‘Khichuri’: An Ancient Indian Comfort Dish With A Global Influence
Thursday, July 20, 2017
My memories of eating khichuri go back to the monsoon seasons of my childhood, when billowy thunder clouds rolled in and soaked us and the parched earth with relentless rains. The monsoons are beloved across India – they are a much-awaited reprieve from several months of unbearable heat. But it can get chilly and damp sometimes – the kind of weather when you crave something warm and filling, like khichuri.
To make this flavorful, mushy, one-pot dish, my mother would dry roast moong dal (yellow split mung beans), then throw it in a pressure cooker, with some rice, a couple of veggies and some spices. Lo and behold, 15-20 minutes later, we had hot, steaming khichuri. Ma would serve it with a dollop of ghee (clarified butter) on top, and some spicy mango pickle and sweet potato fries (my favorite!) on the side. Sometimes, my father would make deem bhaja (a simple omelet with onions and green chilies) to go with the meal. And occasionally, if we were lucky, there would be a hot, crispy piece of fried fish.
I am originally from the state of West Bengal in eastern India, where khichuri is a staple during the monsoons. My friends from Bangladesh (just across the border from my home state), who speak the same language (Bengali), tell me they, too, associate this beloved dish with the monsoons.
But across South Asia, khichri (or khichdi), as it's more commonly known, is a beloved comfort food for all seasons. It is "pretty close to [being] a universal dish" on the subcontinent, says Colleen Taylor Sen, author of several books on Indian food culture and history.
That became obvious to me recently when I asked people on my Facebook page to share their khichri story. I got a flood of responses.
"It's a regular on my menu, usually [at] dinner time," wrote Anjana Gupta, a childhood friend who lives in the southern city of Mysore, where we grew up. She makes a gingery khichri with moong dal and rice, and she likes eating it with yogurt and pickles.
A simpler form of the dish is a favorite in the western state of Gujarat, especially among the elderly, wrote Ananya Bhattacharya, an Indian journalist currently based in Washington, D.C. Called sukhpawani, which literally means something that brings comfort and pleasure, the dish she described is made by boiling together rice, split mung bean, turmeric and salt till the consistency is porridge-like. Bhattacharya's grandfather ate this dish every day for dinner. "He ate this with a lot of ghee," she said. "He'd also eat this with milk and bhurra (very fine sugar)."
In northern India, a bland version of khichri – no veggies, no fragrant spices – is comfort food for many. "In my family, it is associated with sickness or upset stomach or when you just want to eat something light," my friend Niraj Kumar wrote from New York. Down south in the state of Karnataka, a tangy, spicier version called bisi bele bath (which translates to hot lentil rice) is a popular dish, even at parties and celebrations. And in the neighboring states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a rice and lentil dish called nombu kanji is a staple during Ramadan.
"There's an incredible variety of khichri," says Sen, who owns scores of regional Indian cook books. "And almost all of them have recipes for khichri," she says.
The different versions vary in consistency – some are dry, while others are watery or porridge-like, she says. There are savory and sweet khichris. While the vegetarian versions are more common, there are khichris with meat, too. For example, a dish called khichra has five different kinds of lentils, rice and lamb, says Sen.
Most khichris, however, have two common ingredients – rice and lentils. "Rice and lentils have been a part of Indian cuisine since time immemorial," says Sen. Archaeological records suggest people on the subcontinent were eating rice and legumes (chick pea, peas, pigeon peas and red lentils) as far back as 1200 B.C., she says.
The Indian philosopher and statesman Chanukya (also called Kautilya), from 300 B.C., wrote that the balanced meal for a gentleman should consist of one prastha (about 1.4 pounds) of rice, quarter prastha of lentils, 1/62 prastha of salt, and 1/16 prastha of ghee or oil. "That's kind of a khichri, isn't it?" says Sen.
In 14th century A.D., the renowned Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta wrote about people in South Asia – especially the poor – eating khichri made with rice, mung bean and butter.
The power of khichri is its adaptability to different tastes and needs. "It's probably the most adaptable dish [on the subcontinent]," says Sen. "It can be a very simple dish that poor people eat ... or it can be very elaborate." Elaborate enough to be fit for kings, or in this case, emperors.
A recipe from the court of Akbar, the 16th century Mughal emperor, calls for equal parts of lentils, rice and ghee, says Sen. "Very rich!"
A sweet khichri recipe she found in a book on the famously elaborate cuisine from the kingdom of Awadh, in northern India, included sugar, khoya (dry, thickened milk), cardamom, cinnamon, clove and saffron – one of the most expensive spices.
