Mughal Rice Pilaf

Gilding the table

By Tim Hazell (Dec 1, 2006)

Like all of the world’s truly great cuisines, Indian cooking has a distinctive architecture of its own. Culinary arts remain largely oral traditions, passed on as heirlooms or through skills acquired under rigorous apprenticeship.

Indian chefs regard themselves as artists, normally specializing in a particular genre and technique, becoming masters of pilaus, barbeques or spit cooking, kormas or braised meats, and vegetarian cooking. Sweets makers work alchemy with all manner of exotic ingredients — almond paste, rose water, pistachios, musk and sandalwood, rose petal jams and a multitude of preserved fruits.

Indian food can be hot and pungent, but many dishes are delicately flavored. Recipes derive their unique characteristics from as few as 5 — or as many as 50 — spices and herbs. Yogurt is to the Indian chef what wine is to the French, and many dishes make liberal use of this ingredient as a base or tenderizing agent with spices to permeate and enhance the flavor of foods prior to cooking. Fresh-cut vegetables with lemon juice or vinegar dressing, hearty lentil soups (dahl), relishes such as chutneys for sweet and cool accents, and pickles for sour and hot — all these gild the Indian table. A typical meal is served in thali, dishes that hold rice and bread staples, surrounded by smaller receptacles for curries, vegetables, dahl, salads and relishes.

Within the realm of rice cookery, pilaus represent crowning achievements in India and the Middle East. The rice of preference is basmati, grown at the foothills of the Himalayas. Innovations by the Arabs, Turks and Mughals resulted in a myriad of variations, including biryani, a Mughal rice delicacy. Paella may have been introduced into Spain by the Arabs as a hybrid form of North African pilaf.

The following recipe is a personal favorite and never fails to make a grand entrance. This dish serves four to six guests with ease yet also refrigerates beautifully, a bonus for busy people. It takes time to prepare, but the results are well worth the effort!

Mughal Rice Pilaf (with a meatless variation)

4 tablespoons peanut or olive oil for frying
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 inches peeled ginger root, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons powdered turmeric
1/2 cup fresh cilantro (plus a few mint leaves, if available), chopped
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, freshly ground (optional)
6 to 8 whole cloves, freshly ground
2 inches cinnamon stick
A good pinch black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or 2 fresh chiles, seeded and finely chopped
Pinch of grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon saffron (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar, unrefined preferred
2 teaspoons salt
2 chicken breast fillets, cubed, or substitute 1 cup of whole cashew nuts and 1/2 cup plump raisins
6 tablespoons unsweetened yogurt
2 cups basmati rice

Heat oil in a large saucepan until hot, add the cumin seeds, sizzle and brown. Add chopped onions, garlic, minced ginger root, turmeric powder and half the chopped cilantro, sautéeing until it wilts and is just golden but still tender. Reduce heat to medium low. Add freshly ground cardamom seeds, cloves, cinnamon stick, black and cayenne pepper or fresh chiles, and add a pinch of grated nutmeg. Add sugar and salt, and saffron if desired. Stir to combine the spices with the onions, garlic, turmeric and ginger root. Increase heat to medium and add cubed chicken breast, stirring until the pieces lose their pink color and turn pale yellow. At this stage, 1 cup of cashew nuts and 1/2 cup of raisins may be added as a substitute for the chicken, if vegetarian is preferred. In this case, I would recommend a legume, such as lentil soup (moong dahl), be served on the side for more complete nutrition. Add the yogurt to the meat, spices and chopped ingredients 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring to allow some of the liquid to evaporate. The mixture should have sufficient liquid to moisten the rice, without being too thin. Fold in the reserved chopped cilantro. Turn off the heat.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Have a wooden spoon handy. When contents are at a rolling boil, add the two cups of basmati rice to the pot. As the water returns to the boil, stir the rice grains with the wooden spoon, taking care that they do not stick to the bottom of the pot. The grains will “jump” to the surface as the water boils. After four minutes of cooking, pour the rice directly into a colander and allow to drain. Place the rice at the bottom of an oven-proof casserole. Add the pilaf mixture and fold gently together until evenly distributed. Seal the casserole with a layer of aluminum foil. This is called a “dum” and is traditionally done with a ribbon of dough. Cover and place in a 350°F oven for 45 minutes, reducing the heat to 325°F after the first 20 minutes of cooking. Turn the oven off and let stand a further half hour.

The pilaf is ready to serve sprinkled with extra cilantro and mint but is more elegant and festive garnished with caramelized onion slices, raisins, slivered almonds and garlic, lightly sautéed and drained on paper towels, to decorate the top of the rice dish. Accompany with condiments such as chutneys or mango pickle, cucumber and yogurt and/or banana and yogurt salads (raitas), cauliflower topped with fried garlic, onions and turmeric, or other side dishes.

Serves 4 to 6 as a main course.

Original Article in the Archives of Atención San Miguel