"At the thought of a kedgeree made with smoked haddock and plenty of hard-boiled eggs, English eyes grow dreamy and the smell of an English country house dining room at breakfast time...comes back to tease and tantalise."
Thus wrote Elizabeth David in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. But how did this dish, with its very un-English sounding name, come to be such a stalwart of the nineteenth and twentieth century country house breakfast table?
Kedgeree is derived from an Indian dish called khichri, consisting of rice and lentils often scattered with raisins and sliced hard-boiled egg. Lady Mary Hay, a doctor's wife who was in India from 1928 to 1947, described khichri as a favourite Bombay breakfast dish, often served with fried fish.
Madhur Jaffrey says she has read descriptions of khichri written by travellers to India 1,000 years ago. The original was a vegetarian dish, with lentils providing essential protein, but in Moghul Cooking Joyce Westrip traces a richly aromatic courtly version (known by the Hindu name of khichdi) incorporating minced lamb, mint and whisked yogurt.
In the days of the Raj, fish was a regular feature of lavish breakfasts. In The Raj at Table, David Burton points out this was because in the hot season fish caught early in the morning might well have turned bad by the evening. Originally, the fish served with - and eventually mixed into - khichri was fresh. Eliza Acton in her Modern Cookery for Private Families first published in 1845, recommends cold turbot, brill, salmon, sole or John Dory, skinned, boned and flaked.
"Kedgeree (khichri) of the English type is composed of boiled rice, chopped hard-boiled egg, cold minced fish, and a lump of fresh butter: these are all tossed together in the frying pan, flavoured with pepper, salt, and any minced garden herb such as cress, parsley, or marjoram, and served in a hot dish. The Indian khichri of fish is made like the foregoing with the addition of just enough turmeric powder to turn the rice a pale yellow colour, and instead of garden herbs the garnish is composed of thin julienne-like strips of chilli, thin slices of green ginger, crisply fried onions, etc."
Colonel A. R. Kenney-Herbert, Wyvern's Indian Cookery Book (1869)
The classic kedgeree is still made exactly as Kenney-Herbert describes, except that smoked fish is now generally preferred to plain. Indeed, Eliza Acton also remarked that "the best of all 'Kidgerees' to my mind is made with smoked haddock..." It was welcomed in England because it was at once novel, savoury, digestible, inexpensive to make, and easy to keep hot under a chafing dish...and thus ideally constituted to take its place among the constellation of favoured dishes that make up that great institution the British breakfast. However, as the dish's popularity spread, some cooks felt that if it were truly an Indian dish, it ought to have "Indian" ingredients. So, in went curry powder and sultanas, and the result was sent to the table with the chutney bottle. Our own feeling is that if a khichri-type kedgeree is wanted, the cook should follow the line laid out by Kenney-Herbert, seasoning it with turmeric, fresh ginger and hot green chilli, and serving it topped with crispy onion shreds.
Those who feel otherwise have Elizabeth David on their side, which should be solace enough. But Jane Grigson, who writes of kedgeree with refreshed enthusiasm in several of her books, while starting out in the curry powder, sultana, and chutney party (see, for instance, her 1973 recipe in Fish Cookery), had completely switched her allegiance by the time she wrote The Observer Guide to British Cookery (1984). The recipe she offers there "came from someone who had spent years in India and retired to Cheltenham. The only spice is mace; indeed, the whole thing is simple and fresh."
David Burton notes that the arrival of kedgeree in Britain in the 18th century coincided with the introduction of a stagecoach from the Scottish coastal village of Findon - whose cottage industry was the smoking of haddock - to Edinburgh and thence southwards. Kedgeree was the perfect way to offset the preserved fish's strong salty flavour with bland ingredients like rice, lentils and hard-boiled eggs.
The other essentials of the kedgeree that is still a brunch favourite are onions, butter and parsley. However, as you might expect of a dish with a long history of adaptation, it is accommodating to other ingredients such as spices, fresh coriander leaves and chives. You can also make an extra rich version by stirring in 4-5 tablespoons of cream just before serving. This would make the dish ideal for an informal supper party.
It should be noted that smoked haddock is often marketed in the United States as "finnan haddie," whether it is the authentic Scottish article or not. If the product is a strange fluorescent yellow, it is artificially smoked and should be approached with caution.