The British have form in appropriating the dishes – as well as the resources – of their colonies: think curry and chow mein. But it is a beguiling melange of smoky, salty fish, spiced rice and hard-boiled eggs that is possibly the greatest gift from the Anglo-Indian entanglement to our breakfast tables today.
According to “Larousse Gastronomique”, what we call kedgeree originated from a concoction of spiced lentils, rice, fried onions and ginger known as khichiri dating back to the 14th century and eaten across India. The early colonists developed a taste for it, as it reminded them of nursery food. Both khichiri and fish became mainstays of the Raj breakfast table and, in time, their Indian cooks integrated the two. Eggs, believed to have been introduced to the Indian kitchen repertoire by conquering Mughals centuries earlier, were later added as a garnish. When the dish travelled back to Edwardian country homes, via letters and regiments, the lentils were usually left out and flaked smoked haddock added in (the Scots take credit for this). Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria were especially partial to kedgeree.
The recipe is infinitely flexible; it can be heady and spicy, or mild and comforting, made with salmon, as Camellia Punjabi of Chutney Mary in London advocates, or with roasted pumpkin for vegetarians. The fish can be poached in water, in fish stock or in milk; the eggs hard-boiled or poached. But what makes a workaday kedgeree into a bravura breakfast is the spicing; get that right and you’ve cracked it.
Boil basmati rice and add it to an onion that’s been sautéed in lashings of butter. Then it’s spice time: while curry powder is commonly used, a proper garam masala – freshly tempered cumin, cardamom and fennel seeds, peppercorns, cloves, a pinch of turmeric, grated nutmeg and saffron, all ground in a pestle and mortar – lifts the kedgeree to another level. Mix the rice and fish together gently, adding a little more milk if necessary for a creamy and luxurious texture, then top with eggs and a sprinkling of chopped parsley. It’s a dish fit for viceroys.