In essence, a Pulao / Pilau is a rice dish compromised of fried onions, aromatic spices and a 2nd component which can be a meat (see – Lamb Pilau), vegetable (see – Mattar Pilau) or legume (see – Chana Pilau) (exception made for zeera pilau, which is just Pilau rice with cumin seeds). For the sake of this post, I will refer to the 2nd component of the Pulao / Pilau artistically as ‘the 2nd component’.
Cooking a good Pilau / Pulao dish used be a challenging feat for me in the early days of my culinary adventures.
I used to be confused a lot by the process of everything – How many onions do I use? Do I use tomatoes? Green chillis? – my in-laws use tons! What is the correct rice/water ratio? Do I realllyyyy have to soak my rice?
With the help of YouTube videos, blog recipes and of course my family members, I managed to learn the ins and outs of making Pulao / Pilau. Now I think I make it pretty good if I do say so myself!
Every region has their own kind of Pilau / Pulao. For example, I learnt that the Karachi style of making Chicken Pilau often uses fennel seeds (saunf) and tomatoes, whereas the Punjabi style, as I have written a recipe for here, doesn’t.
As you get more familiar with cooking a Pilau / Pulao, you will settle into your own groove and will grow to learn your own and your families preferences. You’ll learn whether you prefer adding some green chillis into your Pilau / Pulao, or whether you prefer a milder flavour with no heat. You’ll learn whether you like lots of cumin (zeera) or less.
You may pick up your own tweaks and quirks too, partial to what you and your family like. For example, I remember a family friend of ours who lived with us when I was much younger used to cook his Pulao / Pilau by adding julienne-cut slices of green capsicum alongside the onions! It smelt amazing! I also saw the lovely Shayma at The Spice Spoon using leeks instead of onions in her Pulao which has been playing in my mind as something I need to try out soon.
I’ve compiled a list of tips for how to make a good Pulao / Pilau below, which I have divided into sections to make this an easier read. I’ve also compiled a list of tips from my Instagram followers too at the end.
Please bear in mind, these tips are things I have picked up along the way from my own experiences of what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, my tips are based on the Pakistani style of making Pulao / Pilau. Also keep in mind this ISN’T a recipe, these are just tips and guidelines! For recipes, check out the links scattered throughout this post!
Tips for the onions
You start off all Pilau / Pulao with browning onions in oil. This step is essential for the typical dark shade of Pilau / Pulao rices.
- Slice your onions into slivers or rings. Thin slices brown quicker and also look better in the rice than diced onions
- I prefer to err on the side of using less oil than more – oily rice is more unpleasant to eat than slightly dry rice which can be remedied by serving it with a raita or salad.
- The darker your onions are and the greater amount of onions you have, the darker your Pilau / Pulao rice will be. You can use this tip to increase or decrease the amount of onions in a recipe if you’d like a different end colour. Think of the onions as a dye to your rice.
- You will need to stir the onions regularly to avoid them browning unevenly. I find this is easier to do when the onions are frying on mid-heat.
- When frying the onions, do keep in mind that you will also be adding and frying your 2nd component, so don’t brown your onions so much that when you are adding your 2nd component, they’re over-done and burn. Chicken and red meats will take time to brown and vegetables/legumes do not need to be browned and thus only require a few minutes of contact with the oil. Keep this in mind when you brown your onions. I like to get my onions to a golden shade when I’m adding chicken or red meat and a brown shade (close to almost done) for vegetables/legumes.
- This is a personal preference – but I prefer red onions in a Pulao / Pilau as opposed to white onions. I just love the flavour they impart and how they look in the end. Red onions also take longer to break down, so I like how they remain visible in the rice in the end
Tips for the rice
- Basmati rice or sella rice is great for Pulao / Pilau – but you will learn your own preferences
- Always soak your rice for at least half an hour in water! This is really important and often overlooked. In a Pulao / Pilau, you can’t drain the rice after cooking therefore you MUST soak it to remove the starches that will cause the rice to be clumpy. Do not skip this unless you have no other option!
- Once you’ve added the rice, I check whether the amount of water is correct by putting my finger into the water to the top of where the rice sits. The water should come up to the first line of your finger. I know my method is a bit difficult and not exact, but I have found it has never failed me so I’ve stuck by it. My Mother has a rule which I’ve never used but you are free to try out! She always adds one cup more than rice she has – so for example, if she is cooking 2 cups of rice she will use 3 cups of water, or if she is cooking 5 cups of rice she will use 6 cups of water.
