26 July, 2010

Kitchari: Real Comfort Food

Kitchari (pronounced kitch-a-ree) means mixture, usually of two grains. It is a staple comfort food of India, tasting like a cross between a creamy rice cereal and a light dal, or lentil soup. If it is a cold, blustery day, or you are feeling under the weather, a bowl of kitchari – a soupy porridge made from rice and mung beans, lightly spiced with ginger, cilantro, and other spices – can both warm up your bones and restore sagging energy.

Healing begins with the digestive tract. Many times, fasting is recommended for cleansing and rejuvenating the body to give the digestive system a rest. We generally do not consider downing a hearty grain dish to be fasting. Yet, because of the heavy toxin load that many of us carry, or medications that we depend on, total fasting is not always the best idea. So, we have people promoting juice fast/feasting, lemonade-based fasts, and vegan or raw food diets as alternative or intermediate steps.

In India kitchari is considered a fasting food, used to purify digestion and cleanse systemic toxins. Kitchari ‘fasting’ is actually a mono-diet – providing the body with a limited assortment of foods. The digestive system then only needs to produce a limited number of digestive enzymes. So its work of digestion is lessened. This allows greater healing and cleansing to occur. One can safely subsist on kitchari for a period time in order to build vitality and strength as it helps balance many body systems. The dish is beneficial for the stomach, lungs, liver, and large intestine. If you eat plain kitchari (the basic recipe of rice, mung beans, and cilantro) for more than 2 days, it may cause constipation. So add in a variety of vegetables to contribute necessary fiber for proper bowel function.

Kitchari provides solid nourishment while allowing the body to devote energy to healing. Kitchari can give it a much-needed rest from constantly processing different foods while providing essential nutrients. The blend of rice and split mung beans offers an array of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. In Traditional Chinese Medicine mung beans are prized for their detoxification properties. Its mixture of spices helps to cleanse and tone the digestive system, which can be weakened by poor food choices. Several of the herbs are known as powerful anti-inflammatory agents.

Beyond the therapeutic fast, kichari has many other uses: It can be eaten when breaking more intense fasts, such as water or fruit. During intermittent fasting, it provides further cleansing, along with solid nutrition, during your eating periods. Use it when recuperating from an illness or any great physical stress, like childbirth, surgery, or extensive travel. It is an excellent "antidote" to dietary excesses, such as can happen around the holidays or major family get-togethers. It can be helpful and calming when we're under emotional stress.

Rarely is brown or whole rice specified. Obviously white rice, with its recent appearance in human history, could not have been used thousands of years ago. White rice is devoid of nutritional content. No one should ingest it, especially on a fast. The simplest form of kitchari consists of basmati rice, mung beans, and cilantro. Simple kitchari is recommended for fasts lasting up to five days. Traditionally mung beans are used, but either whole or split green or yellow peas, or red lentils can be used . With of the diversity of ingredients allowed, every cook has his/her own favorite version.

This is a kitchari recipe that is particularly nourishing and easy to digest.

Serves 4-5

Stir together in a large saucepan over medium heat, until fragrant:
3 tablespoons ghee (purified butter)
1 1/2 inch piece of cinnamon bark or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 whole cloves
4-5 crushed cardamom pods
10 black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3 bay leaves (remove before eating)

Blend together until liquefied. Add to spice mixture and stir until lightly browned:
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine
2 tablespoons shredded, unsweetened coconut
1 small handful fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup water

Stir thoroughly into above mixture. Saute a few minutes :
1 cup yellow mung dal (split or whole) Soaking the dal for a few hours or overnight helps with digestibility.
1 cup brown basmati rice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt or 1 teaspoon dulse (not traditional Indian, but adds trace minerals)

Pour in. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low. Simmer for 30 minutes:
6 cups water

Add, then cook and additional 30 minutes:

1 - 2 cups vegetables of your choice (zucchini, asparagus, sweet potato, carrots, greens, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, etc.) cut into small pieces (optional)

Heat a large saucepan on medium heat and add the ghee, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, peppercorns and bay leaves. Stir for a moment until fragrant. Add the blended items to the spices, then the turmeric and salt. Stir until lightly browned.

Add the mung dal and salt. Sauté for 1 or 2 minutes. Add boiling water, bring to boil, turn down the heat to very low, then simmer for 20 minutes. Add rice.

Prepare any vegetables that suit you. Cut them into small pieces. Stir in these vegetables to mix, adding extra water if required. Bring back to the boil, then simmer for 30 minutes longer or until rice is fully cooked.

Garnish with: ghee, shredded, unsweetened coconut, lime, cilantro, sunflower seeds, Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, etc.

Variations in spices include:

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 pinches hing (asafoetida)
½ teaspoon turmeric


½ tsp. turmeric
1 Tbsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. cumin seeds or whole cumin seeds
½ tsp. fennel seeds
½ tsp. ground black peppercorns
1 ½ tsp. ground basil leaf (optional)
1/3 tsp. (asafoetida) (Hing)
pinch of cayenne

We often think of ‘comfort food’ as those foods which we remember eating as children, which we now know are less than healthy for us: big fatty sausages; sugary, candy like cookies or cakes; gooey cheesecake; and the list goes on and on. With kitchari, we have a chance to add an item to our comfort food repertoire that can actually improve our health.


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