How beautiful does Zarda look? It is definitely, in my opinion, one of the best looking Pakistani desserts out there – it doesn’t even need much garnishing to make it look stunning! Aside from it’s gorgeous hue and it’s colourful speckling of nuts and raisins, Zarda is definitely a favourite in my house due to how delicious and satisfying it is after a salty and spicy meal. Traditionally served on special and happy occasions such as weddings and Eid, I made this batch of Zarda to celebrate landing my first official job!
What is Zarda?
Zarda is a traditional Pakistani sweet dish made with rice, sugar, nuts and cardamom seeds. The name Zarda comes from the Urdu word ‘Zard’, which means yellow – this is why Zarda is often a very bright hue of yellow or orange!.
How do you make Zarda?
The recipe I’ve seen the women in my family use is very long and complicated, some involving boiling the rice separately and making a ‘chashni‘, a sugar syrup infused with the cardamom and food colouring to pour over the plain rice separately.
I feel like those steps are unnecessary, makes no difference to the flavour of the Zarda and just means more dirty dishes to wash later when you could be enjoying your divine Zarda.
My recipe is as simple as it gets – cook the rice with the food colouring and cardamom whilst the nuts and raisins roast in a pan on the side, drain the rice and then mix in the sugar, nuts and raisins and let it steam for 10-15 minutes! Done! Could it be any simpler? The leftovers (or lack thereof) proved to me how successful this recipe went.
This easy and uncomplicated Zarda which uses minimal ingredients is my go-to for a quick, absolutely delicious and luxurious dessert
What makes a good Zarda?
In my opinion, the best Zarda is one where each grain of rice is long, separate and firm with no evidence of mush or overly softened rice, all whilst being coated in the sparkling syrupy goodness of the sugar. Finished off with a confetti of candied nuts and raisins laced in each bite, this becomes a festival of flavours and textures in your mouth!
To get this texture of the rice, it’s best to use either extra long-grain basmati rice. If you struggle with cooking basmati rice, sella rice is your best friend – it’s very difficult to mess up sella as it doesn’t mush or overcook easily.
Do I need to use food colouring in Zarda?
Some people may be hesitant to use food colouring in Zarda. You definitely don’t need to use powdered food colouring as instructed in this recipes. Alternatives to food colouring include:
- Saffron (soak a tsp or so of saffron threads in water and use this to carefully stir into the rice). This will result in a very faint dye unless you use a lot of saffron, so I would advise you to just sprinkle the saffron water onto the top of the rice so some of the rice grains become yellow
- You can use any alternate natural food colouring product you may have – it will work absolutely fine. Add this at the same time you are boiling the rice
- Turmeric, which has been called ‘the poor man’s saffron’ can be used too – the shade of yellow it will produce will be quite vivid so be cautious of how much brightness you’d like. Turmeric also has an earthy flavour, so keep this in mind too. I wouldn’t advise using too much turmeric.
- In all honesty, you don’t need to add any colour if you don’t want to! It’ll still taste the same 🙂
How is Zarda served?
As a dessert, Zarda is served just as it is – sprinkled with nuts and dried fruit as a garnishing. It can be served alongside a cup of herbal tea or regular tea. You can also garnish it with khoya, various mithai, even clotted cream. It’s also best served warm.
A thing in some South Asian households is to serve Zarda alongside a Biryani or a Pilau. I can attest to how delicious sweet Zarda is when mixed with a spicy and meaty Biryani – it’s a sweet and spicy flavour party and seriously, you can’t knock it until you try it!
Enjoy, with love x
- 3 cups basmati or sella rice
- 10 green cardamom pods
- 1.5 tsp egg yellow food colouring
- 1 handful chopped nuts
- 1 handful raisins or sultanas
- 2.5 cups sugar
- 2 tbsp ghee
- Wash and drain the rice till the water no longer runs cloudy - about 5 washes. Then, soak the rice in water for at least 30 minutes.
- In a large pan, add the rice (drained), the cardamom pods, the food colouring, 1tbsp ghee and enough water to cover everything well. Bring everything to a boil
- Whilst the rice is coming to a boil, in a seperate pan add 1tbsp of ghee, 1tbsp sugar and the chopped nuts and raisins. Heat this on medium heat, stirring often to roast the nuts well. Keep this roasting till they are needed.
- Once the rice is fully cooked through, drain everything in a colander.
- In the same pan the rice was cooking in, we're going to start layering the Zarda much like we do for Biryani. First, take 1/3 of the rice and put it at the bottom of the pot. Then, add 1/3 of the sugar, then 1/3 of the nuts and raisins. Repeat the layering process till all the rice sugar and nuts and raisins have been used up. You should end up with a layer of nuts and raisins on top.
- Cover the pot and turn the heat to the lowest setting possible. Allow the Zarda to steam for 15-20 minutes. Once done, uncover and carefully stir the rice to mix in the sugar. preferably with a panja or slotted spoon. Be careful not to break the rice! Let the rice rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.
For variations, add a stick of cinnamon, a star anise, nutmeg or any other sweet spice you like whilst boiling the rice for a different flavour.