In Praise of Pulao
If you’ve stopped by to have a dekko at my blog, you’ve probably gathered that I am rather partial to pulao. Hence the name of the blog -- Hoi Pulao. It’s also my attempt at cleverness, you understand -- hoi polloi, hoi pulao – well, you get the picture. Admittedly, fragrant, ghee-soaked pulao is not something that one tends to associate with the so-called “masses”. But I firmly believe that pulao – in its infinite, glorious variety – ought to be claimed by all.
Of course, I am what is called a bheto Bangali. I love my bhaat (rice) to go with dal, veggies or machher jhole (spicy fish stew). But I have always felt that nothing lifts rice to quite the level of sublimeness as it does when it’s mixed with some aromatic ghee. Tucking into a plate of steaming hot rice sprinkled with some golden, home-made ghee and a pinch of salt was probably the nearest thing to ecstasy that I experienced as a child. The ghee used to be stored in small ceramic jars, their mouths covered with a piece of muslin and tied with a string. To me they were like pots of nectar and I am not ashamed to say that there were days when I insisted that I would eat nothing but ghee bhaat before leaving for school.
The pulao is the apotheosis of the humble ghee bhaat. The thing is, it’s so ubiquitous – and often rendered in such pedestrian fashion – that it’s easy to forget that it can be a dish fit for the gods. I am all for quickie, cheat recipes that are good to taste – but I am a complete purist as far as pulao is concerned. And I shudder when I am faced with the abomination of a poorly done fried rice masquerading as a pulao (par-boiled rice and cooked peas stirred in ghee -- or more likely, dalda -- steamed some more, and, hey presto, there’s peas pulao for you!). A true pulao, no matter what you add to it – jeera, peas, mixed veg, mutton, etcetera – is one where Basmati rice is cooked in ghee and retains its own fragrant starch. It’s where each grain of rice is perfectly done, and yet remains separate from the other. It’s high art, but more importantly, it’s absolutely the last word in comfort food.
I cook a variety of pulaos, depending on my mood, and the amount of chopping, cutting and organizing I feel up to. A Jeera pulao is probably the fastest to turn out, whereas a Yakhni Pulao or a Moti Pulao (pulao with meat balls) or a biryani need considerable amount of time and effort. The Bengali sweet pulao with cashews and raisins is a great, comparatively hassle-free dish. I love to eat it on its own because it’s so delicious. You could serve it with a dark, rich mutton curry if you like.
Mishti Pulao with Kaju and Kishmish
(Sweet Pulao with Cashews and Raisins)
2 cups long-grained Basmati rice
One and a half inch piece of ginger chopped into fine juliennes
A few sticks of cinnamon
7-8 cardamom pods, their mouths cracked open
Two bay leaves
100 g cashews
50 g raisins
5 tablespoons of ghee
One tablespoon of sugar
3 cups of water
Salt to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons of ghee in a kadhai. Lightly fry the cashews till they take on a pale golden colour. Remove with a slotted spoon and keep aside. Now drop the raisins in the hot ghee. They’ll swell up like grapes almost immediately. Remove and keep aside.
Wash and drain the rice and keep it ready for use.
Add the remaining ghee to the kadhai. With the heat turned to medium, drop the whole garam masala (cinnamon, cardamom and cloves) and give it a stir. Then add the chopped ginger and fry lightly. Now add the rice and gently stir it in the ghee for just a bit.
In a deep, heavy bottomed pan pour 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Transfer the rice along with the spices and two bay leaves into it. Add a pinch of salt. Lower the heat and cover the pan. The rice will be done once all the liquid is absorbed. It usually takes about 15 minutes. But this is where things get a bit tricky – and a lot depends on your judgment. You have to check the rice frequently and you may need to add sprinklings of hot water to it if you find the liquid drying up too quickly. When the rice is half done, add the sugar, pick up the pan and give it a good shake to distribute the sugar around. Do not stir. When you feel the rice is ready, add the fried cashews and raisins and give the pan a few more vigorous shakes. The nuts and raisins will render some more sweetness into the pulao. The result? Ought to be heavenly if you’ve got it right.