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Birbal Kee Khitcheree

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Birbal Kee Khitcheree

Birbal Kee Khitcheree
Ben Fink
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total prep
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.

Recipe courtesy of Masala Farm: Stories and Recipes from an Uncommon Life in the Country by Suvir Saran with Raquel Pelzel and Charlie Burd. Published by Chronicle Books, 2012.


  • 6 to 8 cups/1.4 to 1.9L peanut/groundnut oil
  • 1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup/10g 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 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 cup/190g split and hulled mung dal
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
  • 10 whole green cardamom pods
  • 8 whole cloves
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 -inch/5-cm piece cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon Panch Phoran (see recipe below)
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/8 teaspoon asafetida
  • 1 cup/185g 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/1.65L water
  • 10 oz/280g bag frozen peas
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon Panch Phoran (see recipe below)
  • 1/2 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 large tomatoes, finely diced
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 cups/750 ml water
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 pinch asafetida
  • 1/2 teaspoon Garam Masala
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon nigella seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds


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