Is Khichdi the Risotto of India?

Khichdi

Khichdi

Good morning everyone! I have been away from my blog home for a long time, but I have certainly not neglected my kitchen. Meanwhile, global warming has given us the warmest January on record, and our San Francisco February, which ought to be dreary and cold, has instead been sparkling with sunshine.

Still, it is time for some winter cooking, no? Let’s talk about khichdi.

What is khichdi? Simply put, it is comfort food, rice cooked with a dal or two. One of my go-to books on cooking, World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey, describes it as the risotto of India. When I first read this, I had not heard of nor eaten any Italian food other than spaghetti and pizza. So at the time my thought was — aha! so risotto is the khichdi of Italy!

But is it? I suppose, in a vague, cross-cultural kind of way. But really, there are differences.

With risotto, the starchification of the rice is so much fetishized that it impacts many choices. The choice of the grain — Italians use a plump starchy variety, that will nevertheless hold on to a firm core. Khichdi on the other hand, can be made with the ‘normal’ medium or long grained rice that you use for other cooking. The cooking technique — risotto is stirred and stirred with nominal additions of water until the starch is drawn out the the rice. The result is something like the Asian congee, or a porridge, but with more definition. While khichdi — starchy though it may be, the effect is produced just by the addition of more or less water.

More importantly, the additions. Risotto can have vegetables, but also seafood and sausages and other meats. While khichdi must, must, must…simply must! have dals cooked along with the rice. Otherwise it is not a khichdi. Since dals take longer to cook than rice, you are already looking at a somewhat gloopier texture, rather than the ideal of each grain of rice being separate. Vegetables are optional. Meats are never used. Carnivores, look away, khichdi is not for you. Though there is the bastardized British version called kedgeree, where, I hear, fish such as kippers are often added.

The accompaniments. With risotto, it seems, one can never have too much parmesan or cheese of one sort or another. For khichdi however, plain yogurt is utterly appropriate. And ghee is the cooking medium of choice.

Split green mung khichdi

There are probably as many versions of khichdi as there are families in India. In my family, this khichdi was eaten every Monday night, along with this dish. It uses a handful of split green mung cooked along with the rice. The texture is meant to be a little wetter and more gloppy than plain white rice, but don’t go all the way to porridgy.

Now just cooking the rice and dal along with some ghee and salt will give you a good dish. But here I have fancied it up a tiny bit with cashews and fried onions.

Rice and split mung measure

Rice and split mung measure

Whole black pepper and cumin

Whole black pepper and cumin

Washed and rinsed

Washed and rinsed

Black pepper floating to the top

Black pepper floating to the top

Frying onions and cashews

Frying onions and cashews

Cooked

Cooked

Topped

Topped

Khichdi with split green mung

Ingredients:
  • 2/3 cups medium- or long-grain rice
  • 1/3 split green mung
  • 1 tablespoon ghee
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon whole black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2.5 cups water
  • 1/4 medium onion, sliced
  • a tiny fistful raw cashews
Method:

Rinse and drain the rice and split mung together. Put in in a pressure cooker or a nice hefty pot along with two and a half cups water, the salt, the cumin and black pepper. At this point, swish it around so that all the whole black peppers float to the top. This way, it will be easier for you to pick them out after the cooking is done.

Pressure cook for 15 minutes, or, if boiling in a pot, bring to a boil, cover tightly, and simmer for 45 minutes. Uncover and pick out the whole black peppers.

Separately, heat ghee in a small thick-bottomed pan. Fry sliced onions in it until browned; then give the cashews a light browning as well. Mix this in with the rice, but reserve some to add to the top as garnish.

Enjoy it with some plain yogurt on the side and some sharply tasting pickles or chutneys, some kadhi, or this spinach wonder.

