Perfect rice

Pilau rice with turmeric and peas  

Pilau rice with turmeric and peas  

Cooking perfect rice is one of the essential skills in Indian home cooking. And the secret to this art? Buy the right rice and you're halfway there.

I would never recommend buying rice from the supermarket, you need to get yourself to an Indian grocery shop and find the best Basmati you can. Look for aged Basmati rice, beautiful long fragrant grains which will cook separately (Indian rice should never be soft and mushy).

You can even buy Sela Basmati, which is parboiled before milling to preserve its nutrients, and cooks even faster. Most Pakistani Basmati is good, a couple of the brands I buy include Dawaat, Lal Qila and Kohinoor. The rice comes in big five kilo bags, but it will last for ages.

The next trick is soaking the rice before you cook it. Always wash it well, and then leave it to rest in the water you are going to cook it in for at least 15 minutes, though half an hour is better.  In terms of the ratio of rice to water, I use 1:2 - a cup of rice (usually enough for four people) and 2 cups of water. You want the water level to be about an inch higher than the level of the rice in the pan.

To cook the rice, turn your heat to high and bring it to a boil. As soon as it boils, turn the heat down to very low, partially cover with a lid and cook for 10-12 minutes until all the water has evaporated, then turn the heat off. Put the lid on fully and leave the rice to keep cooking in its own steam for another 10 minutes, if you have an electric stove just keep it on the warm hob.

Always fluff the rice up before serving, you can drizzle in some olive oil or a spoon of butter or ghee.

There are infinite variations for flavouring rice as you cook it, and I have included a few below.  All quantities are based on a one cup serve of rice. If you are cooking more than a cup, you probably want to increase the amounts by one and a half.

Basic rice

Add a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of olive oil to the cooking water.... include this in all variations below.

 Jeera rice

Add a teaspoon of cumin seeds along with the salt and oil.

 Turmeric rice

Add half a teaspoon of turmeric along with the salt and oil, with or without cumin seeds as well.

Pilau rice

Whole garam masala adds a beautiful fragrance to your rice. Add a bay leaf, 3-4 cloves, 2-3 cardamom, a few peppercorns and a stick of cinnamon.  You can also fry these in a bit of oil first, then add the raw rice and water, but simply adding them to the water is fine.

You can also include half a teaspoon of cumin seeds, and half a teaspoon of turmeric.

Cooking liquid

Another easy variation is to change the cooking liquid. Instead of water, you can use stock (homemade chicken stock is amazing with all the whole spices), or even coconut milk.

Another option is to add a quartered tomato, or include some tomato passata in the liquid. Throwing in some frozen peas as the rice cooks is also nice.


All sorts of garnishes work well on rice, especially if you have made a lovely yellow pea pilau, or a fragrant rice with stock.

Chopped herbs, coriander, spring onions or mint, or a bit of red chilli for colour are perfect.

Deep fried shallots or onions give a lovely crunchy texture, and this also pairs well with sliced hard boiled eggs.

There are so many more delicious ways to cook rice, lovely pilaus with lots of veggies, khichri, which is rice cooked with lentils, and lots of rice variaties to use, like brown and red rice.

I'll be posting some of these more complex recipes separately this year, so stay tuned.

Lamb biryani


Biryani is one of India's oldest dishes, first eaten at the courts of the Mughal emperors in the 1600's.  Biryanis were traditionally lavish, full of meats, dried fruit and nuts, the best rice, saffron and silver leaf.  My mum's mum made an incredible biryani on days of celebration in our family, and mum continues the tradition.  I feel lucky to be able to make it myself, and hope my children will also learn one day.  

The recipe below is for an easy version of biryani - one that takes an hour or two (depending on whether you use a pressure cooker - my mum does, I don't) rather than several.  Don't be put off by the seemingly long list of ingredients, it's actually not too hard to put together.  Perfect for a winter weekend feast.

