Lazy afternoons at my Nanny Mummy’s house (maternal grandmother) were always defined best by my listless attempts at helping her cook in her very hot kitchen – very little could tear me away from the comfort of being wrapped up in her cosy bed with the air conditioning on High…the hum of the fridge behind her bedroom window and the soft murmur of the radio disk jockey playing some old Urdu movie song the likes of Nur Jahan’s sweet piercing voice singing of love lost, this would all but transfer me into a comatose state after spending a hot sweltering day under the scorching sun at PE or volleyball practice at school. Nothing would tear me away from my self created comfort zone…. except when Nanny Mummy would breeze in, her sari smelling of a mixture of sugar and chappati flour (an aroma close to my heart!)…., and she would request my attendance as she cooked her very quick Zarda, sweet rice traditionally fragranced with saffron, topped with nuts, coconut and Ashrafi (red and green candied papaya). Her real purpose behind my learning this dish was that she insisted that as a good Pakistani wife, in the future – I will be expected to know how to prepare is very traditional dessert to perfection, at the drop of a hat – to entertain my so called husband’s friends – but what would have been much to her dismay is that my husband hates sweet rice!! – Though, I will admit that my version here has put him on the path to conversion. Thanks Nanny Mummy, because without her guidance (and persistence) I wouldn’t be here re-creating a classic, with a few small twists – being the ultimate Pakistani domestic goddess
Methay Chawal, (Sweet rice ) as they are also known in Pakistani cuisine,, are almost always flavoured with saffron, and many people add yellow food colour to enhance the hue. My Nanny Mummy only ever used saffron, but added yellow for occasions – I have been inspired here by my daughter’s new obsession with rainbows together with the very trendy love of rainbow cakes and cheesecakes – I have used 3-4 food colours and also saffron. You can either stick to the original or try with my bright experiment. For the lack of candied papaya I have substituted with other local candied fruit. I think anything sweet and colourful works. There is a version of this rice cooked with jaggery instead of sugar, and I quite happily replace the sugar with jaggery (quantity given below) – I would then omit any use of food colour. The brown hint jaggery creates and the nuttiness is unmatched and doesn’t require any fanfare – ‘Gur Kay Chawal‘ as they are called, are another huge family favourite.
I think I have done Nanny Mummy proud with the use of her flavours and memories – I have tried to create something that reminds me of days I felt safe, comforted and happy – Zarda‘s aroma, taste and presence always manages to conjure up such emotions and memories in my heart and mind. Every bite takes me back to my many precious moments with my beloved Nanny Mummy in the kitchen or snuggled in her soft comforting bed….
Preparation and cooking time: About 30 minutes soaking rice prior to cooking, prep and cooking about 25 minutes
Serves about 3-6 people, depending on portions
* 1 1/2 cups of basmati rice –
* 8-10 cloves
* 5-7 green cardamom pods
* 2 tbsp ghee
* 1 1/4 cup water
* 1 1/2 cups of caster sugar (for jaggery rice, use 3/4 cup crumbled jaggery)
* 1 tbsp pistachios
* 1 tbsp pine nuts
* 1/2 tbsp cashews
* 1 tbsp glace cherries, chopped
* 1/2 tbsp chopped candied peel
* 1 tbsp dessicated coconut
* Food colours: yellow, red, blue, green
* 1 large pinch saffron, soaked in 1 tsp hot water for upto 30 minutes before adding
* 1 tbsp Khoya – optional (this is whole milk cooked and condensed into a thick crumbly consistency, available at Pakistani/Indian sweet shops, or can be made patiently at home!)
1. In a saucepan add water and 3-4 cloves and 3 cardamom pods and boil. Add rice and half boil and strain rice. Keep aside.
2. Now heat ghee in a dry saucepan, add remaining cloves and cardamom, add the measured 1 1/4 cup water and sugar and make into a thin syrup. (the sugar may crystalize when you add water and sugar in ghee, but not to worry, it all dissolves!)
3. Add the half boiled rice, nuts and stir. The water should just about cover the rice. Cover the saucepan and turn heat down completely low. Check every 5 minutes, stir gently and cover again. Keep doing this until the rice is nearly cooked through.
4. Once nearly done done, pour in the saffron, dribble the food colour sparingly here and there (try not to mix the colours, as they all land up turning brown). Keep heat on low, cook covered for another few minutes. The rice should be completely cooked through but not over soft or mushy.
5. Serve in a bowl topped with candied peel, glaze cherries and coconut (and Khoya, if available)