranti celebrations, the khichdi is offered as prasad during religious ceremonies.
In Bengal, you’ll find khichuri, which is simply a porridge made with rice, roasted moong dal, desi ghee and ginger. As it is also used as a prasad, the dish typically does not contain any garlic or onion.
A lesser known and far more unique version of khichdi by far is Galho, from parts of Northeast India. While it contains rice and lentils, it also utilises meat in the preparation. Smoked pork, or beef, is commonly used, and the flavour of the dish is accentuated by adding axone (fermented soybean), a key ingredient in those parts.
The many facets of biryani
What makes biryani a strong contender for the national dish of India is the incontestable craze around it. Statistics in the past few years, especially in the pandemic, have seen biryani ranked at the top as the most ordered dish. Such is the craze for biryani, in fact, that people have started to order it by the bucket!
If this doesn’t spell India’s love for biryani, nothing does.
Traditional biryani is a succulent amalgamation of slow-cooked rice, ground aromatic spices, vegetables or meat (but mostly meat!), saffron, fried onion, mint, and coriander leaves. With a recipe like that, it’s hardly surprising that the burst of flavour leaves the entire nation yearning for more.
Popular variations include the Hyderabadi biryani, again passed down to us by the Nizams of Hyderabad. A lesser-known fact about this biryani is that it comes in two variants, the Pakki (cooked) and Kacchi (raw). In the former, the meat and rice are cooked separately first and then layered together, while the latter allows for slow cooking of it all.
Aside from the famous Hyderabadi Dum Biryani, there’s also the Lucknowi Biryani. Also known as the ‘Awadhi Biryani’, it’s the Dum Pukht style of preparation that sets this apart from the rest. The marinated meat is partially cooked separately from rice, which is flavoured with spices. Both the meat and rice are then layered together in a handi (deep-bottomed vessel) and cooked for hours until the flavours penetrate deeply.
Another biryani that has surprising roots in the Awadhi style is the Calcutta Biryani. Characterised by subtle flavours with a tinge of sweetness and sparsely used spices, it is cooked with light yellow rice. The final dish is layered with yoghurt-marinated meat, soft boiled eggs and potatoes, making this as comforting as delicious in every bite.
If you go further east, you’ll find the lesser-known Kampuri Biryani. The dish has its origins in the Muslim town of Kampur in Assam. This delectable variation of biryani involves lots of fresh vegetables such as peas, potatoes, bell peppers and carrots cooked with nutmeg and cardamom. In addition to the usual beautifully treated rice and meat, it makes for a perfect and wholesome plate of food.
For those looking for another take on the Hyderabadi biryani, there’s the Kalyani biryani from Karnataka. Often dubbed the ‘poor man’s Hyderabadi biryani’, the dish is said to have originated from Bidar. Consisting of buffalo meat and an array of spices, coriander and tomatoes, this biryani is a flavourful trip to tang town and how!
In the same tangy vein, you’ll be remiss if you didn’t explore the Dindigul Biryani. A popular dish available across Chennai, It is neck-to-neck in running with the Ambur Biryani. The latter is also known for its strong, tangy flavours, yoghurt-based preparation of the meat, and is unmissable on a trip to Tamil Nadu.
No list on biryanis will be complete without mentioning the grand old Thalassery Biryani. A crown jewel of Kerala among others, the sweet and spicy biryani uses an indigenous variety of rice — khyma or jeerakasala — instead of the usual basmati. Other ingredients that go into this playful dish include Malabar spices, meat or chicken, fried onions, fennel seeds, sauteed cashews and raisins.
With different regions of Kerala having incredibly diverse takes on the popular dish, it’s arguably the meen (or fish) biryani that stands out. The dish imbibes the flavours of the coastal regions of its origin, and of course, true to its name uses fish instead of other meat.
A rather popular myth when it comes to biryani connoisseurs is ‘the spicier, the better’. However, the Beary Biryani is a mildly spicy Mangalorean take on the popular dish originating from a Muslim community of the coastal areas of Dakshina Kannada. The name comes from the traders (beary) residing there. It’s a slow-cooked biryani and best served the next day.
With that being said, it’s evident more than ever why picking the national dish of India with one set recipe would be next to impossible!