Recipe: Saffron Rice Pilaf

Recipe: Saffron Rice Pilaf

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Saffron pulao is an elegant accompaniment to your favorite Indian dishes and is traditionally served as part of Indian festival meals. Saffron, being one of the most expensive spices in the world, adds to the mystery and fragrance of this dish. It is definitely a keeper when you want to make an everyday dinner special.

I like to serve this when I have guests coming over and I want something more special than plain steamed rice. I also add lightly toasted cashews and raisins to my pulao, and they add a delicious sweet and nutty element to the pulao.

Pulaos — or pilafs, as they are often also called — can be made with several different ingredients, like seasonal vegetables and meats, and are very regional. The difference between pulao and biriyani is that biriyani is a layered rice dish, while a pulao tends to be cooked all together. Pulaos are also traditional all over the Middle East, and not just the sub-continent.

This saffron pulao can also be turned into biriyani rice by layering it with slow cooked meats, seafood or vegetables.

See our tutorial for cooking perfect basmati rice for step-by-step instructions:

How To Cook Perfect Basmati Rice

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Saffron Rice Pulao

Makes 4 to 5 cups

1 1/2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or neutral oil
5 whole green cardamom pods, lightly smashed but left whole
5 whole cloves
2-inch piece whole cassia bark, broken (or 1 cinnamon stick, left whole)
2 whole bay leaves
1 whole star anise
2 cups basmati rice (do not soak)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, to taste
3 cups boiling water
Generous pinch of saffron threads, soaked in a little warm water
Small handful toasted cashew nuts and raisins, to garnish

Warm the ghee in a heavy pot with a well fitting lid over medium heat. Add the cardamom, cloves, cassia bark or cinnamon, bay leaves and star anise and sauté for one minute, until the spices are fragrant. Add the rice and salt, and cook gently for an additional 2 minutes, until the rice is coated with the spices and is aromatic.

Pour in the boiling water and the saffron. Let the water come to a boil, then turn the heat down to just above the lowest setting. Cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil, crimping it at the edges so it forms a tight seal, and place a lid on top. Use oven mitts to do this if the pot rim is hot.

Cook, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, move the pot off the heat and let it sit for an additional 5 minutes.

Uncover the rice, and fluff it up with a fork. Stir in the cashews and raisins, if using and serve.

Recipe Notes

  • You can make various kinds of pulao rice dishes using this method for saffron rice. Vegetables would go in just after the spices, and get cooked for a couple of minutes before adding rice. Add a teaspoon of garam masala to the vegetables, and let the spice mix cook out for an extra burst of flavor.
  • You can also make a sweet version of this pulao (a traditional Mangalorean/ Goan version), which goes brilliantly with spicy food. Instead of adding the salt, add 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar plus a pinch of salt to the rice. Leave out the saffron, and stir in sweet, caramelized onions, toasted cashews and lightly fried raisins at the end. Use ghee for the best flavor.
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