Like all good ideas, khichri, too, seems to have spread to other parts of the world. The British liked it so much that they took it back home and created their own version – kedgeree, the popular breakfast dish made with rice, boiled egg and haddock. "The Indian khichri becomes the Anglo-Indian kedgeree ... in the 17th century," says Clifford Wright, an American food writer and author of several cookbooks. (Lentils were omitted as the British were known to dislike them.) "Then it jumps across the Atlantic to New England, where it's made with rice, curry powder, and fresh cod," he says.
Khichri is also thought to be the ancestor of Egypt's national dish, koshary, which is made with rice, lentils and macaroni. "There's no doubt that the Egyptian koshary's ancestor is in fact the Indian khichri," says Wright. The name and the ingredients are similar, he says. And khichri "is similar to mujaddara (another Middle Eastern comfort dish with rice and lentils), which can be traced back to the 10th century." Although it's likely that koshary got its macaroni much later, from the Italians, he adds.
Until I began researching this piece, my world of khichri had been small, with only three variations – my mother's khichuri, another version of it called bhog-er khichuri that is served at religious festivals in my home state, and my favorite, bisi bele baath, from southern India.
Little did I know that a dish so simple had such a rich history, with its journey beginning far back in time and going on to traverse distant parts of the globe. This story tells me of a past that was more globalized than we realize. And it leaves me hungry for a whole new world of khichris.
Almost all the Bengali dishes I cook these days are dishes my mother taught me over the phone after I moved to the United States. She was an exquisite cook. But I never had the chance to ask her for her khichuri recipe. Ma passed away before I decided to try making this beloved monsoon dish. So the recipe below is one I cobbled together and improvised after poring over recipes from friends, food blogs and cooking shows on YouTube.
½ cup white rice (I use Basmati. But any other non-sticky white rice or even brown rice should work.)
½ cup moong dal (split yellow mung bean)
Half of a small cauliflower, cut into about 10 florets (not so small that they will melt)
2 or 3 small potatoes, peeled and cut in half, or 1 medium potato cut into 4-6 pieces. (Although potatoes are traditionally used, I rarely use them.)
1 big carrot cut into inch-long pieces or 6-8 baby carrots, each sliced lengthwise. (Traditionalists may disapprove, but I like adding carrots to my khichuri. They make it colorful and healthier.)
1/3 cup of frozen peas
1 bay leaf
2 green cardamom
1 thin sticks of cinnamon
1 or 2 dry red chili (I often use green chili instead)
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon grated ginger
Ghee (clarified butter)
Turmeric and salt as needed
Dry roast the moong dal on medium flame till lentil starts to brown and you can smell its nutty aroma. Stop when about half the lentil seeds have become light brown in color, then set aside in a bowl with 2 cups of warm water in it.
Into a pan add a tablespoon of ghee (I sometimes use mustard oil or vegetable oil instead) and heat on high or medium till the ghee looks hot.
Throw in the bay leaf. As it starts to brown, lower the flame to medium and add the cardamom pods, clove and cinnamon. Stir with a spoon. Then add the cumin seeds and the chilies. Once the cumin seeds start to sputter, throw in the grated ginger, and stir.
Now add the potato, carrots and cauliflower. Sprinkle some turmeric till veggies turn light yellow. Stir fry for a few minutes.
At this stage, add the lentil with the water and salt to taste. Cover the pot and cook till water starts to boil.
Cook for 4 more minutes so that the lentil, which takes longer to cook, starts to soften.
At this point, you can transfer everything to a pressure cooker, add the frozen peas, rice and one more cup of water and cook it using the rice setting. (If you're using a stove top pressure cooker, wait for two whistles before you switch off of the stove.)
Or once the lentils start to soften, add the rice and two more cups of water and cook with a lid on medium or low with occasional stirring to make sure rice and lentil don't stick to the bottom of the pan. Frozen peas will cook quickly, so I add them 5-10 minutes after I've added the rice. Add more water along the way if it starts to look too dry.
Consistency should be like that of a thick porridge, although some people like it drier.
Cook till rice, lentils and vegetables look cooked, but not too mushy. Serve with a teaspoon of ghee on top, mango or lime pickle on the side.
This goes very well with papad or papadum, which are flat, round, tortilla shaped crispy snacks that are usually deep fried or roasted over the fire.
Other foods that go well with khichuri: Fried eggplant or fried fish.
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