We all ask for different things from our food in the name of comfort. We look for that glint of a certain place or time, or of a particular person or group of people. Others of us might look to dishes that skirt the edges of familiarity yet sate a yearning for something new and stimulating: the familiar yet unfamiliar.
I seek out food that’s also nourishing, because what is more comforting than being truly well-fed in every way? There’s also something to be said for postprandial smugness.
Trying to light on a meal that hits most of those points, I’ve been turning lately to Indian kitchari (a.k.a. kichadi or kicheree or khichdi), a one-pot dish of grains and legumes scented with spices and cooked until each component breaks down into the other. Likening it to risotto is only a little bit of a stretch. Kitchari is creamy and fragrant, filling without being heavy, deceptively rich-tasting and supremely healthful at the same time.
In India, kitchari is home cooking: a dish everyone knows, and everyone knows how to make. That is partly why, though on the Subcontinent you might occasionally find kitchari in a restaurant, it is not commonly served at restaurants in the United States. Traditionally, kitchari hasn’t been something you go out for.
“It’s sort of unglamorous food,” said Mumbai native and District resident Vaishali Honawar, who blogs about vegan and Indian cooking and has posted a couple of kitchari variations on her Web site, Holy Cow! “It’s what you make when you’re in a hurry or a rush or in mourning, or when you’re sick. It gets made out of necessity. But at the same time, it’s filling and nutritious.”
At its simplest and most traditional, kitchari employs long-grain white rice and yellow moong dal — tiny green moong (mung) beans split and skinned. The result is a savory porridge, easy on the palate and the digestive system. Minimally seasoned, it’s what mothers give their children when they’re ill, and often one of the first foods fed to a child. District resident Kshitij Patkar, also originally from Mumbai, told me how a relative, rather than buy baby food, pureed kitchari for her infant.
For its easy digestibility, kitchari is also highly valued in ayurveda, India’s traditional science of medicine and healing, whose practitioners say it has detoxifying, restorative properties as a cleanse.
Seasoned more generously, kitchari might be a simple lunch on a winter afternoon, made with lots of ginger to ward off chills or with ghee (clarified butter) for extra strength; or served, as Patkar remembers, with a brothy tomato soup or a carrot slaw. Every community or household, he adds, has its own version. Though in India kitchari is most often accompanied by other dishes, with the addition of a few vegetables it has all the trappings of a meal in itself. Some cooks, said Anupy Singla, author of “Indian for Everyone” (Agate Surrey, 2014), cook the dish over a fire until the bottom caramelizes into crisped, cherished bits.
There are special variations, such as sabudana kitchari, made with tapioca pearls and served on fasting days, or the celebratory south Indian variant pongal, spiced with mustard seed, curry leaves, cumin, cashews and ginger, and enriched with plenty of ghee.
“It is India’s chicken soup for the soul,” said Rano Singh, owner of Pansaari, an Indian spice shop and cafe in Dupont Circle, where she plans to begin serving a couple of versions of kitchari as a light meal and to include it in a new cooking class series.
Honawar echoed: “Even for those of us who grew up with it not being a particularly exciting food, it’s become a warm, fuzzy reminder of home.”
For home cooks without roots in kitchari, the dish still has appeal to spare. It comes together largely in one pot and turns out flavors far more complex than you’d expect, considering the amount of time required to produce it. You can even make it in a slow-cooker; in her first book, “The Indian Slow Cooker,” Singla included two recipes for kitchari.
It is also endlessly variable, a veritable mix-and-match for all manner of grains, dals and greens.
In Hindi, kitchari means “a mess” or “all mixed up.” By that translation, suggests Singla, you can interpret the dish however you want.
Take that to heart, and kitchari will never bore you.
Some tips: It’s common in Indian households to replace the husked moong dal with unskinned moong dal, or even whole moong beans, for extra fiber and substance. But other dals will work, too.
Don’t be tempted to substitute your fancy black beluga or French green lentils here. They might be prettier, but they won’t break down in the way that Indian dals do, providing the starch that creates the creaminess essential to kitchari. (Dal, incidentally, is an umbrella term for “legumes,” which could include lentils, split peas or beans. Most familiar dals — channa, which are split black chickpeas, moong dal, urad dal and toor dal — are split versions of peas or beans. One familiar exception is the red or orange masoor dal, which is a true lentil.)
The lentils’ starchy properties are especially valuable when you choose to substitute different grains for kitchari’s traditional rice. Millet and quinoa, nutty and earthy-tasting, are lovely in kitchari, but they don’t contribute much binding starch on their own. Amaranth is nice if you combine it with less-starchy grains: Its tiny seeds become porridge-like as they cook and contribute a light, grassy flavor that can be overwhelming on its own. Toast rice or other grains with the oil and spices for the first few minutes of cooking, before adding water, to coax out their flavor.
As the weather warms, changing kitchari’s tone is easy. Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, turnips and shreds of kale are perfect now, but in spring, look to asparagus and peas; in summer, yellow squash or zucchini, green beans and tomatoes. Add them midway through or near the end of cooking, depending on their sturdiness.
The soul of your kitchari is the spicing, and changing that will alter the dish’s character entirely. Choose a few spices and aromatics or many; as long as you use them properly, moderation will reap rewards. You can add them at the beginning of cooking or toward the end, although you’ll do the kitchari a service by introducing onion, ginger, garlic and turmeric in the beginning, to better infuse the grains and legumes as they cook.
One rule: Saute your spices in oil first to release their flavor. That is what’s called a tarka and is so essential to building flavor in Indian cooking.
Traditionalists often serve kitchari with a few accompaniments. Singla brings pickle, papadums and an onion or tomato salad to the table. Delhi native Gita Pande, a wellness consultant in the District, recalls pairing hers with a red onion, homemade yogurt and chopped cucumber. But a simple dollop of yogurt or drift of chopped avocado makes a fine garnish as well. Some cooks, including Honawar, maintain that kitchari needs no embellishments.
As you become more confident making kitchari, don’t be afraid to take your eyes off the recipe and make it your own. As with comfort food, we all have our own versions. When it comes down to it, that is the inestimable comfort of the kitchen. Knowing what you crave and being able to sate it — anywhere, anytime, with self-assurance — is when you really have what you need.
Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle.