Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rice & Lentil Porridge (Khichdi / Khichuri)

I'm always fascinated to hear about ways that cultures can be both wildly different and yet ultimately similar.

For example, when I'm sick I've got a set of comfort foods that immediately come to mind:  ginger ale and saltines for an upset stomach, orange juice and chicken soup for the flu, hot water with ginger and lemon for a sore throat or cough.  If, heaven forbid, I were to ever come down with pneumonia again I imagine I'd want white peach gelatin and bananas (no vigorous chewing required, y'see).

Through my experiences both living in Japan and spending time with my in-laws, I've found that in other parts of the world rice porridge is the food of choice for the sick.  In Japan, for example, there are even different words for porridge made from uncooked versus cooked rice.

Khichuri is a type of south Asian rice porridge that has the advantage of including lentils (dal) for an extra little protein punch.  It was one of the first Indian foods my in-laws trusted me to eat -- back when we were all still getting to know each other -- and perhaps not coincidentally was also one of the first Indian recipes I remember seeing in print.  I was introduced to it at their house over one particular visit when I was feeling under the weather, so the recipe caught my attention when a few months later I was handed an Ayurvedic cookbook by a girl at Boston Pride.

Rice porridges are great for infants, sick people, and the elderly because they're easy to digest, relatively flavorless, and often come close to mimicking the kind of food that people would be eating in that culture anyway, meaning that it's not scary-looking or insulting (as baby foods and nursing home purees so often are).  In the west I suppose the closest we come is oatmeal, porridge, or plain grits, depending on where you live, though those are breakfast foods and don't often contain any protein or vegetables.  That's where khichuri has an advantage since it's made with lentils and common variants include peas, cauliflower, and spinach with carrots.

You'll notice this version of the recipe is very plain and relatively bland -- sort of the South Asian equivalent of a saltine.  That's on purpose.  There's nothing stopping anyone from jazzing this up into a regular dal recipe, just as you can put all kinds of snazzy things atop a plain cracker.  But for me, when I'm sick and not feeling up to cooking this falls close enough to the "meal" category.  Plus it saves me the hassle of chewing, which is nice when I'm all out of energy.

And hey, if you're into Ayurvedic cooking or if you're looking for a "detox" (again, keeping in mind that detox is a ritual rather than a medical reality), there are some claims that khichri will cleanse your karma or some such thing like that.  Either way it won't hurt you, and is fairly nutritious so long as you work in a side salad or some other kind of greenery with it.

Khichuri - Rice & Lentil Porridge

This one's gonna fly by, I promise.  The overview is:  0.5 cups lentils, 1 cup rice, 3-4 cups water or stock, a tiny bit of flavoring, and boil until mushy.

Here goes.

First off you'll want to pick out your lentils.  Aim for smaller ones since they'll cook up faster.  Personally I chose half masoor dal (the orange ones) and half val dal (the white ones), though mung/moong dal (green ones) are very popular for this dish.  Chances are whatever you have on hand will probably work fine, though French lentils may never truly break down into mush.  That's fine, just be aware that your consistency will be different.  You can use all one kind or mix and match according to your tastes.

Rinse your half cup of lentils and cup of basmati rice in warm water using a fine mesh sieve until the water runs clear.  Soak them for 15 minutes or more in warm water to help the rice start plumping and get the lentils softened up a tad.  You can do all this together in the same bowl since we're going to cook everything together anyway.  This recipe is all about cutting down on effort.

While the lentils and rice and plumping, get a deep saucepan going on medium heat.  Add 1 tsp oil (ghee is the traditional choice here, but I find it hurts my stomach when I'm sick so I opted for olive oil instead), heat until shimmering, and then add 1 tsp cumin seeds.  I didn't bother to photograph this process because it's fairly straightforward and we've seen it here and here and here and here and here already, so if you're unsure go ahead and check any of those links.  If you'd like to add a bay leaf or substitute mustard seeds (such as seen here), then please feel free.  I like the smokey flavor of cumin seeds, but it's not written in stone.

