There is a universal connection between comfort foods eaten all around the world. It has to do with food that doesn’t require much chewing and slips down the throat easily. It is warm, nourishing, and something you can slurp. For an American it would be macaroni-and-cheese, for a Scottish oatmeal and clotted cream, and for an Indian it’s khichadi, made with rice and beans.
Whether you are nursing a bruised ego, a broken heart, or a common cold, it’s comfort food that will soothe you. So, when the world—or the weather—seems harsh, try one my favorite comfort-food recipes. Cuddle up with a bowl of khichadi, soup, or sheera, and maybe it will bring back a smile to your face.
Khichadi is a special food that transports me to another time and place, and brings back emotions of warmth and caring. Any time anyone in our family came down with a cold or cough, my grandmother would make this rice-and-bean porridge. She would carefully grind the spices and make this humble dish, which has unique healing properties. The yellow split beans are easy to digest and quick to cook.
Here is my grandmother’s recipe:
1 cup rice
¾ cup split yellow mung beans
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon whole black pepper
1 teaspoon ginger paste
1 garlic clove, chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon brown sugar or jaggery
5 cups boiling water
salt to taste
1 tablespoon lime juice
Wash the rice and beans, mix, and drain in a colander.
Coarsely grind cumin and black pepper in a spice grinder (or coffee grinder used only for spices). In a thick-bottomed pot add all the ingredients except lime juice.
Cook on high heat for 5 minutes, uncovered. Add limejuice and lower the heat. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and cook for 15 minutes on low heat. Remove from heat but do not remove the lid for the next 10 minutes, so that the steam continues the cooking process. Garnish with chopped carrots and serve with a dollop of ghee.
Comfort food is basically a gustatory memory of childhood. When I was growing up in India, I loved to read books written by Enid Blyton. She was as popular then as J.K. Rowling is now. Enid Blyton wrote adventure and mystery series. Some of my favorite books written by Enid Blyton were Famous Five, Secret Seven, and Mallory Towers. The most charming parts of these series were the vivid descriptions of treacle pudding, trifle pudding, scones, and marble cakes the young adventurers would munch on between their escapades. My mother, being a strict vegetarian, would never cook these foods at home, as all these recipes called for eggs.
Once I was very sick and refused to eat the khichadi she had made for me. I insisted on having creamy tomato soup and croutons, just like the kids in Enid Blyton’s tales. (This was a rare occasion when my mother gave in to my tantrum.) Here is my mother’s version of creamy tomato soup without any cream.
CREAMY TOMATO SOUP
1 tablespoon peanuts
1 tablespoon coconut
1 inch ginger
1 green chili
¼ cup water
1 lb. chopped tomato
salt and pepper to taste
Make a paste of peanuts, coconut, ginger, chili, and ¼ cup of water. Add chopped tomatoes to make a smooth puree. Add two cups of water and boil for 3-5 minutes. Add salt and pepper and serve piping hot with croutons.
Some days are so stressful and overwhelming that there is not a friend on this earth, not a backrub on the planet that could unknot your neck muscles. On days like these I turn to food for comfort. I vividly remember one day when I was in seventh grade, and my friend and I had been unfairly singled out in our class as troublemakers. We had to run an extra mile at lunch break. That evening I went to my friend’s house, where we moaned and groaned about how unfair life was. Her older sister, who had just returned from college, got tired of our whining. She made this aromatic cream-of-wheat pudding to help soothe our bruised egos. Even now, a helping of this sheera is sure to calm me and help put things in perspective.
1/3 cup ghee or unsalted butter
1 cup cream of wheat
2 cups milk
¼ teaspoon saffron thread
1 cup sugar
8-10 cardamom pods
½ cup almond powder
Heat ghee or butter in a pan. Add cloves and wait until they puff up. Add cream-of-wheat and roast for 10 minutes on low heat. Keep aside.
In a pot add milk and saffron and bring to a boil. Add the roasted cream-of-wheat and stir vigorously to remove any lumps. Cover and cook for 5 minutes on low heat. Add sugar and mix well. Cover the lid again and let the steam finish the process of cooking. Discard the cardamom peels and coarsely grind the seeds. Finally, add almond powder and cardamom powder and mix well.
Garnish with dried cranberries and serve piping hot.
Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of a television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet. www.massala.com