Shahi Zarda (Biyebarir Zarda)

10:18 PM

Shakespeare once said 'What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose  by any other name would smell as sweet.'

While it comes to food I can relate to the second half of this famous saying but name of dishes often tells a lot about it's origin and evolution.

Zarda, also known as Meethe chawal (Sweetened rice) or Gur ke chawal (Jaggery rice) is a popular dessert in the Indian Subcontinent. The name Zarda comes from the Persian word 'Zard' or yellow colour.  It's the traditional yellow tint of this dessert that gave this name. While Zarda on a Muslim dastarkhwan is rich with pure ghee and heavy-handed use of dry fruits and nuts, the North Indian meetha chawal is comparatively lighter on the palate. and the Gur ke chawal in my experience was quite a peasant dish where aromatic rice is simmered in fresh ganne ka ras (sugarcane juice) or jaggery water.

Tracing back to its roots would make one believe that the dish in India was introduced and popularised by the Mughals. A detailed recipe of Zard Birinj (Yellow rice) is found in Ain-i- Akbari, the record of Akbar's administration written by his court historian Abu'l Fazl in 16th century. It uses around 5 seers of sugar candy, 3.5 seers of ghee, and 1.5 seers of dry fruits and nuts for 10 seers of rice. An opulent dish fit for the royals. 
Lizzie Collingham in her book 'Curry', explained that to meet the demand of mughal kitchen 'Cartloads of sultanas, dried apricots, figs, and almonds were imported into India along the new roads that were constructed to facilitate trade throughout northern India, central Asia, and Persia.'' Whereas to keep a steady supply of two of Persia's favourite spices, saffron and asafoetida- the Mughals started to cultivate them in India.

In Bengal and Bangladesh Zarda is a quintessential festive dish mostly in Muslim households. Be it weddings or Eid, the heavy meal will surely end with a bowlful of this aromatic dessert. The speciality of Bengali Zarda pulao is the tiny oval-shaped gulab jamuns known as Nikhuti and little chunks of Chalkumror murabba or petha.

I first tasted this dish during a wedding at a family friend's house. Along with biriyanis and other dishes cooked by chefs from Lucknow they served this zarda at the end. I barely was out of kindergarten then and my family still talks about how I polished off 3 bowlfuls of it. The love still continues. And since a good zarda is not available at restaurants, I prefer to make it myself. 

I often see people making Zarda with Basmati rice which in my cookbook is a strict no. A good zarda should be one where each grain is perfectly cooked yet separate, neither it should be cloyingly sweet nor lack balance. For such reason I prefer to use short grain fine aromatic rice. Here I have used Kalo Nunia, My most favourite highly aromatic rice that grows in the Himalayan foothills of North Bengal. Following the black colour of the paddy and its tiny size, in Bangladesh it is known as Kalijeera (nigella seeds) rice.

Shahi Zarda Pulao

Kalo Nunia or any short grain aromatic rice: 1 cup
Saffron yellow food colour: 1/3 tsp (I used Wilton Gel colour)
Saffron: 1 fat pinch
Sugar: 1 cup 
Ghee: 1/2 cup
Salt: 1/3 tsp

Petha: 150 gms  (Cut in 1/4" squares)
Pista: handful
Almonds: handful 
Raisins: handful
Bay leaves: 2
Green cardamoms: 2
Cloves: 4-5
Keora water: 1/2 tsp

Follow THIS recipe but make them tiny and in an oval shape.

Soak the almonds in warm water for 5 minutes and remove the skin. 
Wash and saok the raisins for 15 minutes.

Wash the rice well in 3-4 changes of water. Soak for 15 minutes.
Boil 5 cups of water in a deep vessel. Once it starts to boil add 1/2 tsp ghee and the food colour. Drain and add the rice and stir gently. Keep the flame on medium-high and cook till the rice is 80% done (6-7 minutes). Check by breaking a grain and there should be a tiny white dot at the centre of the broken rice. Drain the rice and keep it aside.

While the rice is boiling take a flat or wide pan. Add the sugar and 3/4 cup water. Add the Ghee, Bay leaves, saffron, salt and slightly pounded cloves and cardamom. On medium-high melt the sugar and while the syrup starts to boil add the cooked drained rice. Gently fold the rice with the ghee and syrup and bring it to a boil. Then put the flame on the lowest and cover with a tight-fitting lid. 

Let it cook for 8-10 minutes. Then open the lid and add the pista, petha, raisins and nuts. Sprinkle the kewra water and Mix again gently and cover. Cook again for 7-8 minutes or more till all the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked perfectly.

Remove the lid and cover the pot with a thick towel for 15 minutes.

Then serve with the nikutis on top.
We prefer it at room temperature.

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