The first time I heard of “kitchari” was during preparation for my first Panchakarma (the Ayurvedic cleansing and rejuvenation process) treatment at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico.
Kitchari (pronounced kich-ah-ree and sometimes spelled khichadi) is a staple of Indian cuisine and Ayurvedic medicine. It was first used to nourish babies, the elderly, and the sick; it became the main food source during detoxification because it helps remove toxins stored in bodily tissues, restores systemic balance, has a high nutritional value with substantial protein, and is easy to digest.
The term kitchari is used to describe any dish made with a mixture of rice and beans and is sometimes referred to as Indian risotto. There are many combinations of legumes, rices, and grains that can be used, depending on your individual constitution, seasonal considerations, and digestive needs. At its purest form, it is a blend of hulled-split yellow moong or mung dal (beans), basmati rice, spices, and vegetables.
Ayurveda believes that all healing begins with the digestive tract, and kitchari can give it a much-needed rest from constantly processing different foods while providing essential nutrients. The blend of rice and split mung beans has the qualities of being cooling with a sweet aftertaste. Together they create a balanced food that offers a full array of essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Its mixture of spices is believed to kindle the digestive fire called agni, which can be weakened by overeating, poor food combinations, cold foods and drinks, illness and doshic imbalances.
Below are the basic ingredients of kitchari:
Ghee is clarified butter and has been a staple of Indian cooking for centuries (it was first documented in the 17th century in the Ayurvedic text written by Bhavaprakasha). Ghee also transcends the cooking realm, often used in religious ceremonies and various healing arts in Indian culture.
“Ghee is sweet in taste and cooling in energy, rejuvenating, good for the eyes and vision, kindles digestion, bestows luster and beauty, enhances memory and stamina, increases intellect, promotes longevity, is an aphrodisiac, and protects the body from various diseases.” Bhavaprakasha
The process of clarifying butter is called rendering. When the butter melts it separates into three parts: the foam that comes to the top is water, the milk solids move to the bottom, and the pure fat in the middle is the ghee.
Ghee contains a balance of easy-to-digest essential fatty acids needed for healthy cells. The wondrous benefits of ghee may seem contradictory based on what we have heard about butter, but we know that it is the poor-quality fats found in some commercial butters (such as heat-treated, solvent-extracted, trans and hydrogenated fats) that cause the production of free radicals and damage cells due to oxidation, endangering our health.
Ghee is rich in antioxidants and aids in the absorption of vitamins and minerals from other foods, feeding all layers of the body’s tissues and strengthening the immune system. Some of the traditional Ayurvedic benefits of ghee include improving memory and making the body more flexible by lubricating the connective tissues.
Ayurveda believes that ghee benefits digestion because it is rich in butyric acid, a short chain fatty acid that nourishes the digestive cells and intestines, and is a natural anti-inflammatory and anti-viral.
Ghee is also used as a natural carrier for the nutrients in medicinal herbs. In Ayurveda, there are a number of remedies made from cooking or combining herbs with ghee. It is also used as internal oileation, which a process of ingesting increasing amounts of ghee over a series of mornings helping to pull fat-soluble toxins out of the cells and triggering fat metabolism, whereby the body begins to burn its own fat for fuel. This is one of the preparatory practices for the Panchakarma process.
Mung or moong beans are known in India as dal and were first domesticated in India around 1500 BC. They are small, cylindrical beans with a bright green skin. There are two main types of moong dal: one with the green hulls on, and the more easily digestible hulled and split yellow moong dal.
According to Ayurvedic food energetics, hulled-split yellow moong dal are sweet, astringent, and cooling in nature, they are balancing for all the doshas, and do not increase intestinal gas and bloating the way other legumes might because they are easier for the body to digest and assimilate.
These beans are a high source of protein and fiber supporting the balance of healthy blood sugar levels and colon regulation, and are considered highly effective in blocking the oxidation of LDL cholesterol particles due to their antioxidant properties. They are packed with vitamins A, C, K, E, B6, B12, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, and choline, and contain the following minerals : calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium.
There are many views on where rice originated in the world. In India rice was mentioned in the Vedas (first documents of India) around 5,000 years ago.
