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story.lead_photo.caption Nourishing, satisfying, comforting. Chef Hari Pulapaka calls khichidi "the chicken-noodle soup of India." (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Lentils and rice and veggies and spice.

Funny how rhymes occur naturally when your belly is full and warm and happy. Also funny: how there are different kinds of full.

When I'm full of say, giant, bacon-slathered hamburger, I don't generally feel this wonderful. Or energetic. Or healthy. Nothing against bacon-slathered hamburgers — all things in moderation, after all — but "research" for the Orlando Sentinel Foodie Awards is not a moderate undertaking.

For the second March in a row, I'm coming in like a lion — full of meat. Fortunately, March is National Nutrition Month, and I'm looking to purge the wings and tacos and barbecue (yes, even the bests of the city!) and go out like a lamb on lentils.

That's where Hari Pulapaka and his book, "Dreaming in Spice: A Sinfully Vegetarian Odyssey" come in.

Pulapaka is a jack of all trades to be sure — associate professor of mathematics at Stetson University, founder/co-owner of Cress Restaurant in Deland, multiple James Beard Award nominee and founder and CEO at Global Cooking School — and though he strayed from his vegetarian roots not long after moving to the States from his native Mumbai, he's found his way back with a tome featuring some 251 globally inspired recipes.

Many are simple — like the one I landed on for my first foray back to this cooking column: khichidi.

Pronounced with the same cadence as "chickadee," khichidi (also khichdi, kichidi) has been a staple in Indian cuisine for centuries.

"It's modest, nutritious, protein-dense and savory," Pulapaka said of the dish. "In fact, often in many households, it's the first type of solid food that a baby would eat, as it is savory and relatively soft in texture without garnishes."

Khichidi's two staples: grain and legume. Any two could form the foundation of the dish, he said, but the book's version is decidedly Indian: lentils and rice.

"White rice is the most accessible," he explained. "But if you're willing to be patient and want more nutrition, brown rice is even better. If you want to be edgy and eclectic, you could use Japanese forbidden rice as your base — and maybe pair it with lima beans or black-eyed peas."

So clearly, khichidi is versatile, but this recipe — among the book's most basic — is a delight to cook (hello, one-pot and done in less than an hour!), fuss-free, aromatic and ideal to warm up your belly. I subbed in King Trumpet mushrooms for the cremini since I had them in the fridge but otherwise stuck to the plan.

"It's an unfussy dish," Pulapaka said, "especially for families and working people — easy to take with you for a healthy meal on the go and keeps really well in the fridge. It also gets better the longer it sits, as those aromatics really have a chance to sync together."

Speaking of aromatic, the dish is finished with a technique known as tadka, or tempering. Popular in Indian and other Asian cuisines, tadka is the process of briefly frying whole spices in hot oil, releasing wonderful flavors and aromas. The pan's entire contents are then poured over and incorporated into the dish.

Don't skip it. Tempering is easy and for the flavors in the dish, life-changing. And like the khichidi itself, tempering is also a great place for experimenting if you're keen.

"This one is a very simple version, but you can style it up with fresh, green chilies, garlic, shallots, mustard seeds, fresh curry leaves and so forth," Pulapaka said.

In the end, you'll have a rich, flavorful and gorgeous dish, veggie-laden and exceedingly nutritive.

"It's something that people would gravitate toward to gain strength and nutrition, something to make them feel better when they're coming off of illness," the chef said. "To me, khichidi is the chicken-noodle soup of India."

It certainly feels like something for the soul.


Makes: 4 servings

1 small onion, diced

1/2 cup carrots, diced

1/4 cup edamame or green peas

1-inch piece ginger, minced

2 green chilies or 1 jalapeo, minced

1/2 cup cremini mushrooms, chopped

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 cup green, brown or red lentils — rinsed and drained

4 cups vegetable stock

1 cup rice, rinsed several times and soaked

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1/2 teaspoon cayenne or red chili powder

Pinch of ground asafoetida (substitute: onion, garlic powders)

Salt and pepper, in stages and to taste

Suggested: fresh curry leaves (at Indian markets)

Season with salt, add lentils and turmeric. Cook about 15 minutes more, stirring frequently.

Add rice and edamame, stir well, season with salt, then add stock. Taste to ensure it is seasoned to your liking. Cover pot reduce heat — low to medium — and cook 20 minutes.

Open lid once at the end to ensure lentils are cooked.

This is the tadka, or tempering, stage: heat some oil in small pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add peppercorns, cayenne, asafoetida cumin seeds and curry leaves. Fry about 15 seconds. Pour everything, including infused oil, over the rice and lentils. Gently mix.

Serve with a wedge of lime and cilantro garnish. A dollop of yogurt is a nice optional add, as well.

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