During my long stays in Chennai, the taste of kanji powers my day. When I return home from my morning walk at Jeeva Park, six slices of salted guava or a seasonal fruit await me on the table at breakfast.
A tiny two-pronged fork pokes from a wedge of the fruit like a crowbar in soil. Steaming by the side is a bowl of sweetened oats kanji spiked with cardamom.
While I wolf down my breakfast, sweat dots the bridge of my nose. It makes a puddle under my eyes. Vinayagam, my late father’s man Friday, cackles as he watches me sweat due to the heat of the oats. My glasses glide down even as they steam up. I love my Tamil staple of kanji and my version of it, a cup of oats flown in from Singapore, was manufactured by Quaker Oats Company headquartered in the United States.
The word kanji entered the lexicon as “congee” during the years of colonial rule. According to writer Madhur Jaffrey, its origin is a Tamil word for “boilings” and alludes to any water in which rice has been cooked. It also describes the starch used by Indian washermen.
My father-in-law detests kanji. My mother-in-law often tells him that at 84 he’s of an age when people need to tie up their gullets and focus, instead, on the imponderables and on God. But he stands his ground, maintaining that kanjiwas designed as food for the ill and for those hobbling towards the finish line of their lives.
To me, however, kanji is soul food for the young and the old. I love the taste of thickened sweetened oats topped with powdered almond and saffron. My mother-in-law bubbled over with stories about many a kanji when I asked her to reminisce about her youth. In different parts of Tamil Nadu, kanji is made with varied grains: minor millet, pearl millet, finger millet, maize and rice. My husband’s maternal grandmother would bring wheat powder to a boil and add milk and sugar and serve it to her children as the first meal of the day. Pearl millet, I discovered, is gluten free and bursting with vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
My mother-in-law also wove stories about kanji from her life, upon marriage, in the village of Esayanur. “Workers in paddy fields used to eat thick millet kanji before sauntering into the fields.” But times changed, she said, adding that a laborer’s diet also assumed another form over the decades. “Now, they eat idli and sambar, like the rest of us.”
I learned that millet (ragi) kanji was traditionally prepared by drying ragi sprouts in shade, and then grinding it into a smooth powder. Then it is cooked in boiling water. Milk and jaggery are added to this for taste. My mother-in-law also recounted tales about moong kanji made from moong dal. She digressed—the seasoning in her narration is always that minor detour—to mention that in the present day, after harvest, urad and moong dal and some other dals are often soaked, dried and broken so they may appear big and bloated. Grains were thus rendered flavorless by the time they appeared in the stores for the consumer.
My mother-in-law told me how kanji was often the preferred breakfast of the spiritual-minded. Moong kanji was sustenance for devout and orthodox Brahmins during a religious observance or prayer. “Dry roast blanched moong dal until you smell its nutty aroma,” she said. “Cook moong in water until soft. Ideally, pressure cook it. And then add milk and jaggery.” She, along with most of her siblings, are at war with diabetes and therefore she always heaps praise on the goodness of jaggery. “It’s a rich source of iron. Plain sugar is bad for us all.” Often, in my discussions with my mother-in-law about ailments, suffering and death seep into recipes. She’s always googling the recipe databases in her brain and sending over information to her listener in massive packets.
Today I look at kanji as life-giving for another reason. In the year 1994, as we struggled to understand what was wreaking havoc in our infant son’s body, we discovered through a process of trial, error and heartache that one particular food made his body thrum into life. Under its purview, my little boy did not break into hives. He cooed for more. He licked his lips. The rays of the sun poured into his eyes. He grew to be a fine young man with the goodness of warm milletkanji.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.