The dish is a classic example of cultural crossover
Kedgeree is the misfit of the British breakfast table. Imagine waking up under a dismal gray sky to basmati rice and smoked haddock, dyed deep yellow with curry powder, fragrant with spices and onions, topped with hard or soft-boiled eggs, and with a texture hovering between pilaf and risotto. It hits a sweet spot between comforting and intriguing, but it makes for a strange sight next to your fry-ups and your porridges. That’s because it’s a relatively recent arrival from from an entirely different school of cooking—Anglo-Indian cuisine.
Anglo-Indian cookery is a blanket term for recipes that developed directly from the British colonization of India in the 19th century. If you’ve ever ordered a bloody mary at brunch, then you can thank the men who brought from India to Britain a recipe for a spicy, umami-laden condiment, which after some experimentation by Mr Lea and Mr Perrins became Worcestershire sauce. The Southern favorite country captain, a mild chicken curry served with a plethora of side boys, is another descendant of a dish served under the Raj.
When British men first arrived in India as employees of the East India Company in the late eighteenth century, their aim was to take over India’s economic resources and trade. British culture wasn’t imposed wholesale until after 1858, when the British Parliament took direct control of the government of India. This initial openness created opportunities for cultural exchange. Upstanding English gentlemen would dress in lightweight Indian outfits for dinner, smoke hookahs, and take Indian mistresses and wives.
Their cultural broad-mindedness extended to food. Kedgeree’s direct ancestor was an indigenous dish called khichidi—a soupy mix of rice and lentils eaten across India. Once British colonists arrived in India, both khichidi and fresh fish became mainstays of the breakfasts their Indian servants cooked, and eventually the two were integrated into one plate of food. To top the dish, the British borrowed garnishes from other Indian culinary traditions, including crispy onions and chopped hard-boiled egg. Adding an extra layer of culinary exchange, the idea for the egg garnish came from Persian cooking, brought to India by the conquering Mughals two centuries before. When the dish travelled back to Britain via letters and cookbooks, the lentils were left out and the fish was specifically named as smoked haddock, thus codifying the kedgeree we know today.
Kedgeree demonstrates that food is a fluid part of any culture. Some dishes do not always fit under clearly-delineated national cuisines or a carved-in-stone definition of authenticity. Merchants and travellers have carried ingredients and techniques to new places since history began. Conquerors and colonists put Portuguese custard tarts on the dim sum table in Macau and Hong Kong and French baguettes stuffed with pate and pickles in Vietnam. Later waves of immigration from East to West created new dishes, as immigrants from across the world changed the meals they knew to both match the different ingredients they had on hand, and to please the palates of their new customers. In the US, this encompasses everything from fettuccine Alfredo to queso in Texas to the Midwest’s St Paul sandwich, which consists of the Cantonese-influenced dish egg foo young between two slices of white bread. The academic term for dishes like these would be “Creole cuisine”, but you could also think of these dishes as unplanned fusion. Foods have always crossed borders and cultures.
So where does this leave kedgeree? It is a dish based on a classic Indian recipe, made by Indian servants for British rulers and changed to reflect their palate, then altered further when the British returned home. It belongs to two wildly different culinary cultures, and yet stands on its own. I think the best way to think of kedgeree comes from a recent cookbook, Meera Sodha’s Made in India. Sodha, a food writer of Gujarati descent raised in rural England, includes recipes for both khichidi and kedgeree in her book, acknowledging the historical relationship between the two and making her own alterations, adding whole spices to the khichidi and using locally-fished haddock in the kedgeree. She finds the sweet spot between past and present, the personal and the global, which is the place where the best food lives. It may not be a Full English but it’s the real deal.