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One of the four dishes that represents the subcontinent on the menu at Spica, chef Ritu Dalmia’s restaurant in Milan, is kadhi samosa—the quintessential desi comfort food best savoured on the streets. Crisp samosas with a mildly spiced stuffing are served with Rajasthani-style kadhi, topped with chutneys, chopped onions and tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, coriander leaves and some slightly crumbled kalmi vadas. “The kadhi is velvety smooth and subtly flavoured with spices like coriander and fennel," says Dalmia.

The dish is one of the best-sellers at Spica, and as popular at Dalmia’s Diva Spiced Delhi. Kadhi—a spiced chickpea and buttermilk curry—is the quintessential comfort food, especially in northern India. Be it the thick, creamy Punjabi kadhi with its signature pyaaz ke pakode (onion fritters), spicy Rajasthani kadhi or the thin, pale and distinctly sweet Gujarati kadhi—the dish has myriad avatars.

References to itcan be found in writings that date back centuries. In Gujarat, K.T. Achaya writes in his book Indian Food: A Historical Companion, as far back as 1200, milk was used widely to yield thakra or buttermilk, kshiraprakara or chhena and themanam, or the present-day kadhi. Om Prakash, in his book Food And Drinks In Ancient India, mentions temana, a soup prepared with curds.

One theory traces the origins of kadhi to dairy-rich, grain-based Rajasthan, where buttermilk and yogurt often make up for the scarcity of water, and chickpea is used extensively. The dairy-rich diet is offset by the use of digestive spices like fenugreek, and asafoetida. All these come together in kadhi. “Besides, Rajasthan has a long history of cooking buttermilk with jowar (sorghum) or bajra (pearl millet) flour to make raab (a thin gruel)," says food researcher Ruchi Shrivastava. Raab works as a coolant in summer and warms the body during winters. Kadhi works similarly.

However, food writer Sangeeta Khanna is more cautious. “The tradition of slow-cooking buttermilk or yogurt is widespread," she says. “According to Ayurveda, cooking buttermilk helps pacify its vata-inducing properties. So, kadhi is particularly light on the stomach and the spices that typically flavour a kadhi help boost the digestive fire," she says.

Mumbai-based food writer Saee Koranne-Khandekar has a simple theory. “It is easy to think that it was devised as a clever way of using up buttermilk that was not fresh any more. Masking the staleness with spices and giving it body with some sort of thickener seems to be common," she says.

In Maharashtra, says Koranne-Khandekar, the number of spices used may change with season. During summer, a basic pounding of green chilli and ginger suffices, along with a simple tadka (tempering) of mustard seeds, curry leaves and asafoetida. In winter, one might add warm spices, like a stick of cinnamon or a clove or two.

In the south, similar yogurt soups or curries are made with rice flour or coconut as a thickening agent instead of chickpea. “The Tamil paruppu urrundai mor kuzhambu, buttermilk or yogurt curry with lentil dumplings, is perhaps the closest to a southern version of the north Indian kadhi pakori," says Shrivastava.

In north India, during fasts, the chickpea flour may be substituted with buckwheat, chestnut or amaranth flour. Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, an authority on Garhwali cuisine, talks about the Garhwali kadhi, called jholi—thick, turmeric-infused, tempered with cumin and finished with grated cucumber.

Its intrinsic ability to adapt and adopt makes the kadhi a fantastic base to add vegetables, lentil dumplings, fritters and even boondi, giving the dish textural contrast.

“In Marathwada, a one-pot meal called kadhi shengole—buttermilk kadhi with freshly made, loop-shaped ‘pasta’ made from horse gram flour (or the more accessible besan), called shengole cooked in it—is very popular," says Koranne-Khandekar. In Rajasthan, everything from papad and mangodi, deep-fried pithore, black gram, desert shrubs or berries and even the flowers of the phog (a desert shrub) known as phogalo are added to kadhi.

According to Khanna, the star of a Banarasi kadhi is the superbly airy fulouris, or chickpea flour dumplings with a hollow centre. “The fulouris soak up the liquids that ooze out when you break it," she says. “In Bundelkhand, bijora—dry roasted sesame, chilli, salt, petha (translucent sweet) and urad dal, mixed together, shaped into small discs and sun-dried—are deep-fried and added to kadhi," Shrivastava adds.

Sadaf Hussain, in his book Dastaan-e-Dastarkhan: Stories And Recipes From Muslim Kitchens, shares an unconventional recipe for his amrood seb ki kadhi—slices of sautéed apples and raw guava stewed in a subtly spiced besan kadhi, enriched with cashew paste. Deep-fried dal vadi give textural relief.

Hussain’s personal favourite, however, is the arbi or colocasia kadhi, served with rice and red-ant chutney, he sampled in the interiors of Bastar, Chhattisgarh." In Malaysia, an Indian family treated me to a kadhi cooked with ripe mango pulp and pan-grilled prawns," says Hussain.

At Mint Leaf of London, in Dubai, executive chef Pradeep Khullar has always had kadhi on the menu. “We often have guests who are looking for something light and familiar, something that doesn’t intimidate them. Kadhi is one such dish which people feel attached to," says Khullar. Khullar make a classic version of the besan ki kadhi tempered with red chillies, asafoetida, coriander, cumin and fenugreek seeds, but plays around with the idea of pakoras. He has added khandvi (a Gujarati snack made of gram flour) stuffed with roasted lentils, dipped in a batter of chickpea and golden quinoa and deep-fried to a crunch, to his kadhi. His current menu features a kadhi with flash-fried spinach and silken tofu barrels. At Trésind, Mumbai, chef Himanshu Saini serves up spicy Ajmeri pyaaz ke kachori with chilli-infused kadhi, and a topping of crisp, dehydrated okra.

At Indian Accent’s London outlet, chef Manish Mehrotra serves up his Baked Sea Bass, laced with Amritsari Masala Butter, with a Sweet Corn kadhi. But Mehrotra, born and brought up in Patna, grew up on a kadhi of another kind—one without yogurt. “My grandmother made a delicious kadhi with besan, tamarind and jaggery, spiced with dried chillies and mustard seeds," says Mehrotra. “We called it meethi kadhi."

There are several versions that use no yogurt or buttermilk. Instead, souring agents like tamarind, the pulp of raw mango, kokum or even amchur and lime juice are used. The Sindhi kadhi, for example, is an assortment of vegetables cooked with roasted chickpea flour and a little tamarind. “Everything from potatoes, okra, drumsticks and cluster beans to yam, peas and beans to lotus stem and corn cobs can be added to the Sindhi kadhi," says food blogger Alka Keswani. Sindhis also love their tamate ji kadhi, made with tomatoes and a little gram flour. “But there’s third, lesser known variety of Sindhi kadhi, from the Shikarpur region of Sindh" says Keswani. It’s made with the liquid strained from boiled toor dal, soured with tamarind or kokum and flavoured with chillies and fenugreek.

Rasachandrika, the illustrious Saraswat cookery book compiled by the Saraswat Mahila Samaj in the 1940s, archives an interesting recipe for a kadhi made with potatoes and a masala made with coconut, green chillies, ginger, garlic, fresh coriander, mustard and cumin seeds and turmeric.

Shrivastava fondly remembers how her grandmother in Bhopal would leave a pot of kadhi on dying embers overnight. “The kadhi would leisurely simmer all night. The next morning, it would be tempered and served for lunch with piping hot rice. Slow-cooking is crucial to making a good kadhi," she adds.

Come to think of it, there is in fact one thing common to kadhi across the country—warm, fuzzy memories.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food writer.

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