Chitrannam is a traditional vegetarian rice dish, with origins linked to the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in India. Telugu is the language spoken in Andhra Pradesh. In Telugu, Chitrannam is a blending of two words – ‘Chitra’ and ‘Annam’ (side note for the curious – check this link for a thought on how many Indian languages blend words.) ‘Chitra’ means magical or wondrous, and ‘Annam’ means cooked rice. Once you’ve eaten this dish, you will agree with that nomenclature.
Chitrannam is commonly known as Lemon Rice to most Indians. Although the name of this dish suggests use of lemons, the terms ‘lemon’ and ‘lime’ are used interchangeably in India. If you visit the vegetable markets in India, you will soon discover that the reference is really to limes. The color of Indian limes varies between green, yellow and greenish-yellow. They are typically smaller than the gigantic ones that you find in American grocery stores. On several occasions I’ve picked up a large and lovely looking lemon from an American grocery store only to bring it home and find out the thickness of the skin is about a third of the diameter of the lemon and that I can barely get a tablespoon of juice out of it. Not the case with Indian limes – their skin is very thin and pliable, so the size you see is the size you get. The juice packs a punch and sometimes one lime can go a long way to acidify your dish. When I make lemon rice now, I prefer to use the limes that are available in my grocery store and not lemons. Lemons are relatively sweeter than limes and are well suited for dishes that need a light and delicate acidic hint to them. Limes on the other hand are more assertive in their sourness and work well in dishes that need a bold sourness to balance savory flavors.
Anyway, back to Chitrannam. Even though this dish originates from the state of Andhra Pradesh, it is commonly made in most South Indian states during festival times or religious ceremonies. Since it is also an easy dish to whip up in a short time, it is a popular choice for the lunch box or everyday dinner table. Chitrannam makes a perfect picnic side dish for a summer afternoon. An authentic lemon rice should be pale yellow in color that comes from the use of turmeric. The rice grains should be separate and not sticky. The first taste that hits your palate should be of the tang of lime juice combined with the heat of the chillies. Accompanying flavors and textures result from the use of fresh curry leaves, mustard seeds, cumin, urad daal, channa daal, peanuts, dry red chiles, fresh jalapeños and green peas. Asafetida, an optional ingredient, adds a light umami taste. Fresh grated coconut is frequently used as a garnish. I’ve eaten versions of lemon rice that use a tiny amount – about 1/4 teaspoon – of finely ground black mustard seeds mixed into the dish that adds a delectable hint of bitterness to the dish. I use finely diced ginger in my version for its spicy bitterness. By the way, if you are a purist cook, hold that lime zest for another recipe – zesting of lemons or limes for cooking is an unknown concept in Indian cooking.
Makes about 5 cups of loosely packed rice Cooking time: 30 minutes Ingredients: 2 cups raw basmati rice 8 tbsps fresh lime juice (from 2 to 3 limes) 1/2 tsp turmeric powder 4 tsps canola or vegetable oil 1 tsp black mustard seeds 1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds 1/4 tsp asafetida 6-10 fresh curry leaves 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger 2 tbsps channa daal 2 tbsps urad daal 2 to 4 dry red chiles, split into halves 1 cup dry roasted unsalted peanuts, skins removed 1 cup frozen green peas 2 tbsps finely chopped fresh cilantro salt to taste Method: In a large stockpot, combine the basmati rice and 8 cups water. Add 1 tbsp salt. Cook just like you would cook pasta. When the rice is done cooking, use a fine colander to completely discard all the cooking water from the rice. Spread the cooked rice in a shallow bowl. Sprinkle the lime juice over the rice, along with turmeric powder and salt to taste. No need to stir at this time because the rice may get gummy. Set aside to cool. While the rice is cooling, preheat a saucepan on medium. Add the vegetable or canola oil, followed by mustard seeds. When mustard seeds start popping, toss in the cumin seeds, asafetida, curry leaves, chopped ginger, channa daal, urad daal, dry red chillies and roasted peanuts. Stir the mixture and let cook to the point that the daals are turning to a light golden color. Now incorporate the frozen peas and chopped cilantro into the pan, along with a bit of salt. Remove from heat, and combine with the cooked rice. Adjust salt to taste. For added spice, mix in fresh chopped jalapeños or crushed red chilli flakes at this stage. Note - the best utensils for mixing this rice are your fingers. That's because you will know right away if your rice is turning too gummy as a result of overly zealous mixing. The next best thing to fingers is a rubber spatula.