On a chilly evening, we sat in the courtyard of my great-uncle’s house in Raniganj, listening to stories of life around the collieries, while plump brinjals and succulent tomatoes sat on the glowing embers of a clay oven in the corner. As the skins of the vegetables wrinkled and charred, and the fire crackled sporadically, an aroma of hazelnuts and smoke wafted through the wintry air.
I assumed the roasted vegetables would be scraped, mashed and tossed with onions, green chillies, fresh cilantro and mustard oil to make pora or beginner bhorta. Instead, my aunt sautéed onions in mustard oil, with ginger, green chillies and garlic, before pouring the smoky mash of roasted brinjal and tomatoes with turmeric and chilli powder. The hot notes of spices were escaping from the pan, making everyone hungry. Then came the surprise.
She cracked a few raw eggs into the pan, in which she had created a well by pushing the mash to the sides, and whisked them quickly with skillful movements. The beaten eggs were folded into the spicy, smoky brinjal mash, and much fuss later, she finished the dish with a few drops of mustard oil to add a sweet sting to the spicy heat. The dish was a revelation. My aunt called him Deem Beguner Bhorta. That night, I ate four chapatis, instead of my usual two.
Since then, I have often brought up my aunt’s Deem Beguner Bhorta in conversations about culinary ingenuity and the diversity of regional cuisines. During one of these conversations, I was painting the details of the dish when someone identified it as khagina. It’s a strange name, I thought at the time, attributing it to the Bengali talent for quirky nomenclature. Only it wasn’t.
The word khagina comes from the Persian word for eggs – khaag – and refers to a kind of omelet. “There is no dish [in the Persian repertoire] which can be created on the spur of the moment, except for a sweet version of an omelet known as Khagina and a coriander onion soup known as ishkana” , writes Shireen Mahdavi in her 2002 essay Women, Shiism and cuisine in Iran. The khagina has existed in Persia for centuries, in one form or another. 13th century by Amir Khusrow Bagh o Bahar mentions it, as does other classical Persian literature. Also known as Gheyganakh, the cardamom-flavored Persian khagina is served in bite-size pieces soaked in syrup.
More than khagina, perhaps the Iranian dish that comes closest to the beginner Bengal khagina is Mirza Ghasemi – a spicy mash of roasted eggplant and tomato, enhanced with other fresh spices, in which raw eggs are deposited and poached.
Khagina was not unknown to the royal kitchens of the Mughals who were often inspired by Persian kitchens. But in these kitchens, the khagina got a spicy update. Food historian Salma Hussain’s book The Mughal Festivala transcreation of Nushka-e-Shahjahani, a Persian cookbook from the time of Shah Jahan, features a recipe for khagina-e-baize, a frittata-like dish prepared by whisking eggs with onions, ginger, fresh coriander and a mixture of cinnamon finely ground cloves, green cardamoms and black pepper, which is cooked on a hot plate in ghee. A hint of opulence comes from a sprinkle of saffron soaked on top.
A slightly more complex khagina is recorded by Sanford Arnot, a 19th-century British Indologist who translated Mughal recipes from Persian and Hindustani into English. His khagina calls for ingredients like pea flour, onions, and clotted milk, along with pounded cardamom, cloves, and cilantro, all mixed together and cooked in melted butter over a charcoal fire.
Byanjon Ratnakar, one of the earliest cookbooks published in Bengal, presents a recipe for fennel-scented Khagila, a familiar twist of khagina, finished with an opulent garnish of saffron like khagina-e-baize. Although written in Bengali and published in 1858 under the patronage of the Burdwan royal family, Byanjon Ratnakar didn’t have a single Bengali recipe. Instead, as Pak Rajeshwar (1831) before him, Byanjon Ratnakar was a tribute to the royal kitchens of the Mughals. The book, in fact, features another khagina recipe – the Madhuramla Khagila, a minced meat and egg pancake covered in sugar and lime juice. Of all the recipes of Byanjon RatnakarPerhaps the closest dish to today’s beginner khagina is Shirazi Bhorta. Shirazi means from the city of Shiraz (in Iran), and the recipe is an extravagant mash of boiled eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, onions, ginger, a host of spices, yogurt, raisins , paneer and ghee.
