‘Zarda’ rice is a beautiful South Asian dessert that consists basically of sweetened, spiced rice and spells instant joy! Bright yellow rice ( hence the name Zarda from zard/yellow colour), cooked with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and star anise and then each grain doused in ghee and sugar syrup…the dessert is happiness on the plate itself. It’s one of the most popular of all sweet delights served on Pakistani weddings and on many other celebratory occasions and religious festivals in the entire sub-continent.
This beautiful dessert is another gift from the Mughals to this region. They combined influences from many different cuisines from the subcontinent, Arabia, Persia, central Asia and Europe, imported ingredients to enrich the food and hired special chefs who excelled in the preparation of special dishes.
According to The Ain-i-Akbari (the life chronicles of Akbar the Great, written by Abul Fazl), zarda belonged in the premium or sufiyana class in the hierarchy of royal dishes. This category was the meatless dishes that the emperor enjoyed during his days of abstinence. Some other rice dishes like khichree, puddings made with grains and lentils like kheer and halwas were also included in this category.
Another closely resembling dish is the Mutanjan which is sweet and savoury rice mixed with meat, raisins, apricots, figs and almonds. The rice grains are usually multi coloured and not just yellow but that is a story and recipe for another post.
The beauty of zarda rice is that you can dress it up or down according to how formal the occasion is or the availability of the ingredients. I made it for the first time when I was expecting my first baby. I had this sudden urge to eat zarda, nothing else but zarda would do! The problem was I had never cooked it before in my life. It’s not one of those desserts either that you can call your husband to bring from a take away on his way back home. So I called my mom and asked for the family recipe. For fear that I might muddle it up, I cooked it in a very small quantity for the first time. Luckily, it turned out perfect and the first spoon in my mouth was one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever experienced eating something 😀
Since then it has become a regular appearance on our festive dinner menus and weekend indulgence treats. I garnish it with loads of raisins, nuts, dried and candied fruits, even mithai like chum chum and paitha, when preparing for some formal dinner. But when it’s just a sudden sweet craving, my husband and I feel more than happy to sprinkle a few almonds and raisins on top and enjoy our plate of zarda.
4 green cardamoms
1 stick cinnamon
1 star anise
4-5 black pepper corns
1/2 teaspoon yellow food colour
1/2 cup ghee (clarified butter) or sunflower oil
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup blanched almonds
1/4 cup raisins
1 tablespoon orange zest (optional)
2-3 strands saffron(optional)
A few drops rose water or Kewra/pandan essence
This Is What You Do:
In a wide mouthed pan add oil/ghee on medium low heat. Add the boiled yellow rice, make a well in the centre. Add sugar and allow to melt for 2-3 minutes. Stir it into the rice carefully so that the grains don’t break up. Make sure not to over cook at this stage or the rice will get tough.
Add nuts, dried fruits, orange zest and saffron. At this stage you can add whatever candied fruits or South Asian sweets you fancy to glam it up or you can simply go with a few almonds and raisins.
Drizzle rose water or Kewra/pandan essence.
Seal the pot with a tight lid wrapped in a clean cotton cloth or with thick flour dough. This method is called Dum or cooking by steaming. Reduce heat to the lowest possible.
Leave rice to steam for 20-30 minutes, or until the rice is fluffy and evenly flavoured with sugar.