The desi version of a healthy soup

Kanji or kanji water made of different rice varieties offers not just nutrition but also a lot of comfort

Now that the rains are making their reluctant appearance, I long for kanji (rice gruel). It evokes memories of our annual childhood holiday in a small village on the banks of the Periyar river in Kerala. We were 18 grandchildren and, almost every year, at least a dozen would gather to spend time with our grandparents. So kanji for dinner was the only feasible option.

At 7.30 pm, we would line up on a mat on the floor. The steel plates and spoons fashioned out of jackfruit leaves would be laid out. We were served two ladles of hot red rice kanji, a blob of coconut chutney and green gram poriyal on a small strip of banana leaf set beside the plate. While the jar of salt mixed with water went around, we would try to get a bite of each other’s pappadam. After dinner, my aunt would pour water into the leftover kanji, if any, and keep it in an earthen pot. This, along with some pickle or leftover gravy stored in a kalchatti, was next morning’s breakfast for the adults.

My aunt reminisced, “The kanji would be of Chitteni, Onattan,Vatton, Navara or Erumakkari red rice — grown, parboiled and milled, bran mostly intact . Everything, except the pappadam made by a neighbouring family, was cultivated and processed by us. I don’t think many farmers grow these paddy varieties now.”

The preferred mid-morning drink/meal was kanji water flavoured with a little salt and pickle. Before pressure cooking came into vogue, rice was cooked in an open vessel with lots of water, which was then drained into another vessel and kept aside. Passers-by would ask for kanji water if they stopped for a drink .

Kanji made with different varieties of rice tastes different. Red rice kanji is arguably the best. But I have recently fallen love with kanji made with Ilupai poo samba (a white rice) and semi-polished karuppu kavuni black rice (almost purple in colour and rich in taste). We use coconut chutney, roasted gram chutney, tuvar chutney, ridge gourd thuvaiyal or any of the numerous chutneys that are an integral part of the South Indian cuisine. Kanjis can also be flavoured with steamed greens like moringa leaves and curry leaves or cooked along with green gram. Kanji is usually made of broken rice, as it gets cooked faster.

Three years ago, when we were visiting organic seed saver paddy farmers in Karnataka we stayed with Nandish, an innovative rice farmer. We had a wonderful surprise in the morning: a small bowl of leftover rice was mixed with buttermilk and chopped onions and accompanied by another bowl of sprouted groundnuts, green gram and Bengal gram. Nandish said, “The only thing better than this is the water in which the rice was soaked. This is the best source of Vitamin B12 for vegetarians.”

Red rice kanji and kanji water are used extensively in Ayurveda as part of the diet and during treatment. According to Ayurveda practitioners, kanji cures fatigue, removes toxins, stimulates the appetite and helps facilitate bowel movements. In Kerala, medicinal kanjis, prepared using medicinal rices like Navara, Raktasali and herbs, are consumed during Aadi (Karkidakam).

I see adoption of kanji and kanji water as a way to rediscover our own version of healthy soups instead of chasing artificially flavoured soups. Why don’t we introduce it to our children on a rainy evening in a soup bowl, with some roasted pappadam crisps or and green gram on the side? They may actually surprise us and enjoy it.

Right in many ways

It is a convenience food

It is delicious and wholesome

It is easy to cook

It is a great one-pot meal

It is local and seasonal

Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty is the Co-Founder of Bio Basics, a social venture retailing organic food and a Consultant to the Save Our Rice Campaign. Contact her at 9790516500