Saffron scented sweet rice was likely brought to India by Mughal invaders. It is one of the few dishes that was assimilated in the all the subcultures of the country, from the Kesar Bhaat served on Rakshabandhan in Hindu families to the Zarda Pulao eaten as breakfast during Ramadan by Muslims. Different versions, sweet, savory, those with milk and those without, are found in all Indian cuisines.
A mention of Hyderabadi zaafrani rice (a savory meat-rice-saffron version, a specialty of Hyderabad) in a movie gave my sister a craving for this old faithful. I was more than happy to oblige.
1 cup raw long grain rice (Basmati has the best fragrance)
2 tbsp unsalted butter, or ghee (clarified butter)
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup slivered pistachios
1 tbsp Cuddapah almonds/almondettes (optional. Chironji in Hindi.)
1 stick cinnamon
4 green cardamom pods, crushed
1 tbsp warm milk
1/2 tsp saffron (If you are not familiar with saffron, start with 1/4 tsp.)
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp raisins
– Soak rice in 4 cups of water for 30 minutes. Drain and keep aside.
– Soak the saffron in warm milk for 30 minutes.
– Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.
– Melt the butter/ghee in a heavy non-stick pan. (I used a anodized saucepan that can go directly from stove to oven.)
– Add the nuts and stir until the nuts are toasted and golden brown, about two minutes.
– Remove the nuts from the pan. Then add the cinnamon and cardamom to any butter remaining in the pan and heat on medium-high heat until they sizzle.
– Add the drained rice and stir until toasted, about five minutes. Then add 1 and 1/3 cup water and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally until the water is absorbed.
– Add the saffron soaked milk, sugar, raisins and half the nuts. Stir to combine. Turn off the heat.
– Cover the pan with lid/aluminum foil and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes.
– Remove and let the rice rest for ten minutes before uncovering. Gently stir, sprinkle the rest of the nuts on top and serve. (Remove the cinnamon and cardamom at this stage if you like.)
This is the perfect recipe for winter, considering that saffron, nuts and raisins are all ‘warm’ by nature. Delicately sweetened and deeply scented with saffron, it makes a delightful, festive dessert at the end of any meal.