An abridged version of this article appeared in Deccan Herald in May 2008.
Scene 1: (Taj Connemara, Chennai)
Khichdi is my preferred choice for dinner specially if I am having my dinner alone in the room. Any part of the country. Any hotel. Khichdi it is. It all started, of all the places, in Chennai, at Taj Connemara, many, many years ago.
I had returned to my room after long hours at working outdoors in the hot, humid city. The welcome shower done (I was a frequent guest of the hotel, so no problems in handling the plumbing!) I was looking forward to a nice meal and sleep. As I glanced through the room service card (I used to always wonder why I always go through the card when I knew that I would eventually order; either roti and sabzi or roti and daal), I saw a line tucked at the end of the card, ” Home-style food available on request”. Bored as I was, I decided to call room service and have some fun, expecting little. I had actually planned to ask for Sattu-ka-Paratha which is real Bhojpuri stuff and very much home food. But I decided to go easy on this and asked for something simpler, khichdi.
A pause from the other end for a minute and then , “May I put you on to The Chef, please?”
“Sure, I will wait.”
“Chef Gomez here. How can I help you?”
There goes my khichdi plan, Gomez and khichdi, no way!
“Well, I was looking forward to a portion of khichdi….” my voice trails off.
“Sure, sir, you want masala khichdi or plain?”
“Masala will be perfectly fine.” there was hope still!
“And what would you like to have this with, some bharta?”
I can’t believe my ears,Chef Gomez actually wants to know if I want bharta!! He must be a genius to guess this! Bharta is a standard side dish to khichdi in Bihar. (And of course the rest of the accompaniments like the ditty goes, “Khichdi ke chaar yaar, dahi, papad, gheee, achaar”.)
Pleased no end by the progress of the conversation with Chef Gomez so far, I began giving a detailed description of the kind of khichdi I wanted along with the “chaar yaar” story. I told him my roots are in Bihar and the precise way in which the Biharis love their khichdi to be prepared.
Chef Gomez politely cuts me short. “Not to worry, sir, we shall have this reached to you in the next 20-25 minutes.”
What arrives can only be described as a culinary delight which a Bihari would die for.Thick, but just so, the right mix of daals, a generous serving of ghee. Seasoned with just the right quantity of perfectly fried jeera and tej-patta (bayleaves). And all the yaars in place, a bowl of thick, creamy dahi, roasted papad and an assortment of achaars! And the heavenly bharta, well mashed potatos and tomatos roasted in the chulha!
Chef Gomez had wrought magic for a Bihari in the deep South of India! Wonder how! This guy must be a genius, I averred to myself!
Even I was placing the food tray outside the room, the phone rang.
“Hello, sir, how did you like your dinner?” Chef Gomez was on the line.
And I told him how I found the dinner, scrumptious, tasty, mind-blowing etc. etc.
“I am glad you liked what we put prepared for you. Please feel free to order the khichdi anytime and we will be glad to be of help.”
And then I could not bear it and finally popped the million-dollar-question to The Chef, “How did you manage to get the seasonings and the flavouring just right. Just right for a Bihari. You really must be a magician. I am pretty sure you are not a Bihari, probably from Bombay or Goa. How could you get the perfect Bihari taste?”
“You are right, sir, I am from Goa. Never been to Bihar. But, you see, sir, I do have two sous chef from Bihar. And I must say they are creative young lads! And they are the ones who made the khichdi for you! Good night, sir, and dont forget to ask for whatever, whenever! Bye!”
If at all I needed a reason to stay at Taj Connemara in my subsequent trips, this was a great reason! Chef Gomez and his two Bihari Sous Chef who could rustle up a magical khichdi!
PS: Twenty minutes later the phone rang again. This time it was my wife for our mandatory post-prandial chat. After the perfunctory how-was-the-day, how-are-the-kids, how-are-you, was an equally perfunctory how-was-your-dinner, what-did-you-eat. What was not perfunctory was my response. “This was the best home-made food I have ever had”, was my genuinely excited (and innocent) answer. There was a silence at the other end of the line which, progressively, over the next six to eight seconds became excruciatingly uncomfortable for me. “Ah”, she said in a monotone, “I am happy you get the best home-made food on your travels. Nice!” And then there was a quick click of the phone being disconnected.
The better part of the night was spent trying to figure out the optimal damage-control action and an hour went the next afternoon in the T-Nagar shopping area in Chennai buying a rather heavy (and expensive) Kanjeevaram for her.
Excellent khichdi does have a price tag attached to it! A serious Rupees four-digit tag!!
Scene Two (Taj Bengal, Kolkata)
“May I have a portion of khichdi, please.”
Seductive voice, “I am sorry sir, khichdi is not available.”
“Khichdi, just khichdi. I do not want anything else.”
Firm voice (scarcely seductive now), “Sorry sir, not possible now.”
“Why not”, I am now a little belligerent.
“You see sir, this is a special dish. And we do not take orders for special dishes after 10.30 pm.”
I am desparate by now. “Look! Khichdi is a very simple dish to make. Some rice, some daal. Cook it together. Add some seasoning. And there you have the khichdi. I am giving her a free cookery lesson.
“Wait a moment, sir, let me see what I can do for you.”
A big pause as I await a response. I just can not believe I am at a super five star hotel, in Kolkata, begging for a bowl of khichdi! Kolkata, off all the places. I have spent all my childhood having khichudi moha-proshaad for lunches during the Durga Pujas.
Return of Ms Seductive, ” Thank you for holding, Mr Ojha. We can get you some khichdi.
“Ah, very good!”
“And what would you like with it? Some curd?”
“That would be perfect. How about some pickles too.?”
“Certainly, anything else?”
“Also some bharta, please.”
“That I am afraid will not be possible now sir.”
“Come on, if you can get me some khichdi, bharta should be so easy to get.”
“Look”, I start off I am talking to a mentally challenged person. “Take some potatos, boil them well and peel them off. Wait for them to cool a bit and mash them in a shallow dish. Towards the end of the mashing process, add some salt, some mustard oil and some whole red chilli (burnt if possible) and there you have a perfectly acceptable bharta.”
A firm “Sorry sir” from Ms Room Service and I give up. “OK Ma’am, send me whatever you can.”
Khichdi arrives in the mandatory 20-25 minutes and I must say, it was not so bad. Pretty good, really! But I am seething with rage about the missing bharta. Dinner done, I decide to escalate matters. I call up the Duty Manager and narrate my tale of woes.
Five minutes later, a male voice calls from room service. (Ms seductive would have been dismissed from service by now, I hope) “Sorry about the bharta, sir” And then he goes into a long, long explanation. “You see sir, after 10.30 pm all our boiled potatoes are kept in the cold storage and you know sir (I do not) cold, boiled potatoes are not amenable to good mashing and hence we do not make bharta out of them. And you will agree with me, sir, that we have to maintain our standards and serve you only the best quality dishes. And, sir, if you are desirous of bharta tomorrow, please do call us before 10 pm or, sir, if you wish we can take you order for bharta and khichdi for tomorrow right now.
“Thank you. I have had my dinner. Good night”
And that was pretty much my last stay at Taj Bengal, Kolkata. Colonial niceties of Taj Bengal be damned. (By the way, I am a great Taj lover, but only outside Kolkata. While at Kolkata I stay at ITC Sonar Bangla who serve some superb khichdi. Besides, of course, (being an ITC hotel) they sell cigarettes at the MRP and not at the usurious five star prices!