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Coals to Newcastle


Recently I received a letter from Shrinivas Venkatesh, in Mumbai.

"I am a strict vegetarian and I refrain from consuming even eggs. However, in my Science books it has been said that eggs and fish have high protein and should be consumed daily. Please give me some vegetarian dishes which have all constituents of food and what you would describe as 'perfect'."

It's rather sad, though not at all unexpected, that Indian science textbooks are now promoting a non-vegetarian diet in a land that was once the home of vegetarian food, and a shining beacon for all things spiritual, including Ayur Veda and the science of what foods to eat.

Under normal circumstances, supplying a vegetarian recipe originally from India to someone in India would be a strange thing - sort of like 'supplying coals to Newcastle'.

But of course, India these days is actively indulging in animal slaughter to gratify the lascivious appetites of it's growing number of carnivores.

The phrase, "carrying coals to Newcastle," means spending an inordinate amount of energy on something useless, fruitless, or redundant. This idiom arose in the 15th century because Newcastle, England was known throughout the country as a major exporter of coal.

Therefore, "carrying coals to Newcastle" would do you no good, because there was more coal there than anywhere else. Variations on the saying include "bringing," "taking," or "moving" the coal.

Idioms are creative sayings that use examples or turns of phrase that are specific to a language or culture. However, the spirit and meaning of idioms are frequently universal. For example, both the Dutch and Spanish having sayings,
"like bringing water to the ocean."

In Poland and Sweden, you'd hear, "bringing wood to the forest." Some regionally specific idioms for redundancy include Russia's "taking samovars to Tulu," a city famous for its spigotted teapots.

The Greeks spread the saying, "bringing owls to Athens," since the night predator is a symbol of the ancient city named after the goddess Athena.

Of course, I don't consider it useless supplying a recipe to young Shrinivas, as the above contextualized saying suggests. Newcastle in fact did, for some time, import coal from Russia in times of emergency coal-miner strikes.
So one could also say that due to the rapidly advancing degradation of Indian culture, which in itself is an unfortunate emergency, any opportunity to remind Indians of their glorious culture is timely.

So I provided Srinivas with a recipe, for the famous Kitcheri - the most perfect, wonderful and nutritious of all vegetarian foods from a vegetarian kitchen culture that still is the most wonderful in the world.

And here's the recipe:

Melange of Seasonal Vegetables, Lentils, Cashews & Basmati Rice (Khichari)

Khichari is a nutritious stew featuring dal and rice. There are two main varieties thin (geeli khichari) and thick (sookha khichari). Whichever way you prepare khichari, it will soon become a delicious favourite. The following recipe is for the thicker variety. Khichari is an ideal breakfast food, wonderful when accompanied by yogurt and fresh hot puffed fried breads (pooris) or toast.

I always serve khichari with a wedge of lemon or lime. Not only does this add a delightful nuance of flavour, but it lends nutritional advantage also: there are good sources of iron in the dal and vegetables in khichari, and the lemon juice, rich in vitamin C, helps your body absorb it. This recipe is mildly spiced. Adjust your own spicing as required. Serves 6-8.

1/3 cup split red lentils, or split moong
1 cup basmati or other long-grain white rice
3 tablespoons ghee or oil
1/3 cup cooked unsalted cashews
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fresh hot green chili, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon yellow asafetida powder
3 cups mixed vegetables, cut into large chunks
5 - 6 cups water
1½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter
2/3 cup cooked green peas
1 cup tomatoes, peeled and chopped
½ cup chopped fresh coriander leaves


Heat the ghee in a heavy 4-litre non-stick saucepan over moderate heat. Sprinkle the cumin seeds into the ghee. When they turn golden brown add the chilies and ginger. Saute them for a few seconds; then add the turmeric and asafetida. Add the vegetable pieces and fry them for a minute or two.

Stir in the lentils and rice, stirring with the spices and vegetables for a minute.

Pour in the water and bring to a full boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover and slowly cook, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes or until the lentils and rice are soft. If the khichari dries out too much, add up to 1 cup warm water.

Fold in the salt, butter, cooked green peas, chopped tomatoes, toasted cashews, and the chopped fresh coriander leaves, allowing them to warm for one minute. Serve hot.

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