Many moons ago, when I was undertaking a work experience placement, someone asked me what the Bengali version of a Sunday Roast was. I jokingly replied we had Curry Sundays instead. Any family gatherings or inivtations we have usually fall on a Sunday, and usually there is some sort of pilau or biryani dish served as the star of the meal. Now I’ll be honest, before making this chicken pilau, I had never really been trusted enough to make a pilau dish for company. But I feel as though I’ve made great strides in my cooking over the past year, and a few Sundays ago, I decided enough was enough and that I needed to conquer my fear of the pilau.
Now pilau, or pulao or pilaf, or fulaab as we Sylheti Bengalis call it, is a lot easier to make in my opinions than Biryani. You just combine the rice with the masala and add the water. The tricky part is making sure the grains of rice are nice and separate and don’t become too mushy. That was the one thing I never used to quite get when I would watch my mum making pilau as she never used to measure anything and would rely on the dreaded ‘antaaz’ where everything was done by eye or feel. As a result, I never really knew how much water to add in proportion to the rice. However, to stay on the safe side, I followed a ration of 1 cup of rice to roughly 2 cups of water. You can scale back a little with the water as the rice cooks from the steam too.
If you are a lover of Indian food, but can’t take the heat too well, this is a great recipe for you. It’s sweet and aromatic and packed with lots of flavour. Alongside the chicken, you get butteriness from the ghee and sweetness from the addition of peas. The additional topping of nuts and sultanas also adds some sweetness and little crunch. I used no ground spices in this recipe, instead relying only on whole spices. The chicken masala/curry is cooks separately in about 45 minutes and what’s really convenient is that you can make it the night before and make the actual pilau on the day in under an hour to serve fresh and hot.
Though chicken pilau is a favourite in our family, I can’t say this version here with all of it’s sweet notes is very authentically Bengali. I was trying to figure out if it is North Indian style or Mughal style or even Afghan style, but I’m not really too familair with the different asian cusines to definitively say one or the other. If there is an expert lurking on this page who can help me, then let me know! However, geography aside, it’s a very tasty dish that is great for dinner parties and surprisingly straight forward to make.
As I mentioned a while back in my Afghan Kabuli post, the addition of dried fruit with rice can be contentious at times! I used golden sultanas this time around, and me and my family all really enjoyed the contrasting sweetness. I also added some toasted cashew and almonds for some texture. If you have some dried fruit and nut phobics in your families, then feel free to omit it or perhaps serve on the side as an optional topping.
Prep time: 20 mins
Cooking time: 1-2 hours
1 baby chicken cut into bite size pieces (about 1kg)
1 large onion
3 garlic cloves, minced/grated
One inch piece of ginger, grated
1-2 cinnamon sticks, snapped
Two bay leaves torn
2 green cardamoms
Teaspoon of cumin seeds
1 teaspoon salt
3-4 tbs oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
2 green cardamoms
1 tablespoon ghee
3 cups basmati rice
6 cups water
1- 1 1/2 cups peas
Handful of almonds
Handful of cashews
Handful of golden sultanas
1 tbs butter
1) First prepare the chicken curry. In a pan, add oil and allow to heat. Then add garlic. Allow to turn golden then add onions and ginger. Add salt, cardamom, bay leaf, green cardamom, cloves, and cumin seeds. Stir to coat in oil. And then cover and leave onions to soften on a slow heat. Uncover and check every now and then, and if the onions are sticking to the pan, add a few tablespoons of water.
2) After about ten minutes, once onions have softened to a golden brown, add in the chicken. Stir to coat in onions then cover and leave to cook on a medium to high heat. After about ten minutes, once all the water has come out of the chicken, lower the heat and allow chicken to cook gently with lid on for a further ten minutes. Season to taste and remove from heat and set aside.
3) Wash and soak basmati rice for at least 30 mins.
4) In a large pot, add ghee and allow to heat up. Add onions, salt, cardamom cinnamon and bay leave and allow onions to soften and turn a deep brown colour.
5) Drain rice and add to pot. Stir to coat in ghee and let it slightly toast in pan. Leave for three to five minutes. Then add chicken curry in. Then add peas. Stir everything together and leave for a minute or two. Then add water and a teaspoon of salt. Cover pot with lid and turn up heat to high. Leave the water to boil and the rice to absorb water, which should take about ten minutes. Once the water has been fully absorbed, uncover pot and leave rice to cook on low heat for a further five minutes to allow water to dry off. Check salt and season to taste. Using a large spoon, preferably slotted or wooden, gently mix the pilau from top to bottom. Be gently or otherwise the rice will turn to mush.
6) In a separate pan, dry toast cashews and almonds until brown. Reserve. Then add a tablespoon of butter to pan and allow to melt. Add sultanas and allow to puff up and brown slightly. Remove from heat.
7) To serve pilau, layer rice on a platter and then top with toasted nuts and sultanas. Serve with salad and raita.