For 6 people you will need:

750 grams of diced lamb (forequarters, chops... it needs to be a bit bony)

3 medium onions, sliced finely

1 cup of oil

1 cup of yoghurt

1 tablespoon each of crushed garlic and ginger

1 chopped tomato

1/2 a teaspoon of turmeric powder

2 teaspoons of chilli powder

1 teaspoon of ground coriander

1 teaspoon of ground cumin

3-4 bay leaves

1 teaspoon of whole cloves

3 large black cardamom

1 teaspoon of peppercorns

1 teaspoon of shah jeera (black cumin)

1 star anise

1 cinnamon stick

3 cups of basmati rice, rinsed and soaked for half an hour in 6 cups of water

1/2 a teaspoon of saffron

1 tablespoon of ghee

salt and sugar

Start by marinating your meat in a large, non-reactive bowl: add the yoghurt, turmeric, chilli, ground coriander and cumin powders, ginger and garlic, mix and leave aside (if you have time you can marinate this the night before).

The next and one of the most important steps in biryani making is the onions.  You need to basically deep fry them crisp and golden brown, don't worry about the oil you can drain a lot of it once they are fried.  This onion mix is called birista, see the photo below.

To fry the onions, heat the cup of oil in a large, heavy pot, add the sliced onions and fry well, stirring often until they are crispy and golden.  With a slotted spoon, remove them from the oil and drain them on kitchen roll or newspaper... this gets a lot of the oil out.

If you are using the same pot to cook the lamb, drain it of most of the oil, turn the heat back on, add the onions back in and then the marinated lamb.  Next add the chopped tomato and all the whole spices (bay, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and shah jeera), a heaped teaspoon of salt and a spoon of sugar, a little bit of water (like a quarter of a cup) and cook on low for 1.5 to 2 hours until the lamb is tender, stirring occasionally to ensure a nice thick, dark brown gravy is developing.  If you are using a pressure cooker (which takes the least time), you need to cook it for 30 minutes only.

Once the lamb is on, cook the rice.  You should have 3 cups soaked in 6 cups of water, add a teaspoon of salt, a glug of oil and bring it to boil.  Turn down the heat to low and cover, then cook for 10-12 minutes or until all the water is absorbed.  Once it is cooked, add a tablespoon of ghee and stir in.

Once the rice and lamb is cooked, the next step is to assemble the biryani.  Layer the meat in a large oven dish, and follow with the rice.  You can do one layer of each, or a few layers, but always end with the rice.  

Take your saffron and put it in a tiny bowl with a couple of tablespoons of hot water, which will turn orange.  Swirl this on the top of the rice to give it lovely yellow streaks.

Cover the dish with a lid or foil, and put this in the oven on medium heat - around 180 degrees celsius, for about half an hour.  When it is ready, you can serve it topped with silver leaf, or fried onion, or some toasted slivered almonds or other nuts.

Serve with raita or kachumber.



Tomato rice pilau


It's comfort food time of the year and this tomato rice is as close to comfort food as you can get. I made this to eat with my coconut vegetable stew, according to an old recipe that my Nana used to make, I remember the flavours from when I was very young.

To make rice for four people you will need:

1 cup of good quality basmati rice (it's all about the quality of the rice)

1 tablespoon of oil

1 large tomato, grated or blended till pulpy

1 small stick of cinnamon

1 bay leaf

2-3 cloves

1 teaspoon of black peppercorns

1-2 cardamom pods

1 teaspoon of salt (or to taste)

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan and when hot, add all the whole spices.  When they start to smell nice, add the tomato and stir fry for a couple of minutes until the mixture is mushy. 

Rinse the rice well and add to the pan.  Top up with a little less than 2 cups of cold water (the normal ratio of rice to water is 1:2 but with tomato adds to the quantity of liquid).  The water should sit an inch above the level of the rice.  Add a teaspoon of salt, and bring the rice to boil, uncovered. 

As soon as it boils, turn the heat down to low, cover the pan at an angle so a little steam still gets out, and cook for 10-12 minutes until the water is fully absorbed.  At this stage place the cover on tightly, and leave on the stove for another 10 minutes or so until the rice is fully steamed.  Fluff up with a fork and serve.