[This article was originally published in Zomppa, the International food magazine.]
Rice is much treasured in India and is a dominant staple in Eastern, Southern and some parts of Western India. Indian cooking revolves around a variety of rice dishes. I have spoken earlier in one of my previous posts about the culinary heritage known as the royal Indian Biryani. But Indian rice variations will surprise many. Some Indian rice dishes require special varieties of rice. The popular rice varieties used commonly in a large number of rice dishes in India are: Dehradun rice, Patna rice, sona masoori, Bengali govindabhog and the evergreen basmati rice (which are long-grained and fragrant). The simple and inexpensive boiled rice makes some of the outstanding rice dishes. Rice powder, rice crispies and flaked rice (poha) are other variations, which are often used as a basic ingredient to prepare a number of other variations! In India, even the rice starch makes a nourishing drink which is often given to small children or older people for gaining weight and for general strength. This rice-starch drink also serves as an inexpensive source of nutrition to the poor.
The South-Indian idlis, dosais, and appams deserve a special mention. These preparations, which were once restricted only to the Southern India, are fast finding their presence in the global palate.
Steamed rice is generally eaten throughout India. The modern ways adopted to cook rice involve the use of pressure cooker, microwave and the rice cooker. But, the age-old method is still practised widely in India, which involves putting the soaked and drained rice into a hundi or a deep vessel of boiling water and boiling this till the rice is cooked. The vessel is then covered with a lid and the water is decanted until the last drop falls off.
Popular rice dishes in India
Cooked throughout India, khichri is another very popular comfort food. For the basic khichri, just heat some ghee in a pressure cooker and add bay leaves, whole red chillies, whole garam masala, cumin seeds and crushed ginger. Add halved potatoes, few cauliflower florets, peas and diced carrots. Coriander and cumin powders are added for the spicy flavor. Pre-soaked rice and mung dal (yellow mung pulses) are added to this and fried for some time. Extra water, along with tomatoes, green chillies, salt and turmeric powder are added and this is pressure-cooked till a runny consistency is reached.
The distinctive blend of ingredients in this royal Indian dish makes this unique rice preparation a unique gastronomical experience. Once the royal dish of the Mughal empire, it is now one of the most sought-after rice dishes in Indian restaurants across the world! Although earlier, this was often prepared with game meats such as deer, peacock, quail or goat, the most popular way of cooking biryani is definitely with the best-quality mutton. Vegetarian biryani also exists and is equally popular since India consists of a considerable number of Vegetarians. For more on the royal Indian biryani, click here.
This is a dessert and is often cooked on auspicious occasions. Rice is slow-cooked with milk, cashew nuts or almonds, raisins and cardamom powder. The sweetener can be sugar or jaggery. This is a heirloom preparation and has even found its mention in the ancient Indian epics. The Kashmiris, however, use rice powder to make a similar rice dessert, which is called phirni. Saffron and rose water are added in some kinds of kheer.
A must-have in Indian party menu, the pulav or pilaf, is an all-time favourite. The steamed rice (preferably the basmati variety) is fried in ghee, in which whole garam masala, bay leaves, cumin seeds, cashew nuts and raisins are added. Cooked meat, fish, eggs or fried, assorted vegetables are then added to the rice, along with salt.
5. Lemon rice
Generally prepared with boiled rice, this is a rice preparation which can be cooked in a jiffy. The pre-soaked and drained rice is boiled with a bit of turmeric and salt. The extra starch is then drained off. Now, in a wok, a few dried red chillies, mustard seeds and fresh curry leaves are added to hot oil. Roasted channa dal (Bengal gram), fried cashewnuts or peanuts and roasted fenugreek seeds are added in small amounts and the steamed yellow rice is added to the wok and stirred once, taking extra care not to break or mash the rice in the process. The gas is switched off and lemon juice is then added to the rice, along with freshly desiccated coconut.
6. Bise Bele Huli Anna (Hot lentil-tamarind rice)
This rice preparation from Karnataka has a magical blend of flavours. A comfort dish and a one-pot meal, it is now very popular in other parts of India, especially in corporate Mumbai. Cooked with yellow pigeon peas or toovar/tuvar dal, it is a spicy and tangy rice preparation with vegetables, such as peas, carrots, French beans, cauliflower, eggplants, cabbage and sweet potatoes. Tamarind, whole garam masala and ground pulses are the essential ingredients here. Puliogre is another kind of rice with tamarind and is also very popular in Southern India.
Vegetable fried rice
[Whole cinnamon sticks, green cardamoms, black peppercorns and cloves together constitute the whole garam masala.]
- Basmati rice (soaked for 10 min and the water being drained): 2.5 cups
- Ghee: 1 tbsp
- Oil: 1 tbsp
- Bay leaves: 2
- Cumin seeds: ½ tsp
- Whole cinnamon sticks (1 inch each): 2
- Green cardamoms: 2
- Black peppercorns: 4
- Cloves: 3
- Salt (divided): 2 tsp
- Raisins: ½ cup
- Cashew nuts: ½ cup
- Green peas: ¼ cup
- Cauliflower florets: 1 cup
- Carrots (cut as shown in the picture below): 1 cup
Heat the oil and fry each of the vegetables separately with a little salt. Then fry the cashew nuts and raisins separately and keep aside. This step has to be done on high heat.
Now head ghee in a wok and add the bay leaves, whole garam masala and cumin seeds. Wait till the cumin seeds turn brownish. Now add the drained rice to the wok and fry for 1 min over medium flame. Add the fried vegetables, cashew nuts and raisins and mix everything together. Add salt to this and fry for another 3 min.
Transfer this rice mixture to a rice cooker and fill it up with water just a little more than that required to just immerse the whole rice mixture. Do not add extra water, otherwise the rice grains would be over-cooked. Adding the right amount of water while cooking the fried rice is a very important step. Adding more water lets the fried rice look like khichri. The perfect fried rice is the one in which each rice grain is separate after cooking.