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Idiot-proof vegetable pulao

Vegetable pulav with tomato soup

Vegetable pulao with tomato soup

One of the first dishes I ever tried cooking on my own was flavored rice cooked with a few vegetables. This is known as a vegetable pulao — or pilaf — or pulav, the standard-est and basic-est of Indian home recipes. So why has it taken me this long to blog about it?

Because sometimes the simplest things give you the most trouble. It has taken me years for me to get this right. Sometimes the rice isn’t cooked through. If it is, it is cooked too much. Or the vegetables are cut too big and raw on the inside, or they have turned to mush. If all goes right regarding the timing, the thing is tasteless. Gah.

One way to get around these problems is to cook the rice and vegetables separately then combine them. But while there are many perfectly fine recipes that rely on this method (many from the south — yogurt rice, lemon rice, tomato rice etc.), for vegetable pulao, the flavors must fuse, which means cooking together is a must. They must come out with a flourish, all perfectly done at the same time. They say each grain of rice must be separate, so add that to the list of requirements. It must be gently spiced, but not too much — too much would kick it over into being a biryani. That’s fine, but that’s not what we are after.

So now, finally, I present to you my pulao secrets, recently discovered after many years of trial and error, which should make all doubts vanish under the first whiff aroma that hits you when you open the pot. Here they are.

Secrets of pulao

  1. Be stingy with the water. The vegetables you add will leave off some steam of their own, so I would use about a quarter less water than you would with plain rice.

  2. But if you do that, the danger is that the rice will cook and expand and rise above the water line, leaving the upper layer uncooked. Curses! To get around this problem, we use a pressure cooker. (I believe a tightly closed dutch oven slow-cooked in an oven would work as well, but that is not what I did.)

  3. Do not use vegetables that will turn to mush, like tomatoes or zucchini. The vegetables that you do use must be diced. I use vegetables like green beans, carrots, peas, cauliflower, cabbage, bell peppers, celery, etc.

  4. Rice tends to be a bit bland, so you need to fire on all cylinders where the aromatics are concerned. So that means — garlic, ginger, green chilies, onion, and yogurt for richness.

  5. Now this is the most important — do not caramelize the onions! Cook them till softened, but not browned. A lower flame would help. This is because what we are after is a savory flavor, not a sweet caramel browned flavor (there are other excellent rice dishes that explore this profile, we will go into that at some point).

Armed with these tenets we are ready to begin.

Rice soaking and vegetables diced

Rice soaking and vegetables diced

Ginger garlic chili paste with yogurt

Ginger garlic chili paste with yogurt

Onion cooking with bay leaf and cardamom

Onion cooking with bay leaf and cardamom

Paste enters

Paste enters

Paste drying up

Paste drying up

Vegetables enter

Vegetables enter

Rice enters

Rice enters

Done

Done

Vegetable Pulao

Ingredients
  • 1 cup long-grained rice
  • 1.25 cup water
  • 4 cups diced vegetables, mix of carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower (cut slightly larger, because it has the tendency to turn to mush if overcooked), bell pepper, celery, potatoes
  • 1 black cardamom
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/3 cup diced onion (this will be about half a medium onion)
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 inch piece ginger
  • 1-3 fresh green chilies
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
Method

Rinse and soak the rice for about half hour. Dice the vegetables — those that cook quickly (like cauliflower) can be left larger, those that cook slowly (like carrot) can be cut smaller. Blend the yogurt along with ginger, garlic and chilies to make a paste.

Heat oil in the pressure cooker or dutch oven on medium heat. When it shimmers, put in the cardamom and bay leaf. Let them cook until an aroma arises. Then put in the onion. It can cook for a few minutes until softened. Now put in the paste and stir to combine with the oil. In about five minutes of cooking, the paste will have dried up and the oil will show separating from the paste.

Now you can put the vegetables in, and simply toss them around to mix with the oil. Drain the rice and add that in as well, and stir to coat the rice with the oil and spices. Now put in the water and salt, and pressure cook for 15 minutes. If you are using a dutch oven, cover it tightly and cook it in the oven for about 20 minutes at 250ºF.

Let it sit covered for a few minutes after taking it off the heat. Before serving, fluff it up lightly with a fork.


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Is it a chutney? Is it rice? It’s both – cilantro rice

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I am very proud of my husband. He went from being a cilantro-hater to a cilantro-tolerator (only if it is minced fine), from there to a wary cilantro-liker (if used in the right dishes), to a must-have-cilantro-flag-waver (in some dishes), to an unabashed cilantro-promoter. The other day he informed me that someone had brought a dish of cilantro-rice to a work potluck. He thought it tasted very nicely savory and wanted me to try making it at home.

This is what marrying an Indian will do to you. Go marry an Indian, all of you — there certainly are enough of us around.

I know he will insist that I put in a disclaimer — that he still can’t stand cilantro that is un-minced and placed right on top of food in all its stemmy and leafy glory. So there you have it, disclaimer placed.

I had never heard of cilantro rice before. Given that I love cilantro and make chutneys with it all the time (here is one and here is another), and also that I’m constantly looking for ways to dress up rice, this is surprising. Cilantro rice marries these two interests. Now that the match has been made, this will be a staple in my kitchen.

Cilantro rice

There are various ways to do this but I basically made a chutney out of the cilantro and cooked it then mixed in rice. You could simply mince the cilantro with a knife or not cook it.

Ingredients
  • 3/4 cup rice
  • Half a bunch cilantro
  • An inch piece of ginger
  • 1 – 4 green serrano chilies
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion (I used a shallot)
  • For tempering:
    • 1 tablespoon udad dal
    • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
    • 6 or so curry leaves
  • 1/4 cup cashew
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Method

Cook the rice the normal way, but with somewhat less water than usual, to keep the grains from getting too mushy. Grind the cilantro, the chili and the ginger together using as little water as you can get away with — this basically means you are making a chutney. Finely chop the onion.

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Heat the oil in a wide thick-bottomed pan on medium high. Throw the tempering items in in the following order: first, the udad dal, when it reddens the mustard seeds, when they pop the curry leaves. Stand back if you value your peace. Wait for the leaves to sizzle and be done.

Now in goes the onion. They will start to get translucent and start to redden at the edges.

Clear a little space to make a hot spot on the pan and put in the cashews. As they roast they will take on a few dark spots. This will take a few minutes; now it is time to put in the chutney that you ground before. Throw in the salt, cook the paste down for a few minutes.

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The rice goes in next. Break up the clumps with your fingers if need be. Stir to coat all the grains with the chutney. Cover and cook for a few minutes on low.

Here is the result — fiddlehead ferns on one side, squash raita on the other. They will come later.

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Yellow garlick rice

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Yes I know there is a misspelling in the title, I just like the way that looks. Please direct all complaints to: The Editor, The Odd Pantry, Internet.

This is a simple rice preparation that looks quite grand (some people will mistake the yellow as coming from saffron which is the world’s most expensive spice). But it is simple enough to do for an everyday meal. Basically, use this recipe when you want to do a minor feast; not, for instance, when you have the Prime Minister of Senegal over.

Yellow garlick rice

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup long-grained rice
  • 3 – 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Half a teaspoon turmeric
  • Quarter teaspoon salt
  • One tablespoon oil

Method:

Rinse the rice once and soak it for about 10 minutes to half hour. Drain the soaking water.

Heat the oil in thick-bottomed pot. Put in the garlic and the turmeric when the oil shimmers and stir it around for a couple minutes until the garlic looks shriveled. Now put in the drained rice and the salt, and stir to coat the grains with oil. Most of the grains will start to look opaque once they toast in the oil.

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Put in one and a quarter cup of water and bring to a boil, covered. Turn it down to a simmer, tightly covered, and let it simmer for about seven minutes. Turn the heat off and leave it covered, in place, for about ten more minutes. This last step of waiting ensures that the collected steam is absorbed by the rice.

If you like, fluff with a fork before serving.

Variation: If you like, throw in a quarter cup of frozen peas before bringing to a boil. It will look a little fancier and be tasty too.

 

Yogurt Rice — an iterative approach

Yogurt rice

Yogurt rice

A precept that is big in the software engineering world (my other life) is that development should happen in phases, but each phase should be releasable as a full-fledged product.

This precept was very much on my mind as I made yogurt rice for dinner the other evening. I’ll tell you why.

Now yogurt rice (otherwise known as curd rice; mossaru anna in Kannada, daddojanam in Telugu, bagala bath in Tamil) is a South Indian recipe that I hadn’t even heard of till adulthood. But had I ever eaten yogurt rice? Of course! Every single day of my tender young life I had yogurt rice for lunch. Yogurt rice with cauliflower, yogurt rice with ketchup (don’t ask), yogurt rice with papad, yogurt rice with sookha aalu, yogurt rice with pickles. If you pierced my veins you would probably have had thick and pulpy yogurt rice squirt out.

Sorry about that image. Here’s the point I’m trying to make. Short of the fancy ‘yogurt rice’ recipe with every bell and whistle, simply mixing yogurt with rice achieves a serviceable product. While being quite ricey and quite yogurty and cooling, it is its own thing with a very distinctive fragrance. That is your first iterative product — simply mix yogurt with rice. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Iteration 1: Mix it up

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Cook about a cup of long-grained rice with some salt. Let it cool a bit, break lumps with your fingers, then mix in about a cup of plain yogurt nicely. You are done with your first product. This is a great accompaniment to any spicy vegetable dish or pickle. Or heck, dot it with ketchup, scoop up a dot in each bite, but don’t tell people this idea came from me.

Iteration 2: Salad it up

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Now for the second iteration we throw in some crunchy salady ingredients to brighten the flavors. Imagine luscious smooth cooling yogurt rice with the occasional crunchy freshness, perhaps a couple in each bite. Chop up 2-3 scallions, greens and all; and perhaps a quarter of a deseeded cucumber into tiny cubes, and mix it into the yogurt rice.

Iteration 3: Spice it up

Yogurt rice is soothing and cooling. Perhaps too cooling and too soothing? We need to add some sweet, sweet pain. This calls for heat from two sources: green chilies, and ginger. Thinly slice one serrano chili, or a few smaller bird’s eye chilies, or one jalapeno. Also slice half an inch piece of ginger into strips. Mix those into the rice. Still in keeping with the salad theme, we do not cook these last ingredients but keep them fresh.

Iteration 4: Season it up

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Now lets add a tadka. For the non-Indians, ‘tadka’, ‘vaghaar’ or ‘baghaar’ is a very standard method of finishing up many, many recipes: heat a bit of oil or ghee, throw in some whole or ground spices and / or aromatics, let them cook, and throw that seasoned fat into the dish and mix it in. So let us tadka the yogurt rice. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a little pan; when it shimmers, put in the following: a few sprinkles of asafetida; when it foams, put in a teaspoon of deskinned udid dal; when they start to turn reddish, put in a teaspoon of mustard seeds; when they pop, put in about 6 curry leaves. When they shrivel, it is time to turn off the heat and mix it into the rice.

Iteration 5: Fancy it up

What is expensive, nutritious and will allow you to charge 50 cents more for this dish? Cashews! In the same pan as the seasonings, put in a drop more oil, and put in a quarter cup whole cashews to roast. Once they darken in various places, turn off the heat, and mix it into the rice.

Iteration 6: Sweet touch it up

Now for the kicker — the last step that I didn’t even know about when I made this dish, but was told to me by my friend Rashmi after: put in about a quarter cup of pomegranate kernels and mix it in to distribute evenly throughout the rice. Can’t wait to try the 6th iteration of this dish the next time I make it!