Almost 140 years later Byanjon Ratnakar came another iconic cookbook with a similar khagina recipe. At Minakshie Das Gupta The Kolkata Cookbook describes a khagina which is made with roasted or boiled eggplant mashed with boiled egg yolks and a host of spices, then cooked over low heat until the mash leaves the sides of the pan. Finely chopped boiled egg whites, garam masala and paste and green chilies are mixed together, and the dish is finished with a sprinkling of cilantro leaves. This recipe was contributed by Swarupa Das, the granddaughter of freedom fighter Chittaranjan Das. In an essay on Das’ wife, freedom fighter Basanti Devi, her grandson, former West Bengal Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, wrote that khagina was one of her signature dishes. grandmother and that she would bring it to her husband when he was in prison.
Unlike the khagina of Basanti Devi, stands the khagina of many Muslim homes across India and the subcontinent. To them, khagina simply refers to spicy, moist scrambled eggs – a comforting quick fix that comes in handy when kitchens are short on time or supplies. In Lucknow, khagina paired with soft saffron-tinged sheermal or soft roghni roti makes for a comforting yet luxurious breakfast. In Pakistan too, khagina is a breakfast favorite. Author Sumayya Usmani’s khagina recipe, presented in his book Summers under the tamarind tree, is a soft and fluffy egg scramble, with spring onions, chili peppers, onions, fresh cilantro, garlic, all topped off with a sprinkle of chaat masala. Usmani recommends pairing his khagina with flatbread, cholay ka saalan or curried chickpeas and aloo ki bhujia.
“Khagina is often touted as a classic Pakistani breakfast dish, but I’ve mostly come across variations from the Punjabi or mohajir family,” said food blogger Maryam Jillani. “By Mohajir, I refer to the Urdu-speaking communities that migrated from India to Pakistan during partition. It is also a popular breakfast dish in Afghanistan.
While recipes vary from household to household, Pakistani khagina, says Jillani, is similar to Parsi akoori in which eggs are cooked with spices until creamy. On his blog Pakistan eats, Jillani recently posted her mother’s khagina recipe which calls for thin potato rolls to be added to creamy and spiced scrambled eggs with chili oil. A friend from Lahore, Muhammad Bilal Saeed, told me he didn’t know the khagina, only to call back later and say, “Oh, it’s anda bhurji. In Punjab we call it anda bhurji.
Hazeena Syed, a culinary champion from the Ravuthar Muslim community of South India, was also unfamiliar with khagina. From the description, Syed drew parallels to one of his community’s favorite egg dishes: mutta chikki. Finely chopped onions and green peppers are boiled in a little water with a hint of turmeric. Once the water has dried and the onions have softened, the eggs are broken into the pan, seasoned with salt and pepper and scrambled. “Mutta chikki is best served with soft rice flour rotis or pathiri,” Syed says. “It’s the go-to dish when the kitchen is short on supplies or when sudden guests arrive.”
One of the most famous versions of khagina is served in Hyderabad and is called Hyderabadi Ande ka Khagina. A whole different ball game, it’s not an omelette or a scramble. Onions are allowed to sweat in oil, minced garlic, ginger, lots of tomatoes and spices (cumin, coriander, red chilli, turmeric and garam masala) and cooked into a smooth porridge. In this fiery masala, raw eggs are cracked open and allowed to cook. Technique is crucial here. The eggs are allowed to cook before being gently turned, pushed and only slightly broken down to create a texture reminiscent of soft, crumbly magaz or brain curry. Foodies say Hyderabadi Ande ka Khagina is best served with flatbread or Khichdi, a dish of rice and red lentils.
For some, Hyderabadi khagina brings to mind Levantine shakshouka (poached eggs in a stew of onions and tomatoes) or Turkish menemen (scrambled eggs in tomatoes, cooked with peppers, herbs and sometimes onions). While the khagina probably came to Mughal cuisine with Persian cooks, the story of the Hyderabadi Ande ka Khagina possibly alludes to the city’s connection to Turkey and the Hadhrami Arabs of Yemen. It is equally possible that the dish was first called khagina by Dakhini speakers.
The khagina’s journey across the subcontinent bears witness to the crevices of food, constantly changing, overlapping and diverging. With each path he takes, he may gain a new name or identity, but the sepia memories he creates remain the same.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writing for 2022.