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? Trying to light on a meal that hits most of those points, I’ve been turning lately to Indian kitchari (aka 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: It’s 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.

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.

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 with a brothy tomato soup or a carrot slaw. Every community or household 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 Washington’s Pansaari, an Indian spice shop and cafe, 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.

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: Sauté 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 Washington, 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.

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.

Rice and Quinoa Kitchari With Moong Beans and Spinach

4 servings (7 to 7¼ cups)

The white rice called for in this rice-and-bean dish keeps the cook time low, but if you prefer a 100 percent whole-grain version, substitute brown basmati and increase the cooking time by about 15 minutes. Alternately, skip the rice entirely and use more quinoa in its place.

2 tablespoons grape-seed oil or safflower oil, or ghee (clarified butter)

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

One 3-inch cinnamon stick

5 bay leaves

4 black cardamom pods

4 whole cloves

10 whole black peppercorns

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

½ cup raw basmati rice (or other long-grain white rice)

½ cup dried quinoa

1 cup unhusked, whole moong (mung) beans

1½ to 2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt

6 cups water, more as needed

8 ounces spinach, stemmed, rinsed and cut into thin ribbons

1 cup packed cilantro leaves and stems, coarsely chopped

¼ to ½ cup plain regular or low-fat yogurt, for serving

Heat the oil or ghee in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion; cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until translucent and golden around the edges. Add the cinnamon, bay leaves, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns and cumin; cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring, until very fragrant. Stir in the turmeric and cook for 1 minute. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the whole spices to a piece of cheesecloth (not the cinnamon stick); use kitchen twine to tie them into a sachet. (This will make them easy to extract.)

Stir in the rice and quinoa until well coated; cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the moong beans, 1 teaspoon of the salt and the water; bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low; partially cover and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the water is mostly absorbed and the grains and beans are tender; the kitchari should have a porridge-like consistency; if not, add up to 1 cup more water and cook a bit longer. Discard the bay leaves, cinnamon stick and the spice sachet.

Stir in the spinach and the remaining ½ to 1 teaspoon salt (to taste); cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, just until tender. Stir in the cilantro and remove from the heat; let rest for 1 to 2 minutes, then divide among individual bowls. Spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons yogurt (to taste) on each portion.

Brown Rice and Split Moong Kitchari With Cauliflower

Makes 4 servings (8 cups)

Consider the cauliflower and carrots in this traditional rice-and-bean dish to be one of many variations. Depending on what’s available, you could use broccoli and white turnips; zucchini and carrots; asparagus and green peas; or eggplant and tomato.

Add broccoli and other more delicately textured vegetables later in the cooking process if you want to preserve a brighter color and flavor. (When reheating, brighten it up with additional cilantro, if desired.)

Fresh turmeric root and split moong dal (split mung beans with the green skins intact) are available in Indian or international grocery stores.

1 cup brown basmati rice (or use another long-grain brown rice)

1 cup split moong dal (mung beans)

¼ cup grape-seed oil or safflower oil, or ghee (clarified butter)

2-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, minced

2-inch piece peeled fresh turmeric, minced (may substitute 1½ teaspoons ground turmeric; see headnote)

1½ to 2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt

6½ cups water

1 small head cauliflower

4 medium carrots, scrubbed well

1 tablespoon cumin seed

2 teaspoons coriander seed

1 to 2 whole dried chili peppers, such as arbol, stemmed (seeded, if desired) and crumbled

1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Rinse the rice and dal in a few changes of cool water. Drain well.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil or ghee in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the ginger and turmeric; cook, stirring, until fragrant and barely golden, 2 to 3 minutes. (If using ground turmeric, add it 1 minute after adding the ginger.)

Stir in the rice and dal until well coated. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and 6 cups of the water; bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low; partially cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, cut the cauliflower into small pieces, and coarsely chop the carrots. Add them both (after the 30 minutes of cook time) to the pot. Partially cover and cook for 15 minutes, adding the remaining ½ cup of water as needed if the mixture seems dry; it should have a risotto-like consistency.

Use a mortar and pestle or a rolling pin and a towel to crush the cumin and coriander seeds until very coarsely ground.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil or ghee in a small saucepan or skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the crushed cumin and coriander seeds and crumbled chili pepper(s); cook just until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.

Scrape the spice mixture into the pot of kitchari along with the remaining ½ to 1 teaspoon salt (to taste), and stir through. Cook uncovered for about 5 minutes, stirring often, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed; the kitchari should have a porridge-like consistency.

Stir in the cilantro, and serve.

Millet, Amaranth and Toor Dal Kitchari With Kohlrabi

Makes 4 servings (6 cups)

The spicing for this kitchari takes its cues from a South Indian variant called a pongal. The fresh chili pepper adds an herbaceous zip to the finish, so be sure not to add it too soon.

A chopped avocado wouldn’t be out of place as a garnish.

Find fresh curry leaves and the toor dal, which are split pigeon peas, in Indian or international grocery stores.

¼ cup coconut oil

2-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, minced

1½ teaspoons ground turmeric

cup dried amaranth

cup dried millet

1 cup toor dal (may substitute husked, split moong dal/mung beans)

1½ to 2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt

5½ cups water

2 large carrots, scrubbed well (7 to 8 ounces total)

1 medium bulb kohlrabi, peeled (8 to 9 ounces)

1 fresh small jalapeno pepper or serrano chili pepper, stemmed (and seeded, if desired) and minced

2 teaspoons brown mustard seed

2 teaspoons cumin seed

15 fresh curry leaves (see headnote)

½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons of the coconut oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the ginger and turmeric; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the amaranth and millet and stir to coat; toast for about 3 minutes. Add the dal, 1 teaspoon of salt and 5 cups of water; bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.

While the grains and dal are cooking, cut the carrots into small dice, grate the kohlrabi on the large holes of a box grater, and finely chop the fresh chili pepper. After 30 minutes, add the carrots to the grain-dal mixture and prepare the spices.

Warm the remaining 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a small pan over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seed, and when it begins to pop, add the cumin, curry leaves and black pepper; heat, shaking the pan, until fragrant but not burned, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape the spices into the grains and dal, along with the remaining ½ to 1 teaspoon salt, and stir to combine. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the grains and dal are tender and the mixture resembles a thick porridge; add the remaining ½ cup of water if the mixture seems dry.

Stir in the kohlrabi; cook for about 5 minutes, then stir in the fresh chili pepper. Remove from the heat and let the kitchari rest for 2 to 3 minutes before serving.

Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle.


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