These ancient Ayurvedic writings refer to the use of rice and in current Ayurvedic thinking most use basmati or white rice because of its ease of cooking, digestion and assimilation in the body. Yes, it is true that brown rice (bran attached) does have a few more nutrients and roughage, but it is more difficult to digest especially during detoxification when the metabolism of the body slows down and the digestive strength weakens.
Rice, like most grains, is very low in the amino acids and is not a good source of protein on its own, but with the addition of legumes or lentils the combination is a complete protein, meaning that the rice/bean duo contains the nine essential amino acids that the body needs and cannot synthesize on their own. Animal proteins are “complete” in that they contain all nine essential amino acids, but plant foods need to be combined to make a complete protein.
White rice has a nutritional composition of about 90% carbohydrate, 8% protein and 2% fat. It contains Vitamin E, B6, thiamin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, choline, and the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, and fluoride.
The foundation of kitchari is the moong dal, rice, and ghee but the spices are its heart. When using combinations of spices and herbs, you not only make your meal delicious but you ensure proper digestion, assimilation, and elimination by incorporating their medicinal qualities and properties.
Ayurveda’s foundation is in the five great elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth), which are understood by the 10 pairs of opposite qualities (gunas) found in our environment which include hot-cold, wet-dry, heavy-light, mobile-stable.
The three doshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha) are combinations of the elements and can be controlled or changed by the use of opposite qualities to reduce their natures. All spices and herbs have these energetic qualities along with biomedical actions that can affect and treat a specific dosha, bringing balance.
The digestive process starts as soon as food comes into contact with the tongue. The receptors on the tongue identify each of the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent) which in turn stimulate the different stages of our digestion, assimilation, and elimination processes; stoke the digestive fire (agni); and help reduce ama (toxins from poor food combining, improper digestion as well as metabolic waste).
Most Ayurvedic spice blends start with a foundation of fennel, coriander, and cumin because of their basic digestive and assimilation qualities. You can add other specific spices based on their tastes and medicinal qualities to further balance your constitution and target individual concerns and conditions. Here are a few recommendations based on the three doshas: The Vata dosha requires warmth, wetness, heaviness and stability, so consider adding spices such as cardamom, basil, and/or rosemary. The Pitta dosha needs coolness, dryness, heaviness, and stability for balance, so you could include dill and/or mint. The Kapha dosha requires more heat, dryness, lightness, and mobility, so include mustard, cinnamon, and/or ginger. There are of course many more spices and herbs to consider using depending on your preferences and possible dietary or health needs.
Ayurveda believes that all disease and disharmony starts with disharmony in digestion; making an individualized spice blend is not only an inexpensive way to start affecting basic health concerns but is a way to introduce holistic health and medicine naturally and deliciously into your life.
Making spice blends usually requires having a dedicated coffee grinder for this purpose. If you are new to this I would suggest buying spices in powdered form instead. If you are not sure what your constitution is, the following tridoshic blend is balancing for all and can be assembled easily with spices found at your local store.
It is recommended and preferable when using spices to first cook them, in whatever oil you are using, in order to release their essential oils. For instance, when making kitchari or a stir-fry, place the fat or oil in the pan and cook the spices for a minute or two before adding the other ingredients. Using spices and herbs after cooking is fine and a good practice but cooking them will increase their medicinal attributes.
Kitchari for Cleansing
When considering doing a cleanse it is important to consider how your routine will affect your blood sugar levels. Many cleanses can over-purify the body by drinking only water, vinegar, infusions of pungent spices, juices, or by consuming only vegetables. This can strain and deplete blood sugar reserves, leaving you hungry and irritable, and possibly even instigating a low-blood-sugar headache.
The goal of any effective cleanse is to convince the body and the cells to burn stored fat and release toxins naturally. During an Ayurvedic kitchari cleanse you are eating a complete protein three meals a day; the blood sugar remains stable and there is no starvation response, which in turn does not create stress or anxiety. Your body will process and burn more fat and devote its energy to healing. You can safely subsist on kitchari anytime in order to build vitality and strength, as it helps balance all three doshas.
Jeff Perlman is a Clinical Ayurvedic & Pancha Karma Specialist, Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor, Certified Massage and Marma Therapist, a professional member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association and a Cordon Bleu Chef. He is available for private consultations. He leads annual trips to India. You can contact him at [email protected] or visit his website: threeseasonsayurveda.com