Food always reflects the culture it was born in. There’s no dish for which this is truer than kedgeree. Delicately spiced rice, hard-boiled eggs, smoky fish and butter– this is a culinary fight to the death between Indian flavours and Victorian nursery food. It’s no wonder, then, that it was created in the melting pot of the British Raj.
One line of thought is that the dish is based on a traditional Scottish recipe, which absorbed the flavours of the Indian subcontinent when Scottish troops were sent there in the 1800s. But the more popular theory is that it is a colonial version of the Indian dish khichri , rice and lentils, flavoured with spices and butter.
In John Fryer’s A New Account of East-India and Persia, published in 1698, gives us one of the earliest references to kedgeree in the English language:
‘The diet of this sort of people admits not of great variety or cost, their delightfullest food being only Cutchery [sic], a sort of pulse and rice mixed together, and boiled in butter: But such victuals could not be long pleasing to our merchants, who had been used to feed on good Flesh:’
Khichri was also considered a comfort or sick person’s food in Asia, being low in heat and rather easier on the botty than a vindaloo.
So it was a match made in heaven for spice-shy Britons abroad.The British passion for a spicy curry and a gallon of lager on a Friday night was, clearly, a long way off.
But we plucky Brits were not content to leave a foreign recipe untweaked.
Good Heavens, no!
You can’t build an empire without protein. So the colonials added fish and eggs and embraced it as a breakfast dish. When the time came to return to Blighty, they packed the recipe for this early example of fusion food alongside their linen suits , tiger skins, interesting skin diseases and hopes for promotion. Thousands of crestfallen cooks from London to the Lake District beat themselves senseless with ladles as they were informed that porridge was now off the menu.
This British need for some sort of flesh may explain why fish replaced the lentils when it found its way back to Britain.’ Clarissa Dickson Wright’s (one half of the Two Fat Ladies) explained that at the time the British upper classes held the view that people who ate lentils could not be trusted and that they vegetarians lewd thoughts!
Novel and inoffensive to corseted Victorian ladies with fussy appetites and an aversion to piano legs. Kedgeree soon became an indispensable part of the 19th century breakfast table. What’s fascinating, however, is how much these early recipes differ – not only from the kind of kedgeree we eat today, but even from each other.
One source of an early kedgeree recipe comes from a Lady Clark of Tillypronie who suggests a simple combination of cooked white fish, rice, boiled egg and a little spice. In a footnote for one of the recipes, Lady Clark adds ‘You may curry it for a variety.’ She also insists Turbot was the best fish for kedgeree. There is no mention of smoked haddock – what we would now regard as essential to kedgeree.
Today, most recipes call for smoked haddock but in India the fish used would probably have been fresh: fish deteriorates quickly in heat, which is why such dishes were often consumed at breakfast. On top of this, most early references suggest not haddock, but leftover cooked fish of any type – explaining, perhaps why the thrifty middle class embraced the meal so readily. As David Burton points out in his book The Raj at the Table, it was probably only when Scottish smoked haddock became readily available nationally that it became a go-to ingredient for the kedgeree aficionado.
And while some cooks chose to celebrate the dish’s Asian roots by adding spices – though they often opted for the rather un-Indian sounding Cayenne pepper – many more made a plainer dish, suitable for the fey British palate of the times. In Mary Harrison’s 1884 tome, The Skilful Cook, the only condiments recommended are salt and pepper – in “skilfully judged quantities”, of course.
Even the most mundane component, egg, has been subject to a drastic makeover. Today, we tend to serve the dish artfully strewn with halved or quartered hardboiled eggs, but Elizabeth Acton’s 1845 recipe in her wonderfully titled Modern Cookery for Private Families, calls for the cook to “stir the kedgeree constantly over a clear fire until it is very hot: then mingle quickly with it two slightly beaten eggs” – creating a peculiar eggy sauce not unlike that used in a spaghetti carbonara today.
Other Victorian cooks did use hardboiled eggs, but opted for an over the top, Master Chef-esque presentation. The white of the hardboiled eggs was sliced and the yolk rubbed through a sieve to yield a kind of eggy shower: no doubt bound to impress tweed suited , hungover guests at your country mansion.
During the Second World War, kedgeree was embedded enough in the British culinary imagination to be featured in one book as a recommended recipe to cook with rationed food. But, due to the shortage of fish, a clever(?) substitute was suggested – devilled kidneys.
Thankfully, “kidnegeree” never took off.
The last word goes to the late Jennifer Paterson (the other half of the Two Fat Ladies) when she said kedgeree ‘is of all things really one of the most comforting dishes and is delicious any time of day, as well as breakfast.’