Brown Basmati Vegetable Pilaf

A rich pilaf like this one is often called, inaccurately it turns out, a biryani. What is the difference between a biryani and a pilaf (or pilau or polao or pulao) you might ask? Well, as nearly as I can tell from consulting a number of mostly contradictory sources, a biryani is simply a fancy pilaf in which the various ingredients are cooked separately then layered and baked in a pot sealed with dough. To further confuse matters, in the US a pilaf is often baked while many biryani recipes are cooked on the stovetop. In other words, a biryani is what we in the US usually call a pilaf while a pilaf is what you get when you make most biryani recipes.

While the classic South Asian pilaf is made with white basmati rice, I used brown basmati rice that gives the dish a nice chewy texture and slightly nutty flavor. You could use ordinary long grain brown rice but neither the texture nor flavor will be quite as nice. The vegetables in this dish were mostly fresh from our local farmers market but it works equally well with canned or frozen vegetables. You might be surprised by the combination of rice and potatoes but it is common on the Asian subcontinent, where rice is eaten at nearly every meal, for potatoes to be treated as a vegetable rather than as a starch.

I adapted the recipe from 1000 Recipes: Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Asian (Hermes House, London 2009).


1½ cup brown basmati rice, about 12 ounces

1 Tbsp. Canola oil

1 tsp. panch puran[i]

1 medium onion, sliced

2 medium tomatoes, sliced

1 medium or two small colorful bell peppers, seeded and sliced

1 tsp. grated ginger or ginger paste

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp. Indian chilli powder (mirch) or cayenne, or to taste (note: do not use Mexican chili powder which is completely different)

½ pound diced firm potato

1 cup, about 4 ounces, fresh or frozen peas

2½ cups water

Salt and pepper to taste


Rinse the rice thoroughly and place in large bowl of cold water to soak for at least 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in suitable pan with a tightly fitting lid (I use my trusty 5-quart enameled Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add the panch puran and fry, stirring, for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, peppers, ginger, garlic, and chilli powder. Stir-fry for about 2 minutes.

Add the potatoes and peas and cook for another 5 minutes.

Drain the rice well and add to the pan. Raise the heat to medium-high and stir until combined, 1 or 2 minutes.

Pour in the water, stir once, season with salt and a generous grind of black pepper. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. If you are using ordinary long-grain brown rice you might need to cook it for a few more minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Serve with Indian accompaniments of your choosing.

Serves 4.

[i] Panch puran, which means five seeds in Hindi, consists of equal parts whole mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, and kolanji (black cumin) seeds. You can usually find it in the Indian foods section of a well-stocked grocery.


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