I seek out food that’s nourishing and comforting. I especially love whole grains.
There is a dish my Indian friends have been cooking at our gatherings and I never knew what to think of it until I started asking questions. They call the dish kitchari and it’s an easygoing, traditional Indian comfort food. A one-pot dish of grains and legumes scented with spices and cooked until each component breaks down into the others. In a way, I compare it to risotto since it has a similar texture. I was told in India, kitchari is home cooking—a dish everyone knows and everyone knows how to make. It’s sort of unglamorous food and what you make when you’re in a hurry or when you’re sick. It gets made out of necessity. But at the same time, it’s filling, nutritious and supremely healthful at the same time. It is India’s chicken soup for the soul. In Hindi, kitchari means “a mess” or “all mixed up”—indeed unglamorous!
So how do you cook it?
Kitchari comes together largely in one pot and turns out flavors far more complex than you’d expect because of the rather long cooking time. Recipes are endlessly variable and all my Indian companions seem to have their own mix-and-match recipes for all manner of greens, grains and dals. A dal is a dried pulse, a.k.a., the edible seeds of a legume (plant with a pod) that has been split. Some examples are dried peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans…
At its simplest and most traditional, kitchari employs long-grain white rice, which may be substituted with brown rice. The other traditional part is tiny green split and skinned mung beans. When cooked long enough it becomes a savory porridge-like stew, easy on the palate and the digestive system.
Most often, kitchari is fragrant because of the added spices. It is seasoned often with a generous amount of ginger and spiced with mustard seed, curry leaves and cumin. Traditionally, it is often enriched with plenty of ghee. Ghee is made by cooking butter on low heat until the fat divides from the milk solids. The milk solids get ladled off and discarded. The result is a clear, golden-brown liquid.
Tricks that assure kitchari's success
- Lentils’ starchy properties are especially valued in a kitchari dish. The starch provides creaminess that is essential to kitchari. Millet, amaranth and quinoa, nutty and earthy-tasting, are lovely in kitchari, but they don’t contribute much binding starch on their own. You want a creamy, porridge-like texture.
- Toast rice or other grains with the oil and spices for the first few minutes of cooking—Indians call this tarka—before adding water to bring out their flavor, then cook the grains.
- Add vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, turnips, shreds of kale, asparagus and peas in spring; yellow squash and green zucchini, green beans and tomatoes are perfect in summer; and winter squash in the colder seasons. All make a tasty kitchari dish. The vegetables should be added midway through or near the end of cooking, depending on their sturdiness.
Brown Rice & Quinoa Kitchari with Asparagus and Kale
(recipe makes four servings)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped ginger (no need to peel)
5 bay leaves
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
10 grindings black pepper from the mill
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cardamom pods
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cup brown rice
1/2 cup quinoa
14 cups water, plus more as needed
2 cups asparagus, cut 2” off the bottom and discard, then chop into ¼”-long pieces4 cups baby spinach, rinsed
10 leaves fresh basil, chopped
- In a gallon-sized pot heat the oil on medium heat.
- Add the onion and cook for 2 minutes, then add ginger and all spices and cook for 2 minutes longer, stirring once with a wooden spoon. The mixture will be very fragrant at this point.
- Stir in the rice and quinoa. Cook for 2 minutes then add the water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook for 50 minutes, until the water is mostly absorbed and the rice is tender. The kitchari should have a porridge-like consistency at this point; if not, add up to 1 cup more water.
- Add the asparagus and cook 10 minutes longer.
- Discard the bay leaves.
- Put spinach and basil into four bowls, then ladle the kitchari over it.
Chef’s Tip: Put a dollop of yogurt or a drift of chopped avocado on top of your kitchari—it makes a fine garnish.
Good to Know: Kitchari can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Reheat on the stove top, adding water as needed.