- I’ve written a post about this before, but if you have the time or can get hold of it, using stock or broth is fantastic in place of water. You will be getting such a deep and rich flavour with this. Whenever I use stock or broth, I always question why I always don’t!
- A general rule of thumb is one tsp of salt per cup of rice. However you will also have to factor in the 2nd component. After you’ve added the water, your best call is to take a taste of the water. It should be slightly salty.
- Once you have added the water and it is cooking, when the water has been mostly absorbed by the rice (there will still be moisture visible though) and rice is about 80% cooked, you will need to turn the heat down to the lowest possible and cover the rice with a tightly fitted lid for about 20 minutes. This process is called dum in Urdu and just refers to the steaming process the rice is undergoing.
- Once your dum time is over, fluff up the rice once using a fork or a flat rice-serving spoon. This is especially important if you’re not going to be serving your rice immediately, otherwise the rice will have a tendency to clump up.
Tips for spices
The aromatic spices are an essential component of Pilau / Pulao rices. Without them, they certainly would not be the same!
- There are a huge variety of spices you can use for Pilau / Pulao. These vary by region but typically, the spices I use are: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, bayleaf, star anise, green cardamom, black cardamom all in their whole form. It’s a long list, but some of these such are used in an extremely small quantity but they all come together to create a beautiful flavour
- Pulao / Pilau is quite forgiving when it comes to omitting spices out. If you don’t have any of these spices, you can omit them. However, it is great to have all these on hand if you do want to make Pulao / Pilau often. For what its worth, I would never omit cumin seeds and cinnamon because I feel these really define the flavour.
- One of the best things I’ve ever picked up is to tie all the whole spices into a muslin cloth when making a Pulao / Pilau. This so much quicker than picking them all out by hand or straining the broth. It’s also much more pleasant than biting into a whole cardamom when eating! You can use any clean cloth that has permeability, but muslin works best!
- You can add garlic and ginger too – I really enjoy adding garlic to my Pilau / Pulao!
- Green chillis are also an option to add too if you like some heat. I would recommend starting with a ratio of 2 green chillis:1 cup of rice and adjusting it if you prefer more/less heat. You can add this when you add the 2nd component of the Pilau / Pulao
Tips for serving and garnishing
- Pulao / Pilau is traditionally served garnished with crispy fried onions. You can crisp them up yourself by spreading them on a paper towel and allowing them to cool. Please fry these onions yourself for optimal flavour! Don’t use the pre-packaged fried onions, I find the flavour to be dismal compared to freshly fried onions.
- You can serve your Pulao / Pilau with any raita or chutney of your preference, plain yogurt, a simple kachumbar salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions finely chopped) or any salad really, raw onions (soak these in vinegar for 30 minutes best results!). Often, a Chicken or Meat Pulao / Pilau is served with shami kebabs in Pakistani cuisine.
Tips from my Instagram followers
And finally, I asked some of my followers on Instagram for how they make a mean Pilau / Pulao. Here are some responses!
- ‘Measure your rice and water with the same cup’ – @im.tan
- ‘The water should be number of cups x1 and add one’ @fathimaraza – this is like my Mothers way!
- ‘A strongly flavoured stock is the key. Broth doesn’t produce as much flavour as stock. Chicken stock tends to be made more from bony parts, whereas chicken broth is made more out of meat. Chicken stock tends to have a fuller mouth feel and richer flavour, due to the gelatin released by long-simmering bones’ @thefoodieadvocate
- ‘Add lots of onions and yogurt to pulao to make a juicy one. Add tomatoes and green chilli too’ @fatimaumairkhan
- At the stage of steaming (dum), oven-cook for the last 20 minutes, they’re perfect’ @allthingsprettyanddesi
- ‘Tying up spices in a muslin cloth. Lots of peppercorns. Soeaking the rice for upto an hour depending on the quantity. Reallyyyyy browning the onions well to get a good colour. Adding some ghee to the oil to impart a rustic flavour’ @musingsofateacuplover
I hope you’ve found this read useful and helps you go on to experiment with your Pilau / Pulao cooking. Do you have any tips or tricks? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear how you guys like to make your rice!