A poem should be written on the uses of leftover rice. There’s something wonderful about how something so humdrum can get turned into such a variety of delicious things. While there are endless varieties of rice, each with their own distinctive taste and texture, for most cooks plain white rice presents a convenient blank canvas on which to experiment with a variety of flavors and textures. Indians, and south Indians in particular, consume a great deal of rice, and, consequently, there’s never any shortage of rice leftover from meals, which leads to a stunning variety of ingenious rice-based dishes. Of the very many, though, chitranna has to be one of my personal favorites.
Essentially just a stir-fry of rice, spices, peanuts, curry leaves, fried lentils and a good dash of lime juice, chitranna manages to become so much more than the sum of its parts. Its bright color, its contrast of flavors and textures, all work together to make something really memorable that you can pull together in minutes for a delicious weekday lunch.
A note on leftover rice:
Apart from the romance of turning plain old rice into a gorgeous golden pilaf, there is, in fact, a practical reason why you should use leftover rice in this dish. Freshly cooked rice is full of moisture and can often become gummy and starchy when you try to stir-fry it. Day-old rice, or even rice that is a couple of days old has had a chance to dry out a bit, making it easier to stir-fry. If you don’t have any leftover rice, not to worry, just cook your rice in plenty of salted water till just done, then drain and spread on a sheet pan till cool and dry—at least an hour or two.
A note on ingredients:
Black mustard seeds are a mainstay of South Indian cooking. They add a musky, spicy note to dishes when cooked in oil. I don’t recommend substituting regular (yellow) mustard seeds. You can buy them through online spice retailers or in New York City, try Kalustyan’s or Sahadi’s or your local Indian grocery store.
Urad dhal, also called uddina bele in Kannada, are small lentils commonly used throughout India. Make sure to use the (white) split and hulled lentils for this recipe. You can buy them at your local Indian grocery store, where they are often sold as black matpe beans.
2 cups cooked white rice, preferably leftover from a previous meal (see note)
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp split, hulled urad dhal
1 branch fresh curry leaves, stripped from the stem
2 dried red chiles, broken in half, seeds reserved or discarded depending on taste
¼ cup toasted, skin-on peanuts
½ red onion, peeled and finely sliced
½ tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste
Lime juice to taste
Measure out all your ingredients and have them at the ready. This dish comes together very quickly, so you have to work fast to make sure that none of your ingredients burn.
In a large wok or a kadhai (if you have one), heat the vegetable oil over high heat till it begins to shimmer. In quick succession, add the mustard seeds and urad dhal. Stir constantly till the mustard seeds turn grey and begin to pop and the dhal has turned a very light golden brown.
Add the dried red chiles, peanuts, and curry leaves and stand back. The curry leaves will sputter impressively when they hit the oil. Stir quickly and let cook for 10-15 seconds until the leaves and the chiles are shiny and lightly blistered from the oil.
Add the turmeric powder and stir to combine with the oil. Next, add the onions and cook, stirring often till they have given up some of their moisture and have become limp and lightly coloured.
Add the rice and turn the heat down to medium. Stir well to combine the rice with the seasoned oil and spices. Add salt to taste. Cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring often, to make sure that the rice doesn’t stick to the pan.