Fragrant Indian Basmati Rice Pilaf

I credit my family’s appreciation for global cuisines to the trip my dad made to India for work about ten years ago. Sure, we grew up eating a variety of Mexican, Chinese and some German foods, but for the most part, everything was as Americanized as it could get. We didn’t truly begin exploring traditional dishes from around the world until the months leading up to his journey. For that, I am grateful.

We covered the world in our kitchen, and Indian was our jumping off point. Spicy chillies, kaffir lime or curry leaves, assertive ginger and turmeric, fresh coconut, earthy cumin and coriander, popped mustard seeds, and fragrant cinnamon and cardamom were all unique and unforgettable new flavors. There were also new breads like naan and roti. New meat dishes like lamb curries and Tandoori chicken. New desserts like gulab jamun and halwa. And new grains like aromatic long-grain Basmati rice.

All these years later, Basmati is a pantry staple for my husband and me, and finds its way onto our table all year round. It’s especially comforting on cold nights like we’ve endured recently. The secret to this fragrant Indian pilaf is frying the spices together with the onion, garlic, chillies and ginger prior to adding the rice, giving it the right amount of heat and a wonderfully complex flavor. The finished dish is warming and satisfying.

Basmati Pilaf_ingredients

What’s in it for me?

Turmeric boasts strong antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits — all of which help boost your immune system at this time of the year when we need it most. Furthermore, recent research suggests that adding just 1 g of turmeric to breakfast may help with memory for people who have pre-diabetes and are at risk for future cognitive decline.

Pungent garlic and ginger are also known for their powerful anti-inflammatory properties, stimulating circulation and aiding digestion. An excellent source of the vitamins A and Cchilli peppers stimulate metabolism, protect our gut linings, and release mood-boosting endorphins. The substance capsaicin, responsible for peppers’ characteristic heat, inhibits inflammation, clears congestion, and it may also contribute to pain reduction and limiting spread of prostate cancer.

Fresh cilantro and its seed form coriander are essential ingredients in cuisines throughout the near, middle and far east. Both forms of this undeniably pungent herb are good sources of vitamins A, C and K, folate, copper, potassium and manganese, and is being studied for its abilities to fight off bacteria, decrease production of damaging free radicals, and lower levels of blood sugar and total + LDL cholesterol.

Brown Basmati rice is available if you prefer to steer clear of white rice. It’s just as delicious with a deep, nutty flavor and robust texture, and because the outer layers of bran remain intact, it’s richer in fiber, vitamins and minerals than white Basmati. [Do keep in mind that using brown instead of white increases the total cooking time required from 25 minutes to approximately 45 minutes (see HGN Notes in recipe below for more detail).]

Basmati Pilaf_finished

An aromatic pilaf like this is a marvelous, natural complement to Pakistani and Indian dishes like slow-cooked chicken, beef or lamb braises, as well as coconut-y seafood or chickpea curries, creamy moong dal and cooling yogurt relish, or Middle Eastern grilled kebabs, kofta or kibbeh.

This perfectly flavored rice becomes a light lunch or supper with the addition of veg or dried fruit, toasted cashews, almonds or pine nuts, or a few cubes of pan-fried paneer cheese or tofu. Ensuring the dish is paired with a source of protein and produce not only balances your meal, it provides energy, keeps blood sugar levels stable, and supplies essential amino acids and other important nutrients to nourish your body.

You could also omit the spices, onion, garlic, chillies and herbs altogether for a batch of plain Basmati. I often do this, doubling the recipe to freeze some and have the rest refrigerated for several days. It’s so easy to transform into a weeknight meal or packed lunch, and there are so many options — you really can’t go wrong.

Ideas for incorporating cooked Basmati (plain or fragrant) into quick, healthy meals

+ *Mujaddara — rice and lentils served with spiced yogurt and a heap of caramelized onions.

+ Indian biryani, particularly with mushrooms, cashews and cooling cucumber raita.

+ Traditionally made with smoked haddock, this is a smoked cod kedgeree. Any good smoked or canned fish will do in its place — swap in smoked salmon or the haddock, if you can find it, or good-quality canned tuna.

+ Stir-fry loads of fresh or frozen mixed veg, garlic and ginger with a bit of sesame oil in a wok or large skillet. Flavor with soy sauce, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, chilli paste, and/or plum sauce, and pile everything onto small portions of rice. For a healthy homemade fried rice, incorporate a couple beaten eggs and your rice into the cooking.

+ *Getting into the spirit, a beautiful dish for the holiday table with pistachios, pomegranate arils, ginger and lemon.

*I recommend plain Basmati in these recipes, but it’s your call!

However you choose to enjoy it, humble, yet versatile Basmati rice is a delicious and affordable addition to your pantry and table. If you’ve never tried this special long-grain rice, grab a bag and give it a try.

Tell me… What’s your favorite way to enjoy rice? Have you tried (white or brown) Basmati?

Cheers, Heather

Fragrant Indian Basmati Rice Pilaf
Prep Time
Cook Time
Total Time
A homey, simple Indian rice with warming spices and fresh herbs.
Recipe Type: Side, light entree, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free
Makes: 3 cups
  • 1 cup Basmati rice
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
  • 1/2 small white onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp minced or grated fresh ginger root
  • 1 tsp minced red jalapeno or other small hot red chilli
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/8 tsp ground turmeric (or 1/2 tsp grated fresh turmeric)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • slices of red jalapeno/chilli + picked leaves of cilantro for serving, optional
  1. Rinse measured rice in a fine strainer for about 1 minute, or until water is clear -- this removes extra starch to help the grains plump up and prevent them from sticking together. Drain well; set aside.
  2. In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the cinnamon stick pieces and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the onion; cook, stirring frequently, under onion is beginning to soften, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and red pepper; cook 2 minutes. Stir in the spices, allowing them to toast and become aromatic for another 1 minute.
  3. Add the drained rice, stirring for 2 minutes to coat and lightly toast. Add the 1 1/2 cups water and salt; stir once. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and then continue to boil until the water has reduced to slightly below the rice level, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  4. Reduce the heat to as low as it goes, cover the saucepan and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Allow the rice to sit covered for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork. Remove the 2 cinnamon stick halves. Serve, topped with a few chilli pepper slices and/or cilantro leaves, if desired.
HGN Notes
To make the swap from white to brown basmati in this recipe: use 2 c water, increase cooking time to 35 to 45 minutes, and allow the rice to sit covered for 10 to 20 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

Can replace the olive oil with butter or more traditional ghee, if not vegan.

Ingredient inspiration from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey.

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