Kedgeree – an ancient Indian recipe which blossomed in Britain thanks to the stagecoach
“Kedgeree is a prime example of how one recipe can eventually transmute into another, for, aside from the rice, this delightful Anglo-Indian jumble of smoked fish, rice and chopped egg bears no relation to its parent recipe of the same, or similar name.”David Burton, The Raj At Table
A bit of history
Kedgeree has its origins in an Indian dish, Khichri which is over a thousand years old – the name is derived from the Sanskrit k’ysara. It’s a mix of dal (dried split pulses: lentils, peas and beans) and rice cut with classic Indian herbs and spices such as coriander, cardamom, cloves, ginger and chilli.
It was the British, arriving in the seventeenth century, who first used it as a breakfast dish, initially just as it was, and then substituting fresh fish for the dal.
Next they added eggs, and then they dropped the Indian herbs and spices and replaced them with ubiquitous, easy-going parsley.
And, in the next stage of its development, it was taken back to Britain, and renamed.
Meanwhile, at Findon, just south of Aberdeen there was a thriving cottage industry whereby haddock was smoked over fires of seaweed, peat and moss.
And coincidentally, just at that time, stagecoach connections were improving. Improving to the extent that the smoked haddock from Findon (a harder, saltier version of today’s Finnan Haddie) could reach London.
The marriage of the smoked fish, the eggs, and the rice was made in heaven. It was an instant success, and kedgeree was found on the breakfast buffet of every decent Victorian English country pile. When, in the small hours of an exuberant ball, energy needed to be replenished, kedgeree was the welcome solution. These days it’s a sort of all-day breakfast – good for brunch, and just as good for a light lunch or supper.
So the basic classic ingredients of a classic kedgeree are rice, eggs, smoked fish, onion, butter and parsley.
But, Heraclitus’ ‘everything flows, nothing stays still’ philosophy certainly applies to recipes, especially rice-based recipes which lend themselves so well to accommodating leftovers (see pilaf – another ancient recipe). There’s no point sticking slavishly to an ‘authentic’ recipe if the simple addition of one thing or another will make it better.
Three recent improvements (in my view) are the addition of cream (you need this, otherwise it’s rather dry); the reintroduction, in the form of curry powder, of some of the original Indian spices; the odd nod to a vegetable – peas are common, but sweet corn is really successful – it mostly to do with the squeaky, poppy texture; and the classic fish flavour-enhancer – lemon.
In terms of leftovers you can add in peas or corn, mushrooms, and pieces of green or red pepper. Chopped chives cut successfully through the rich smokiness of the fish, and watercress winds its peppery way well through the cream and the eggs. The smoked haddock itself can be leftover….
With regards to what to serve with it, I also think mango chutney is an essential. Eliza Acton, writing one of the first recipes for kedgeree in her Modern Cookery for Private Families in 1845 recommends a Mauritian chutney which may have been made of coriander, coconut, or tomato.
In any case, this is the Saucy Dressings’ approach.
What to drink with kedgeree?
A good hearty hot smokey mug of Lapsang Souchong, or the slightly milder Russian Caravan, tea goes well, or failing that perhaps a lager.
For other recipes using smoked haddock, follow this link.
What to do with leftover kedgeree
William Sitwell has the answer. He’s scathing about Mrs Beeton’s enthusiasm for grilled chop, steaks and cutlets at breakfast. Instead he comments:
“I’ll stick with Eliza Acton’s kedgeree, I think, just adding a poached egg on top and eating any leftovers for supper with a big dollop of mayonnaise.”William Sitwell, A History of Food in 100 Recipes
Recipe for a good, hearty kedgeree
• 480g/1 lb 1 oz smoked haddock fillets – skinned
• About 480 ml/2 cups stock made with a couple of fish stock cubes – see step one of method below
• 200g/1 cup basmati rice
• 4 eggs – Burford Browns for choice – room temperature
• 100g/two-fifths of a brick of butter
• 1 onion
• 1 generous tbsp curry powder
• 4 tbsp/¼ cup/60 ml double cream, plus a bit more for drizzling
• Small bunch fresh parsley, or chives, or – from the original ancient Sanskrit recipe – coriander
• Juice and zest of half a lemon
• Olive oil for frying
• Generous grinds of pepper
• Mango chutney
• 100g/⅔ cup of frozen peas, or 160g/6 oz tin of sweetcorn, or a green pepper, cored and chopped – these are all optional – the sweetcorn is the best.
You’ll also need a mix of half water and half dry vermouth to make up the stock for the rice.
1. Boil a full kettle. Pour two cups of the boiling water into a high-sided small frying pan and add the stock cube. Poach the haddock fillets in this for just under ten minutes. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid.
2. Cook the basmati by frying it in a large saucepan in a couple of knobs of butter for a couple of minutes, and then adding 2 cups of liquid, made up of the reserved poaching liquid; and a mix of dry vermouth and water to make up the difference. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat, cover, and cook for about fifteen minutes. Go here to see a more detailed method for cooking the best basmati rice. Drain the rice into a large sieve – don’t wash up the saucepan.
3. Meanwhile cook the eggs. Personally, I prefer mine to be soft-boiled – I think this adds to the creaminess of the dish, and in any case if I make this ahead and keep it warm the eggs go on cooking. Use the rest of the boiled water to pour into a small saucepan, bring to the boil, and cook for 6 minutes for soft-boiled and 8 minutes if you want hard-boiled. Drain, and put the pan with the eggs in under the cold tap.
4. Peel and chop the onion.
5. Into the same saucepan you used for the basmati, pour some olive oil – add the onion and the curry powder, and, if you are using them, the frozen peas, the drained sweetcorn, or the chopped green pepper. Fry for three or four minutes. Mix in the cream.
6. Add the rice.
7. Add whatever herbs you are using, and some generous grinds of black pepper.
8. Break up the fish into chunks and add that in. Add also the zest and juice of the half lemon.
9. Peel the eggs and cut lengthways into quarters.
10. At this stage you can either plate up immediately – rice mixture topped by eggs, drizzled over with cream and dotted with butter – or you can transfer to a serving dish, arrange the eggs artistically on top, drizzle with cream and dot with butter.
11. Serve, drizzled over with a bit more cream, and with the mango chutney.
“I remember my granny, who was born in Nainital,northern India in 1919, making her superlative kedgeree for supper for my brother and me, when we were children. We devoured the butter-clad grains of basmati rice interspersed with fried onions, hard-boiled egg and smoked haddock (admittedly we drenched it all in ketchup). I didn’t believe her when she told me that this dish, which we associated so strongly with her Norfolk kitchen, actually hailed from India and was traditionally eaten at breakfast.”Mina Holland, The Edible Atlas: Around the World in Thirty-Nine Cuisines