The lines of her hand: A love language

by Missing Perspectives
Wednesday 9 August 2023

Sach Trikta reflects on her upbringing as a first-generation Indian immigrant, and how food connects her to her culture.

Type the word ‘khichdi’ into Google and about 270,000 results will come up. You’ll also get a slew of ‘Did you mean kitcheree, kichdi, kichiri’. None of these names are wrong. The “one-pot Indian dish” combining lentils and rice is now the wellness world’s darling when it comes to cleansing. To my family, it’s known simply as comfort food.

Growing up as a first-generation Indian immigrant in Sydney, kitchari was a staple meal for me growing up. Easy to make, easy to digest and a complete protein meal as my Nani would tell me, it was regular in the rotation of dinners in our house.

It’s not until I was older, I realised the levels of meaning khichdi held for my family. You see, khichdi is also very conveniently cheap to make and can literally last for and be extended out for days by thinning it with water.

Well-off in India, my parents decided to pack up and move overseas pretty much as soon as they had me. Newborn be damned, my mother wanted a more exciting life and my dad had promised it to her when he asked her to marry him. 

On 15 April 1995, with a two-year old in tow, my parents touched down in Sydney with $500, a few suitcases and the name and address of a friend of a friend.

My mum had gone from having her own driver, cleaners, cook and a nanny for me to being a full-time working mother with zero help or clue. Quick and easy for her to make while dad was completing his MBA, khichdi became the one meal she could make from memory, the recipe passed down from her mum.

I fell in love with its warming, complex taste. Khichdi is simple because it’s essentially filled with modest ingredients you can get at any supermarket. Complex because these unassuming ingredients are combined with a myriad of aromatic spices (and vegetables). Cumin seeds, mustard seeds, coriander seeds and turmeric add depth of flavour; onion, carrots, peas, spinach add bulk. The final ingredient is a flurry of high heat and stirring to bloom the spices with lashings of ghee. 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve loved the dish so much, I’ve asked mum how to make it. The problem is, growing up in Australia, I’m used to recipes with specific measurements and instructions. My mother, my Nani, are not. 

My Nani and mum have told me they cook khichdi through the feel of their hands, by knowing.

“How do you know how much you’re putting into the pressure cooker every time?” I remember asking mum one afternoon while I was watching her make the dish.

“You just use your hand,” she replied.

I was confused. I had never heard of anyone referring to the lines on your hand as a way of measuring ingredients. 

When I turned to my Nani, she explained patiently – everyone’s hands are different sizes and shapes, yes, but yours are always yours. If you measure a thumb full of ginger, and pinky nail of asafoetida with your hand every time, that will become a constant reference point. 

I was still baffled at first, but over the years, I saw how both would use their hands to gauge how much of an ingredient was needed to achieve the right consistency, fragrance, and taste. 

I also didn’t realise it at the time, but their hands would become a lifeline for me.

Unsurprisingly, cooking and feeding in my family is practically a love language. My Nani and mother (and me now, I’ve realised) are fluent.

As we assimilated into Australian culture, many Indian traditions fell away – grilled veg became more common, my parents achieved the great Australian dream of owning their own home, all our accents became afflicted with the “most brutal maltreatment that has ever been inflicted on the mother-tongue of the great English-speaking nations.” 

But khichdi never strayed far – when I was unwell with a cold, mum would turn to the pressure cooker. When I was PMS-ing, lentils and rice would be boiled. When I had a fight with a friend at school, cumin seeds would be bloomed. 

And when I started recovery for my eating disorder, khichdi was one of the few things I would eat without counting, hesitating, or hiding. 

During a time when my mother couldn’t understand how I could feel a certain way about myself when all she saw was a witty, vivacious, driven ‘classic Indian beauty’; when she wasn’t sure what to say, the one thing she knew how to do was make me my comfort food. 

It was her way of telling me she was there for me, that she loved me, that I was nourished.

When my Nani heard I was eating khichdi, she was elated – “good child, all these people think they’ve discovered something new. But we’ve known for thousands of years, khichdi is basic to the Ayurvedic way of life. It will give you strength.”

She ended with a reminder to my mum to “add a pinch of cinnamon and fennel. It will give it a good taste and be good for her digestion.”

And so, from across the world, these two women used their hands to feed me back to life.

When my Nani passed away in 2021, one of the only things my mother could bring herself to cook was khichdi. Taught to her by her mother, using my mum’s smaller hands as a guide to create her own perfect recipe, it was acts of service, physical touch, quality time, receiving gifts and words of affirmation all at once.

Seeing mum make khichdi in memory of my Nani, I knew it was my turn to use my hands. Khichdi had given me my strength back. I hugged my mum from behind, holding her as she bloomed the spices.