Perfect Dish For 3,000 Years: Khichdi

There are not many dishes that are complete meals and that have been eaten continuously for almost 3,000 years. Whether cooked on a wood fire, coal fire, kerosene stove, gas stove, electric stove, and now the Instant Pot, the basic ingredients and methods of cooking remain the same. This one almost became the national food of India. It is certainly the comfort food of the country and is the most desirable of all foods for yogis and for spiritual practice. It was lunch and dinner every single day on our retreats. Considered a sattvic meal of rice and legumes well cooked, sometimes with vegetables, to make a one-pot vegetarian meal–this is khichdi. And it is fitting that it be unadorned as it can stand by itself.

Sattvic food is “pure” food or food of the highest quality–fresh and vegetarian; no chemicals or additives; neither dry nor watery but moist; not too hot nor too cold; neither spicy nor bland; not sour nor gassy. No onion or garlic–this is also in Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia and Japan. So it is food that is neither exciting (rajas) nor dull (tamas). This is ideal for a stable and effective meditation practice and yoga so the stomach does not become an issue. The quality of the food affects the mental and physical state and the sattvic balance brings equanimity.

Khichdi is the first food given to babies. These basic khitchdis are gluten-free and can easily be vegan.

Here I have three recipes: basic mung dal khichdi, millet and mung dal khichdi, khichdi with vegetables (can substitute rice for millet in all). Different dals can also be mixed. I like to mix mung, red lentil, and bit of urad dal sometimes.

From my reading, the earliest reference to khichdi is in the 9th or 8th century BCE epic Mahabharata. Greeks campaigned in India beginning with Alexander the Great. After Alexander, Seleucus (358 BCE to 281 BCE) campaigned unsuccessfully in areas that are now Punjab and Pakistan. In his writing, Seleucus mentions that a dish of rice and pulses is widely popular here (referring to the Indian subcontinent).

A considerable exchange of ideas, food, along with trade has been going on for centuries. Ibn Battuta (1304 CE to 1368/1369 CE) was a Moroccan traveler in the Indian subcontinent in 1350 CE. He wrote that the people here boil mung and rice, butter it well, and eat it for breakfast. Battuta said the people call it kishri. And it has been mentioned by others who traveled to the region.

Khichdi is a frugal food and in some northern states not served to guests. For them it is food for sick people. Even though considered a poor person’s meal, it is enjoyed by everyone! We were invited to a former local queen’s home for dinner on a cold winter’s night and were served piping hot khichdi with generous amounts of ghee. The Mughal kings relished their khichdi which was cooked in royal kitchens everywhere. It could be enriched with nuts and raisins and puddles of ghee.

There is no “Indian” food in India. There is regional and local food–each state has its own language, food, culture, and history. So if someone says Gujarati food (the most vegetarians of any state), that is the cuisine of a state. Within the state, people will refer to the various regions and cities–Kutchi dishes, Kathiawadi food, Patel recipes, food eaten in Rajkot or Ahmedabad or Surat, Jain cuisine. Variations in recipes are infinite when family cooking is included. Tarla Dalal’s website has 108 vegetarian khichdi recipes. Many of us in my generation were introduced to Tarla Dalal recipe books along with our mothers’ cooking.

There are khichdis with no rice and pulses as well, such as sabudana khichdi made of sago in Maharashtra. Cracked wheat, corn, barley, are also used. Some southern states with Muslim populations may add minced meat, coastal towns may add prawns. In the Eastern state of Bengal, egg and fish may be included. The British kedgeree is an Anglicized khichdi. These versions would not be considered sattvic. There is the Chinese congee derived from the Tamil kanji. So after looking at recipes, go ahead and create your very own version!

Basic khichdi is equal parts of rice and mung dal. To that add 3 cups of water for stove top cooking. Season with salt and turmeric and cook on a gentle simmer after it comes to a boil. Cook covered till soft and porridge like adding more water if needed.

As we do not store many varieties of rice at home, we use basmati or short grain sushi brown rice. Brown rice retains some texture. For soft, porridge-like khichdi eaten throughout India, medium grain rice such as surti kolom and kalijira are preferred (there are 40,000 varieties of rice in the world!). Not only does it give a creamier texture, these other varieties of rice are cheaper than basmati and many feel they are more flavorful. Long grain white rice works better for fluffy separate grains like the Patel vaghareli khichdi.

