what are rice, pulao and biryani?

Rice, pulao and biryani refer to different types of rice dishes.

What we call rice is often a simple dish. The rice is cooked by the absorption method, or boiled, or steamed. It usually is just cooked with water. Having said that, the addition of cumin seeds or caraway seeds is common. It is usually served as side dish to a main meal, but can sometimes be a course in its own right.

Biryani is at the opposite end of the scale. It is often a meal on its own, or at least a course on its own. It is never a side dish. It is typically served on festive occasions. It is quite complex to prepare, because it is what could be called an assembled dish, with many parts being cooked separately, then brought together for final preparation. In fact, it is less a rice dish and more a dish in which rice is an ingredient.

Pulao sits somewhere between these two. Characteristically it is a one-pot dish with all the ingredients cooked together – but not always. It can be served as a side dish, or a course on its own, depending on the complexity of the finished dish.

There are also a number of other dishes that use rice that are not covered here. A particular favourite of mine are rice cakes – idli – which are made from fermented rice batter. Let us not overlook kitchri, the original basis of kedgeree, which is a dish of rice and lentils cooked together. And then there is kheer, or Indian rice pudding. These will all be posted shortly.

Rice is an amazing product. According to the United Nations, it is the staple diet of half of the world’s people and its cultivation uses almost 20% of the world’s available labour. There are many varieties of rice, but for our purposes we will generally refer to basmati rice.

There are just a few things to master about cooking rice. The first is to use a good rice. The best basmati rice, in my opinion, comes from Pakistan and is commonly available in supermarkets. If not, a visit to your Indian grocer will be required.

a bowl of plain basmati rice
plain basmati rice

I advocate against buying large quantities, like the sacks of rice they have on offer. Whilst it may be convenient, it may be what they claim is “restaurant quality”, and whilst it may well be good rice, unless you prepare and eat rice in industrial quantities, a 10kg sack will just be infested with moths before you finish it. At a big 200g serving size, a 10kg sack will make around a hundred servings. If you eat Indian food two or three times a week, are a family of four, then that is about three months’ supply.

Remember too, that basmati rice is not a general purpose rice and is not really suitable for Asian or European dishes. You are going to either have a big family, lots of guests, or eat a lot of Indian food to call for that sort of purchase.

The second thing is to remember that rice is at its best when it has been washed and allowed to soak.

The third thing is to cook rice gently. Cooked to long, at too high a temperature, with frequent stirring will just produce mush.

At this point, let me say that using a microwave to cook rice is a fast path to poor rice. Let me also say that rice cookers are not a good choice either. Just fine for cooking rice in the Asian style, but not too good at doing these rice dishes. Forego their claimed ease of use and do it properly. Not that much harder and the results are noticeable.

Simple rice dishes are best with non-vegetarian main dishes. Absorption method is the best and most common approach. Boiling is rare, except in certain circumstances and steaming produces a quite different result. I will post a recipe for a steamed rice dish in the near future.

Pulao is best to be served with vegetarian dishes, or if you keep it simple, as a side dish in a feast. Pulao came to India from Persia and has a distinctly Arabic feel and taste. It can have nuts and dried fruit and is often cooked in stock, rather than water. Vegetables, meat or fish are sometimes added, but it still the rice as the focal part of the dish. Colour is an important part of pulao, as is the use of saffron. Pulao tends to feature mostly in the northern parts of India, particularly where the Mughul influence occurred.

a bowl of vegetable pulao
vegetable pulao

Our common, but simple, pulao is a mix of white and yellow rice. The yellow rice has been fried in ghee, then cooked in stock with saffron. It is mixed with the plain white rice, then we add cashews, pistachios and dried fruit. Another favourite is a simple vegetable pulao, which is rice cooked with mildly spiced vegetables. The Kashmiri pulao is an interesting variant with its slightly sweet, saffron infused taste.

Each region in India has its own version of biryani. They vary so much that it could be best defined as “rice and things cooked together in layers”. In a biryani, the meat, vegetables and rice are cooked separately, then are layered and baked for final cooking. The name biryani comes from the Persian term meaning “fry before cooking”.

The main biryani styles are the fiery South Indian or Andhra style, the exquisite Royal Awadhi or Lucknavi style and the delicate Punjabi style.

Our favourite is the Lucknavi biryani, largely, I think, because it comes from my father’s heritage. It is a classic lamb and rice dish, deserving of a special occasion for it to be served. It will take a day or so for marination of the ingredients and the best part of a day to cook. But it is spectacular dish.

a platter of lamb biryani, Lucknow style
Lucknow lamb biryani

Do not be overwhelmed when you see a biryani recipe. It isn’t too hard to prepare if you take time and don’t rush it.


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