Why the humble Indian khichdi enjoys superfood status

A simple but versatile mix of lentils, rice and ghee, the dish boasts a plethora of nutritional benefits

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Naveen Madan disliked khichdi as a child, associating the rice and lentil porridge with upset tummies and illness. But he changed his mind a few years ago after a week-long cleanse recommended by an Ayurvedic doctor.

“I had some health and digestive issues. After eating khichdi for a week, I felt great. My stomach was thanking me,” says the lawyer and tax consultant who lives in New Delhi. Since then, he eats the dish a few times a week, seeking it out for both its taste and restorative benefits.

Khichdi is a one-pot meal that combines lentils, rice and ghee. The versatile dish, usually cooked to a semi-porridge-like consistency, is often the first solid food given to babies in India. It also serves as an easily digestible gruel for those feeling under the weather, is a preparation offered to the gods at several festivals in India, and is easily adapted with various spices, grains and even meat.

Origins and legends

Channa dal khichdi is popular during the Indian harvest festive of Makar Sankranti. Photo: Kishi Arora

Khichdi has been a part of Indian cuisine for centuries. It was mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts known as the Vedas, where it is called kshirika, as well as in various traveller accounts over the years that reveal it’s been savoured by peasants and emperors alike.

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When there were no vaccinations, foods like khichdi were intended to fortify and prepare the body for seasonal changes
Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, culinary chronicler

“Khichdi’s exact origins are difficult to pinpoint, but my hypothesis is that it originated with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, as a cooking method to break down foraged grains,” says Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, a culinary chronicler and food consultant who lives in Mumbai. “The recipe evolved as it travelled across the country.” She attributes the dish’s popularity to convenience, as dry grains are non-perishable and spices are easily transported, plus it can be prepared on nearly any flame.

In modern times, there’s been a growing appreciation of khichdi’s health and nutritional benefits. The wholesome dish incorporates carbohydrates, protein and good fats, and its various spices can aid digestion, while the use of different grains and lentils provide heightened nutritive value and adaptability for different diets.

Its significance in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of traditional medicine, has also attracted global attention in recent years, and khichdi has come to be widely known for its cleansing and curative abilities.

One dish, many preferences

Different temperings (tadka) infuse khichdi with flavour and nutritive value. Asafoetida, ginger and cumin are digestive aids, while ghee is a natural laxative. Photo: Kishi Arora

While the most commonly prepared khichdi combines rice and moong daal (yellow split gram or split green gram), there are many versions across the country, adapted to local tastes and ingredients.

“My father loved khichdi and it was made often at our house,” says Kishi Arora, pastry chef and food consultant who lives in New Delhi. "He preferred a tadka [spiced tempering] of ginger, black pepper and cumin seeds. My mother would make separate tadkas for each of us, to create one dish with separate flavours.

"I like mine with mustard seeds, curry leaves, garlic and amaranth.”

Fellow fan Gunjan Mehra Sabikhi, a sales professional from Noida, says: “For a light meal, I cook a mix of yellow gram and red lentils, but we make chana dal [Bengal gram] khichdi for festivals such as Raksha Bandhan and Diwali.”

Khichdi is also integral to harvest festivals celebrated across the country; the freshly reaped grain is symbolic of life and regeneration. “Festival foods were significant from a health perspective as well. When there were no vaccinations, foods like khichdi were intended to fortify and prepare the body for seasonal changes,” says Munshaw-Ghildiyal.

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Rice and lentils together form a complete protein, which contains all nine essential amino acids
Safia Livingston, dietician

Thanks to the global following that Ayurveda now enjoys, there has been a rise on social media of various recipes and recommendations for “kitchari cleanse”. The “Indian superfood” is also included in diets for gut resets and transitioning through seasonal changes, plus for its overall nutritive value.

However, some traditional Ayurvedic experts disapprove of these new-age khichdi recipes, which are prepared with ingredients such as coconut oil and different varieties of rice. “I am not pro-khichdi, but pro-krsara, the Sanskrit name as per Ayurveda, which is completely digestible and light,” says Rekha Radhamony, a fourth-generation Ayurvedic medicine doctor who practises in Dubai.

“Ingredients like coconut oil, which is heavy and cold, and basmati rice, the most inferior form of rice in Ayurveda, are harder on the digestive system.” Radhamony describes Ayurvedic krsara as a precise mix of 12-parts sona masoori rice, eight-parts mung beans, plus sprinklings of asafoetida, fresh ginger and ghee.

While krsara may be specific to Ayurveda, the nutritional value of varied khichdis cannot be disregarded. “There will be a similar nutritional benefit to using any lentils,” says dietician Safia Livingston. “Millets, broken wheat, oats and quinoa all contain more protein, fibre and micronutrients than rice, making khichdi with one or more of these ingredients a more nutrient dense option, better for weight loss, heart health and balancing blood sugar levels. I would only caution individuals with heart conditions or high cholesterol to limit the ghee to a tablespoon or less a day.”

One for superfood seekers

Using different grains provides various nutrient dense options. Seen here, khichdi with broken wheat, pearl millets, rice, lentils, quinoas, spices and vegetables. Photo: Kishi Arora

Indian celebrity nutritionist and author Rujuta Diwekar calls khichdi “a nutritional superstar”, and says several of her high-profile clients, including Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor Khan, integrate it as part of their health regimens. The dish also plays into the increased focus on eating local and traditional foods, particularly during the pandemic, as health professionals often recommend that Covid-19 patients eat khichdi owing to its nourishing, protein-rich and easy-to-digest properties.

Livingston says khichdi should not only be restricted to those with gastrointestinal issues. “Khichdi contains the three macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and fat. Rice and lentils together form a complete protein, which contains all nine essential amino acids. Ghee is a natural laxative and contains very low levels of milk protein casein and lactose, so is a good choice for the lactose intolerant or those who avoid dairy for digestive issues.”

Commonly added spices such as turmeric, cumin, ginger, asafoetida, pepper and carom seeds also have anti-inflammatory properties, and aid with digestion, regulating sugar levels and resolving respiratory problems.

“It's really as an adult that I began to value this comfort food,” says Neha, a marketing professional who lives in Bengaluru. She eats khichdi regularly, especially after travelling, or in preparation for a busy or demanding period. “Stress always impacts my digestive system, and khichdi is the best soother, both physiologically and psychologically.”

Neha occasionally swaps the rice out for millet. “I make an oats version for breakfast where the proportion of lentils is lower. Various spices, vegetables and even slight tweaks, like roasting the moong daal, adds nutrition and distinct flavours.”

Sabikhi includes millet and broken wheat in the winter, while Arora varies her khichdis with seasonal vegetables for more fibre and spices such as ginger and peppercorns to prevent indigestion and boost immunity.

These diverse interpretations are united in their ability to nourish, heal and provide comfort, and showcase khichdi’s versatility and accessibility. “Across India and abroad, khichdi has been adapted to different sensibilities by incorporating locally available ingredients. It’s a simple everyday meal that can be tweaked to provide the flavour and nutrition you need,” says Munshaw-Ghildiyal.

A fad-proof superfood in the making, then.

Updated: January 13, 2022, 4:33 AM