It can be hard to make sense of kedgeree at first. Most will initially detect the distinct aroma and golden appearance of the curry-flavored rice. Then they may take slightly puzzled note of the plump morsels of cold-smoked haddock flaked into it. And are those…boiled eggs?! Well, that’s what you get when civilizations collide, as they did for centuries in British India. It’s a combination of ingredients and flavors that may be hard to imagine for those who’ve never tried it, but the results are delightful. The dish is smoky and warmly spiced, with a richness and heartiness from the eggs that makes it a satisfying breakfast, as it’s traditionally eaten, or really a solid one-pot meal at any time of day.
While it’s often associated with Scottish cooking, kedgeree’s exact path from the Indian subcontinent to British tables isn’t documented well enough to say with certainty that it is exclusively the creation of Scottish colonists. What does seem clear is that kedgeree is inspired by the South Asian lentil-and-rice dish khichdi, though kedgeree doesn’t even pretend to be an attempt at a faithful reproduction of that dish. British colonists, having developed an interest in some of the spices of Indian cooking and some of the dishes they ate while there, took the rough idea—rice, spices, sometimes fish—and spun it up into a significantly different, distinctly British creation.
While kedgeree is a rice dish above all else, let’s talk first about the fish, because that’s the ingredient many outside the UK will have trouble getting their hands on. This isn’t my first adventure with finnan haddie, as the Scottish call smoked haddock—I did a good deal of testing on both store-bought products and a home-smoked substitute when I developed a recipe for cullen skink, the Scottish smoked haddock chowder.
At the time, I determined that the finnan haddie from Stonington Seafood in Maine was the best version available stateside. It’s an excellent product, and, if you can plan enough in advance, very much worth ordering. Since many of us don’t always have the wherewithal or desire to order a specialty item just to cook one dish, my recipe for cullen skink offered a relatively quick home-smoked version (not that home-smoking fish is easier, per se, but that’s Serious Eats for you). I suppose you could follow those DIY smoking instructions for this recipe, but I frankly don’t think it’s worth it. For cullen skink, where the flavor of smoked haddock defines the dish, actually having smoked haddock in the bowl makes some sense. But here, where we have several other flavorful components like curried rice, boiled eggs, and buttery sautéed onions, the haddock is an important, but, I’d argue, substitutable ingredient.
I’ve made kedgeree with smoked haddock, and it’s great. I’ve also made it with smoked trout and smoked black cod and—guess what!—slightly different, also great. In one small Scottish recipe book I keep on my bookshelf, printed by the UK-based Jarrold Publishing, the kedgeree recipe calls for cooked salmon that isn’t even smoked, while my 1956 copy of Elizabeth Craig’s classic The Scottish Cookery Book calls for fresh or smoked haddock or tinned salmon, so substitutions for the fish happen even in the birthplace of the dish.
I should note that I’ve kept the curry flavor on the moderate side, which allows the flavor of the smoked fish to shine, supported by the spices but not drowned out by them. As with the fish, the spices vary significantly in older recipes—Craig’s recipe offers curry powder merely as a variation on her primary one, which has little more than cayenne pepper and nutmeg to season the rice, so there’s hardly a «right» way.
The basics of the recipe go something like this: fry a liberal amount of onions in butter, add the spices—typically some kind of curry powder like garam masala, maybe a few cardamom pods, perhaps some saffron or a pinch of chile powder—chuck in a bay leaf along with the rice, then add liquid, cover, and cook the rice. When it’s done, fold in the cooked flakes of smoked fish and chopped parsley, garnish with boiled eggs, and serve with some lemon wedges on the side.
Or, at least, that’s how my recipe and many others more or less go. But I’ve seen plenty of alternate paths. Some recipes call for already-cooked rice to be folded with the seasonings right before serving. That sounds easy, and may be a good way to use up leftovers, but you’re not going to get the same level of flavor infused into each grain of rice, nor are you likely to flavor the rice evenly, as you do when you cook the rice with its seasonings.
I’ve seen other recipes that, instead of producing fluffy and separate grains of rice, build a lavishly rich and creamy dish much more like a risotto. I’ll admit, this is very appealing to me, and, at least based on some sources I’ve read, is possibly an older style popular in the Victorian era that’s somewhat fallen out of favor. Most recipes today lean to the dry-and-fluffy side, which I think is the more common expectation today, so that’s what I’ve done here. There’s a lot to like about this style—it has a lightness and delicacy that makes it the kind of dish I would happily eat frequently (that said, I may not be able to resist cooking a creamy version for myself at home soon just to experience the decadent side of kedgeree).
Any long-grain rice can work in kedgeree, though I think basmati is a particularly good choice, given its South Asian roots and also the desire for fluffy, separate grains, which basmati is particularly well suited to, thanks to its particular starch makeup (more dry-cooking amylose, less gluey amylopectin).
There are two key techniques beyond the rice selection itself that ensure fluffy rice. The first is to rinse the rice well in several changes of water. This washes off powdery surface starches that build up on the rice during processing and transit in the bag; when left on the rice, those surface starches form a starchy slurry that can increase clumping.
The other is to toast the rice in oil for a few minutes before adding the liquid. High heat deactivates the thickening ability of starch, reducing the chances of gummy rice (this phenomenon is also why a deeply toasted dark roux thickens less well than a light one).
When all these disparate bedfellows come together—fragrant rice, complex South Asian spices, buttery onions, Scottish smoked fish, and eggs—it manages to make perfect sense.