Are there any crops in the world quite as important as rice? It’s estimated that this tiny, deceptively simple grain serves as a staple source of energy for more than half the globe’s population. Few foods can be said to fuel humanity on quite the same scale as this humble plant.
Nowhere is this more true than in India, a region where rice has been cultivated for at least 7000 years. Today, it continues to form the primary carbohydrate for the nation’s 1.3 billion inhabitants.
It also comes in numerous shapes and sizes, depending on the region, the variety, and the purpose. Basmati, long grain white, and fragrant jasmine are all popular favourites. But dig beneath the surface and you’ll also find local varieties with specialised roles to play in the kitchen. Some estimate that there are around 6000 varieties in total!
The wonderful thing about this ancient and venerable crop is not merely the number of people it feeds. Rice is a remarkably versatile ingredient, one which Indian cooking has used to create a mouth-watering variety of sweet and savoury plates. Much more than just a simple side dish, rice can also form the glowing centrepiece of any meal.
Let’s take a look at some of the most exciting, traditional rice dishes to have emerged from generations of fine Indian cuisine. We guarantee, that once you see what it’s truly capable of, you’ll never look at this modest grain in quite the same way again!
14 Indian Rice Dishes to Try
We start with what could be considered the true king of Indian rice dishes, one that has travelled around the world.
Biryani in its current form appears to have had its roots in the sumptuous cuisine of the Mughal empire. Back then, fragrant rice was probably layered with any meat on hand, including marinated cuts of venison, roasted quail, or slow-cooked goat. Nowadays, mutton and chicken are usually used.
Most regions within India have their own take on the dish, but the core is a hearty layering of rice, eggs or meat, along with fried onions, sultanas, and heaps of aromatic spices such as cinnamon and saffron. It’s a great one for batch cooking and special occasions, with a single large pot allowing all the ingredients to steam and infuse together.
Pulao is another national favourite that appears in many different varieties. At its core, the rice is often cooked in a seasoned broth or stock, helping to infuse it with flavour. It is then fried in ghee before spices are added.
Various additional ingredients can then be included, such as dried fruits, seasonal vegetables, or pulses. It’s a popular dish to be served alongside meats or fish. Some versions have a slightly sweeter edge, such as the Kashmiri style pulao, scattered with pomegranate seeds for a fresh, fruity touch.
3. Coconut Rice
This is a hugely popular dish in South India and has a lilting, tropical freshness to it. At its best, coconut rice will be prepared with fresh coconut shavings, along with cashew nuts and mild spices. A slightly sweet dish, but one that is also packed with nutritious fats from the coconut itself.
If you can’t get your hands on fresh coconut, various versions can also be made by slowly simmering cooked rice in spices and coconut milk.
Khichdi is a truly wholesome treat, one where rice is boiled with lentils for additional protein and earthiness. Moong dal is regularly used as the pulse. To make it healthier, you can add to this relaxing one-pot wonder all manner of vegetables and grains, including cauliflower, potato, or green peas. This is a truly great dish for a restful afternoon or a lazy brunch with friends.
There are plenty of regional variations as well. In Maharashtra, fried prawns can be added for a fresh seafood topping. In Bihar, the khichdi may be cooked in a way that gives a more paste-like consistency, before being served alongside tomato chutney with ghee.
Some have also said that traditional khichdi is the dish that inspired the later, colonial-era dish of kedgeree, still popular today in Britain and in India.
5. Tomato Rice
This is another dish popular in Southern India, but one which you can find in all corners of the nation. As you might expect, tomatoes go into flavouring the rice here, along with a deep medley of herbs and spices. This is great as an eye-catching side dish, a perfect accompaniment to fried chicken, meat, or grilled fish.
6. Bagara Annam
This is often held up as being the favourite dish of Telangana state. It’s a rice dish made with tempered spices. Tempered means that the spices are roasted briefly in oil or ghee to release their aroma and flavour.
Coriander and mint leaves are then frequently added for a fresh, herby lift. Bagara annam is traditionally prepared using basmati rice and is a popular side dish in Hyderabad.
7. Bisi Bele Bath
This dish’s name comes from the Kannada language and roughly translates to ‘hot lentil rice’. This is a hugely popular dish throughout the Karnataka region, although its popularity has also spread to other major Indian cities, including Mumbai.
It can be a relatively complex dish, particularly in terms of the ingredients involved. It frequently incorporates toor dal, rice, ghee, a host of spices, vegetables and, crucially, tamarind, giving bisi bele bath its signature tang. It is said that some versions can have up to 30 separate ingredients all simmering away together!
For this reason, it can be a great dish to prepare for special occasions. It can also be served as part of a large sharing platter alongside poppadoms, chutneys, and even chips!
8. Lemon Rice
This is also a popular Karnataka dish and a perfect, refreshing plate for lunch or breakfast. Don’t be fooled – any yellow colour you see is from turmeric, not lemon!
To give it a spicy lift, lemon rice is often prepared with red chilli, mustard seeds, and fresh curry leaves. This spicy trio works well after being tempered to release its aroma. Roasted nuts and fenugreek seeds can then be added to the rice before the zest and juice of a lemon to give it its characteristic, citrus edge.
9. