Thursday, March 8, 2012

Birbal Kee Khitcheree

Using what's locally grown and of the season while adding lots of interest with spices from around the world is a way of cooking that appeals to me. In his new book Masala Farm of which I received a review copy, Suvir Saran's cooking style is just that. He looks to add masala, "a combination of ups and downs, bitterness, spice, and sweetness," to every day. He and his partner, Charlie Burd, bought a farm in upstate New York where they raise several breeds of chickens, goats, sheep, geese, and ducks, and here, the meals they prepare are inspired by the time of year, what's available, and what's possible on a given day on the farm. There are charming stories about their animals, how they chose them, and how they care for them. And, there are stories about other farms in the area and the locally produced goods available at different times of year. The book takes you through each season with the food and fun from the farm. Some dishes are simple, farmhouse favorites like Cauliflower, Chevre, and Onion Quiche, Rhubarb and Raspberry Cobbler with Creme Fraiche Cream, and Summer Tomato Pie. And, then others are given a twist with added spices like the Sweet and Sour Butternut Squash, Garam Masala Roast Chicken, and Deviled Eggs with Cilantro, Chiles, and Spices. Indian favorites are included too with Bread Pakoras, Peanut Chaat, Farmhouse Chai, and Birbal Kee Khitcheree.

Let me tell you a little about me and Indian food. I love it, but in the past, I was never able to cook it. The few attempts I made resulted in disaster. That was mostly my own fault for probably rushing the process or not being prepared for what I was attempting to make. However, I would like to also lay a little blame on the inability to ever find all the ingredients needed in this town. I can never find fresh curry leaves, in the past I always had to skip at least a few spices when they weren't available locally, and I can't always find the right type of dal for a dish. I was feeling ready for a challenge though, and I really wanted to try making the Khitcheree from the book. I set aside an afternoon to do an ingredient hunt. Thanks to our Savory Spice Shop, I found all the spices needed for this, and they even have dried curry leaves. The only item I wasn't able to locate was split and hulled mung beans. I used yellow split peas instead. This dish involves making a topping of cilantro, ginger, chiles, and lime juice, frying onions for an additional topping, making the spice mix Panch Phoran, cooking the khitcheree itself, and preparing two tempering oils that are added at the end. There were several places where I could have ruined this, but I didn't. And, it was worth every single step.

At last, my run of failed Indian dishes has ended. This is soothing comfort food with the rice, lentils or split peas, and vegetables cooked together, but the flavors also surprise your palate with heat, spice, warmth, freshness, and acidity. Next, I want to try the Farro and Mushroom Burgers with Tomato-Onion-Peanut Chutney, the Shrimp and Sweet Corn Curry, Almost-Flourless Caramel-Lacquered Chocolate-Peanut Torte, and whatever else might add a little masala to my day.

Birbal Kee Khitcheree
Recipes re-printed with publisher's permission

Serves 6

When craving comfort food, I most often dream of khitcheree. The vegetarian one-pot meal of lentils, rice, and vegetables is transported to another dimension via multiple layers of spices—every bite is a new discovery of tastes and textures. The dish includes Panch Phoran, a spice blend of whole cumin, fennel, and the wonderfully exotic, nutty flavor of nigella seeds that are gently fried in ghee or clarified butter with coriander and tomatoes, and then a second boost of spice from a ghee-bloomed blend of more cumin, some cayenne, and oniony asafetida. It is such an incredible dish that there is even a legend behind it: Hundreds of years ago in mid-fourteenth-century India, Birbal, a court official of Emperor Akbar, made a khitcheree that was so enchanting, the emperor decided to make Birbal a Raja king! At our house, we like to say that if it’s good enough for Akbar and Birbal, it’s good enough for you. This dish is so lovely that I often just serve it with nothing else except for some Raita and perhaps crispy papadum on the side. Make the recipe a few times and then begin to play with the flavors and simplify it as you like. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

For the topping:
6 to 8 cups/1.4 to 1.9 L peanut/groundnut oil
1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup/10 g finely chopped fresh cilantro
2-inch/5-cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into very thin matchsticks
1 jalapeño, finely minced (remove the seeds for less heat)
1 tbsp lime juice

For the khitcheree:
1 cup/190 g split and hulled mung dal
2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
10 whole green cardamom pods
8 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
2-inch/5cm piece cinnamon stick
1 tsp Panch Phoran (please see separate recipe)
3/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/8 tsp asafetida
1 cup/185 g basmati rice
1/2 medium cauliflower, divided into very small florets
1 medium red potato, cut into 1/2-inch/12-mm pieces
4 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
7 cups/1.65 L water
10-oz/280-g bag frozen peas

For the first tempering oil:
2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
1/2 tsp Panch Phoran (please see separate recipe)
1/2 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tsp ground coriander
2 large tomatoes, finely diced
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
3 cups/750 ml water

For the second tempering oil:
2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 pinch asafetida
½ tsp Garam Masala (please see separate recipe)

To make the topping:
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot (use enough oil to fill the saucepan to a 2-inch/5-cm depth) over medium-high heat until it reaches 350°F/180°C on an instant-read thermometer. Add the onion and fry until crisp and browned, about 2 minutes, turning the onion occasionally. Use a slotted spoon or frying spider to transfer the onion to a paper towel–lined plate and set aside. (The oil can be saved for another use, but first let it cool, then strain it through a fine-mesh sieve into an airtight container.)

In a small bowl stir together the cilantro, ginger, jalapeño, and lime juice together and set aside.

To make the khitcheree:
Place the mung dal in a large frying pan over medium heat and toast it until fragrant and lightly golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the dal to a large plate and set aside.

Place the ghee, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, panch phoran, turmeric, and asafetida into the same pan and roast over medium heat until the spices are fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the rice, toasted dal, cauliflower, potato, and carrots, and cook until the rice becomes translucent and the cauliflower sweats, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Pour in the 7 cups/1.65 L of water, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Add the peas, bring back to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

To make the first tempering oil:
Heat the ghee and panch phoran in a large frying pan over medium heat until the cumin in the panch phoran begins to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and salt, and cook until the onion is browned around the edges and soft, about 10 minutes.

If the onion begins to get too dark or sticks to the bottom of the pan, splash the pan with a bit of water and scrape up the browned bits. Stir in the ground coriander and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and the cayenne and cook until the tomatoes are jammy, 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Once the rice and dal are cooked, remove the lid and use a potato masher to smash the mixture until only a few carrots and peas remain whole (remove the whole or large spices while mashing if you like). Stir in the first tempering oil along with the 3 cups/750 ml water. Return to boil and cook for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.

To make the second tempering oil: Wipe out the pan from the first tempering oil and heat the ghee for the second tempering oil over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds, cayenne, and asafetida, and cook, stirring often, until the cumin begins to brown, about 2 minutes.

Immediately stir it into the rice and dal mixture.

Divide the khitcheree among 6 bowls; top with some of the ginger mixture, a pinch of garam masala, and the fried onions; and serve.

Panch Phoran
This is a whole-spice blend that is similar to garam masala, except that panch phoran adds texture as well as flavor. While it is most often used whole, panch phoran can be pulverized in a spice grinder or by using a mortar and pestle and added to curries like the Shrimp and Sweet Corn Curry.

1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp brown mustard seeds
1 tbsp nigella seeds
1 tbsp fenugreek seeds

Mix together and store in an airtight container for up to 1 year. Makes 5 tbsp/25 g.

Garam Masala
Garam masala is perhaps the most well-known Indian spice blend (aside from curry powder). It’s a northern spice, used in places like New Delhi and the Northern Plains, where the winters are harsh. The spices used in this mix – cinnamon, cloves, and chiles – have a warming effect, making the addition of garam masala to recipes not just delicious but useful too.

1-inch/2.5-cm piece cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
4 bay leaves
1/4 cup/4 g cumin seeds
1/3 cup/6 g coriander seeds
6 whole green cardamom pods
2 whole brown cardamom pods
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp whole cloves
1 dried red chile
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground mace

Heat the cinnamon, bay leaves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cardamom, peppercorns, cloves, and chile in a medium frying pan over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the cumin becomes brown, 2 1/2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer the spices to a baking sheet to cool. Once cooled, transfer the spices to a spice grinder, coffee mill, or small food processor, add the nutmeg and mace, and grind to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container for up to 4 months.


  1. Lisa,
    Just seeing your pictures of khitcheree gave me a huge smile this morning. When we were living in Bali last year, we often ate at this wonderful outdoor cafe surrounded by greenery. I always ordered the khitcheree - such a belly-warming delight:)

  2. Wow, what an intriguing dish! That is quite a lisdt of ingredients. A scrumptious dish, I'm sure.



  3. I have never heard of khitcheree before. This dish is different but looks really good.

  4. I love Indian cuisine but never use so many spices before. Your dish looks so flavourful and colourful!

  5. I love Indian food as well but have never had the patience to make a real indian recipe (I dont' count the short cut, Americanized curry dishes I have made). God bless you for your patience- looks like it really paid off!

  6. Indian food is wonderful isn't it and I can understand how frustrating it must have been not being able to find those magical spices that makes up those flavours!

  7. It's a real comfort food :) I always make to my husband when he is sick :)

  8. This sounds so delicious regardless of the long list of ingredients, thanks.

    You are welcome to join in my food blogger event THE SOUP KITCHEN, here all bloggers are welcome, hope to see you participate soon.

  9. I love how you incorporate all of those flavors from different spices. Looks like a pure comfort in a bowl!

  10. What a stunning dish! I have the same problem with more exotic ingredients and spices...I need to find an international market here~

  11. I'm going to go right ahead and assume that this recipe is well worth doing. This would take ages to make! Such flavours and textures though ;)

  12. That book sounds great! Your dish looks amazing. So many colours. It looks so bright and tasty. Love the images. xx

  13. I am so there with you, Lisa. Eating local, seasonal produce is an extremely rewarding way of living. This khitcheree look beyond amazing, by the way. Trade for some Filipino Spring Rolls? ;)

  14. i won't lie--i'm intimidated beyond belief by that ingredient list. plus, indian food isn't my friend. regardless, what a fantastic and flavorful dish this must be...IF i can get someone to make it for me. :)

  15. Oh YUMM! I ll note down your recipe and I am going to make it one of these days. No troubel for me to get all the ingredients for sure! =)

    I didnt know the recipe to make Panch Phoran. thanks for the share!

  16. I know this ingredient list looks extremely long, but a lot of it is just measuring spices. The dish takes some time, but it's really not difficult. Promise.

  17. Lisa, you kind of knocked me off the perch when I read Birbal Kee Khichri. Nom nom beautifully you made it Lisa. The hub and me often dive into a super comforting bowl of khichri when the kids are at school. Nothing better and more soothing than it ... though mine is a 5 minute pressure cooker job with minimal fuss! Suvir Sarans recipe takes the khicri to another level altogether! Mmmmm

  18. Lisa, this is such a beautiful dish...must taste delicious with all the spices in it. I like how you topped with crispy onion.
    Hope you hare a wonderful week ahead :)

  19. Yum! I'm going to make this tonight forour supper. Thanks a lot Lisa!

  20. kudos for sourcing for the ingredients and spices. curry leaves, for example, is something which I think is quite difficult to substitute in terms of flavour. your dish looks amazing.

  21. Well you are well and truly up to Indian cause this looks delish. The book sounds wonderful

  22. so...funny coincidence, I'm actually going to an event to celebrate national peanut month tonight and Suvir is going to be there signing/giving away this book! I'm even more excited now that I already was, after seeing this recipe!

  23. Amazing recipe, Lisa. I don't know how available all these spices are for me, but I'd sure love to try this!

  24. I don't even know what this is but it looks scrumptious! All the ingredients and flavors are right up my alley. I love what you make. You help me think outside my cooking box!

  25. OMG! This looks absolutely delicious and comforting as I adore Indian food. The fried onions certainly pulls the entire dish together.


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