One of the simpler of Indian dishes — so simple that its main use in India is to soothe both infants and the ill—has spread itself globally under a complex of different names.
We in the West tend to call it kitchari or katchari; in England, it inspired the rice and fish preparation called kedgeree. One Romanized spelling of its Urdu name is khichri. An Indian cookbook in my library calls it khichdi, which is how I call it here. (Whatever its spelling, this Hindi or Bengali term means “mixture,” usually of two grains.)
At base, a khichdi recipe calls for a 50/50 blend of basmati rice and some sort of pulse (any lentil, split dried mung bean, chana, dried pigeon pea, or a combination). Along with some minimal spicing, that alone counts as khichdi, although many khichdi recipes do curlicues with a good deal of Indian spicing and, as our recipe here suggests, often include add-ins such as vegetables.
But khichdi’s basic simplicity lends itself to the natural systems of medicine practiced in India, especially that called Ayurvedic (from the Sanskrit, “ayur” and “veda,” respectively “life” and “science” or, in its thinking, “knowledge”).
As such, khichdi begins every Ayurvedic diet regimen or cleanse and is a fitting beginning to the New Year in our kitchens of the West.
It is unfortunate that we think of “cleanse” as literally that, a sort of alimentary roto-rooter of our digestive tract, top to bottom. Khichdi isn’t that; it isn’t food as scrubbing bubbles.
The idea, taken from the Ayurvedic system, is that the simplicity and straightforwardness of khichdi “re-sets” our gut and body after a period of eating abandon. Khichdi is more mono-nutrient — as it were, focused — and gives our digestive system a much-needed break after two months of holiday eating and drinking.
“At a cellular level,” says Peter Crawford, a licensed massage therapist and wholistic health and wellness therapist for more than 30 years, “the cells in our body are like batteries, with positive and negative charges.”
He explains that “the nucleus of the cell” — and he emphasizes that that includes all the cells of the body, not merely our gastrointestinal cells — “has an acidic charge, while the cytoplasm (all that which surrounds the nucleus) has a basic charge.
“The more that we can bring the cytoplasm into balance with the nucleus,” he says, “the more that the ‘battery’ can recharge its vitality.”
By and large, we in the West have screwed up that balance for two (or more) months now, eating and drinking the way we do by consuming large amounts of sweets, fat, alcohol and all the other festive foods to which we take a liking. Tasty, but, um, nasty — as in seriously upsetting the balance between the acid-charged nuclei of our cells by stoking the basic-charged cytoplasms enveloping them.
So, for centuries, the Indians, perhaps not knowing the specificity of this science but clearly attentive to their own bodies’ workings, came up with cooking and eating foods such as khichdi, a soother and a re-setter. “It gets the body to recharge its vitality,” says Crawford.
As a food, khichdi is easy to absorb (the rice and pulse are cooked just short of mush). The spicing, though liberal by Western meat-and-potato standards, is stimulating and aids in assimilation of the khichdi by the stomach and lower GI tract.
It’s also loaded with fiber, often bolstered, as in the recipe here, by additional roughage from several vegetables.
To make the simplest of khichdis, omit all the flavorings in the recipe except for the turmeric, ginger and salt.
To make a spin-off of khichdi called khichra, add to the khichdi recipe cooked or raw (and, then, cook appropriately) ground or cubed meat such as lamb or beef.
But then you return to eating abandon. Happy New Year anyway.
Adapted from recipes at feedmephoebe.com, veganricha.com and marthastewart.com and from Priya Krishna “Indian-ish” (Harvest, 2019). Serves 6-8 and is easily multiplied or reduced.
1 cup basmati rice
1 cup pulse (any lentil, split dried mung bean, chana, dried pigeon pea, or a combination)
2 tablespoons ghee or neutral oil
1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons coriander powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric powder
2 small cinnamon sticks
5 green cardamom pods
1 tablespoon minced fresh peeled ginger
1 teaspoon salt
6 (or more) cups vegetable stock or water
4 cups assorted vegetables (green bean, sweet potato, carrot, broccoli florets, bok choy, zucchini, or any combination, all cut into bite-sized pieces)
3 loose cups spinach leaves
Cilantro for garnish
Combine the rice and pulse together and rinse them in several changes of cool water, 5-6 times, swishing with the fingers and rubbing the grains together, until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
Add the ghee or oil to a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or pot and, over medium-high heat, toss in the mustard and cumin seeds, stirring. When the mustard seeds begin to pop (about 20-30 seconds in), add the coriander, cumin and turmeric powders and stir for another 20 seconds. Add the cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods and ginger, stirring once more. Do not let the spices or powders burn — just fry them enough to get them aromatic — or else the khichdi will become bitter.
To the pot, add the salt, rice and pulse and the liquid. Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice, then lower to a simmer and cook, with the pot’s lid barely ajar, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the pulse and rice are soft. (If the khichdi begins to thicken too much or stick to the bottom of the pot, add small amounts of water or stock until it gets back to the consistency of a risotto.)
As you determine it, about 15 minutes before the khichdi is cooked through, add the bite-sized vegetables, stirring. And when it is finished cooking, turn off the heat, add the spinach, stirring once again and let the khichdi sit, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Serve, garnished with whole or chopped leaves of cilantro.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]