Years ago, I met a wonderful chef born in New Delhi named Suvir Saran. He was such a gentle and friendly soul that I attached myself to him immediately and was soon eating regularly at his restaurant Dévi on East Eighteenth Street in New York City. Several years later he competed on Top Chef Masters and was sent packing for making a veggie burger instead of the requested bacon cheeseburger, describing to the judges the ill effects of eating too much red meat. Here he is most welcome to introduce his khitcheree, an Indian bean-rice-vegetable stew, a one-pot meal that in India may be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. He also offers several of his standard spice mixtures. (If you’re interested to dive deeper into Indian curries, I highly recommend his books, American Masala and Indian Home Cooking.)
When I asked Suvir for his favorite dish, this is the one he sent, explaining that it was one of the most popular dishes at another restaurant he ran in New York City, Tapestry.
“This is the chicken soup of India,” he told me by phone from New Delhi. “But people treat it like that, quickly and without care. They make it bland food, punishment food. I wanted this dish to be a celebration. So, I do it the way few other people do it, with many layerings of texture, flavor, and contrast.
“The concept is simple, a lentil and rice porridge. When you are sick, you make it without any spices, the way Americans eat toast and applesauce. Here I make two differently spiced oils and a flavorful topping.”
This dish is indeed elaborate, and worth every moment of the effort. Go all out and make the spice mixtures as well (or you can order them online or find then in Indian markets). Asafetida, a powder derived from various rhizomes, is very strong (according to Wikipedia it’s sometimes called devil’s dung!) and is used like garlic or onion powder in very small amounts. If you don’t have it, feel free to omit it, Suvir says.
In a small bowl stir together the cilantro, mint, ginger, jalapeño, lime juice, and honey and set aside.
In a large skillet, toast the dal over medium heat until fragrant and lightly golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the dal to a large plate and set aside.
Add the ghee, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, panch phoran, turmeric, and asafetida (if using) to the pan and toast over medium heat until the spices are fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Add the rice, toasted dal, cauliflower, potato, and carrots and cook, stirring often, until the rice becomes translucent and the cauliflower sweats, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour in 7 cups/1.6 liters of the water, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Partially cover the pan and reduce the heat to a simmer for 20 minutes.
Heat the ghee and panch phoran in a large skillet 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 stick to the bottom of the pan, splash the pan with a few tablespoons of water and scrape up the browned bits. Stir in the coriander and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, then stir in the tomatoes and cayenne and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are jammy, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the skillet from 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 about half of the vegetables are still whole and the stew is pleasantly thickened (remove the whole or large spices while mashing if you like). Stir in the first tempering oil, along with the remaining 3 cups/710 milliliters water. Return to a boil and cook for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Wipe out the skillet from the first tempering oil and heat the ghee for the second tempering oil over medium heat. Add the cumin, cayenne, and asafetida (if using) 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 between serving bowls and top each with some of the ginger mixture, a pinch of garam masala, and some fried onions and serve.
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