However, in Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat, some use bajra or pearl millet. The taste and texture are the same as rice but nutritionally millet is far better. Millet is not “horse feed” as one friend thought! Probably a billion people relish it and are sustained by it. It may have the illusion of a poor man’s food, but rich or poor, it is an ancient super grain. Millet has 6 grams of protein per serving, is high in fiber, gluten-free, lower in carbs than other grains and better for diabetics. Millet may help lower cholesterol. It is rich in antioxidants, has calcium, magnesium, phosphorus. Cook it well and what is not to like!

So here I have a basic recipe, the template, for bajra and mung dal khichdi (or any khichdi as you can easily use rice). The gray pearl millet used in the northern parts of India is not available here. I buy the southern Indian Chettinad millet from the Indian grocery store and it looks like dry couscous. Use whatever is available.

Note that some people prefer to roast the soaked, washed, rinsed, drained rice/millet and dal in ghee (or neutral oil) for a couple of minutes. Spices such as whole cloves, cinnamon, black pepper corns, minced ginger, green chili, garlic, onions, tomatoes, would also be added at that point. Sometimes I do, too, but ours is made without garlic and onion. I add finely chopped string beans and carrot (about 2 cups) before roasting the grains. Tossing the vegetables with a large pinch of salt and a small pinch of baking powder helps tenderize the vegetables.

Ingredients

1 cup millet

1 cup split green mung dal or yellow mung dal (without skin)

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional)

5 cups water

salt to taste (for me 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt)

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

ghee or sesame oil or plain yogurt to serve

Steps

  1. Pick over and rinse both grains in large, fine-mesh sieve. Keep the grains and fenugreek seeds (if using) in the sieve and immerse it in a large bowl of cold water so the grains are completely covered but it is not all overflowing. Soak overnight or for 2-3 hours.. Then lift the sieve out of the bowl and rinse under running cold water till the water is almost clear. Drain.
  2. Option 1: Put the grains, water, salt, turmeric in the Instant Pot container. Pressure cook on high for 15 minutes. Let it release steam naturally. Then open the lid. If it is a little soupy for you, heat the khichdi on the stove top, in the same container, until it is the desired consistency. If it is too thick, add a little water and heat it. For us, this is perfect consistency. Option 2: If cooking on the stove top–make sure you have a large and heavy bottomed pan so the khichdi with water is no more than halfway up the pot. Bring it to a simmer and cook it uncovered till the water level goes down to the level of the grain. Then cover and keep cooking till there is a porridge-like consistency and the grains are fully cooked, tender and mushy. Stir in between and add more water if needed. Expect it to take 45 minutes to an hour.
  3. Serve hot with dollops of ghee or generous splashes of unrefined sesame oil. A bowl of plain yogurt is also a traditional combination. We have pickles and sometimes papad on the side.

Note: Serve it with cooked spinach or SautĂ©ed Carb-Free Mustard Kobi or Cabbage. Leftovers are great the next day. The khichdi will get tight and solid. Just add water, heat, mix well. Hot khichdi is excellent in winter for any meal. Room temperature khichdi is perfect with yogurt or sesame oil in the summer, for a snack, or any meal. Try it with Hira’s Cucumber Raita.

Serves 4 to 6. Preparation time: 5 minutes Soaking time: several hours Cooking time 25-30 minutes total time for Instant Pot and 45-60 minutes stove top.

For masala khichdi with vegetables, a one-pot complete meal: Heat 3 tablespoons oil or 2 tablespoons ghee and add 1 tablespoon minced green chili (or to taste), 2 teaspoons minced ginger, garlic (optional). When it is sizzling for 30 seconds, add 1 cup finely chopped string beans and 1 cup finely diced carrots a big pinch of salt and a small pinch of baking powder. Stir well and cook for 2 minutes. Add 1/4 teaspoon turmeric. Then add the grains and stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Add salt to taste. Add water and cook as in the recipe above. Serve with extra ghee, sesame oil, plain yogurt allowing everyone to choose what they like.

Khichdi is also served with a yogurt soup-like dish called kadhi and it is the ultimate comfort food!

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