Anyway, when the cumin seeds get fragrant -- this will take less than a minute -- add a finely diced onion.  I had frozen onion puree hanging around so I used that to cut down on cutting time because I was feeling pretty darn ill and just wanted to eat already.

After about 10 minutes of sauteeing the onion I added 2 tsp ginger paste, which I forgot to photograph.  Trust me, though, it's in there.  Cooked ginger has the added bonus of containing a compound called shogaol which is an anti-inflammatory.  So that's nice.  Every little bit counts when you're sick.

When the onion & ginger were cooked up I drained my rice & lentils and added them on top:

Followed immediately by 3-4 cups of liquid.  I used vegetable stock.  You can use water or broth if you'd like.  The more liquid, the more squishy yours will be.  I erred on the side of less water for the stick-to-your-ribs effect.  There's really no wrong way to do this, though.

Hard part's over!  Dial it up to medium-high, bring it to a boil.  When it boils, turn it down to low, cover it, and let it simmer until everything's gooey.

Val dal and masoor dal break down fairly fast, so mine was ready in just over half an hour.  The beauty of this is that you can let it simmer on low more or less indefinitely -- it'll just keep getting more and more goo-like the longer it's on the stove.  Once it was juuuuuust about to the right consistency I added two tsp dried curry leaves (optional, you could sub a different spice if you'd like):

And one tsp turmeric powder (also an anti-inflammatory):

I stirred all that up, covered it again, and let it simmer for another 10 minutes or so to "cook" the spices, salt to taste, and that was that!

If you want to add veggies or other/additional spices, some common ones are:  hing (asafetida), cumin powder, coriander powder, fennel powder, fenugreek powder, bay leaves, cloves, fresh cilantro, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, black peppercorn, red chili powder (naturally), green chilies, peas, cauliflower, spinach, eggplant, and carrots.  That's not an exhaustive list, obviously, but should give you a nice jumping-off point to get creative on your own.  I like mine as plain as possible so that it doesn't give my tummy too much thinking to do when I'm feeling low, but as I mentioned in the intro there's nothing at all stopping you from making this into a regular dinner.

Not entirely certain what's up next.  I've got some Mardi Gras recipes, St. Patty's recipes, and a few Japanese favorites in the pipeline for sometime between now and early March, though, so be sure to stay tuned.

Khichuri - Rice & Lentil Porridge

Ingredients (can easily be multiplied or halved):
  • 1 cup basmati rice
  • 0.5 cup small lentils (e.g. mung/moong dal, val dal, masoor dal)
  • 3-4 cups water or stock (or more, if a thinner consistency is desired)
  • 1 tsp oil or ghee
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
    • can sub or add: mustard seeds, bay leaf
  • 1 small onion, finely minced
    • frozen / pureed onion also ok
  • 2 tsp ginger paste
  • 2 tsp curry leaves
    • see paragraph just below the last picture, above, for substitute ideas
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder

  1. Thoroughly rinse lentils and rice in a fine-mesh sieve until the water runs clear.  Soak in warm water for 15 minutes or longer (up to several hours or overnight).  Drain and rinse again.
  2. While lentils and rice are soaking, heat a large stockpot on medium heat.  Add oil, heat until shimmering.  Add cumin seeds and heat until just fragrant -- less than 1 minute total.
  3. Add onion & ginger paste.  Saute 10 minutes or until onion is translucent and soft.
  4. Add drained lentils & rice along with stock (or water).  Turn heat up to high and bring to a boil.  If adding vegetables, place them in the pot at this time (with the exception of spinach, which should be added later, with the curry leaves & turmeric).  
  5. Once the pot boils, turn the heat down to low, cover, and let simmer until the rice and lentils begin to break down.  How long this takes will depend on the type of lentils used, but could take 30-60 minutes or longer.  
  6. Uncover, add curry leaves & turmeric powder.  Replace cover and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.
  7. Add salt to taste and serve.  

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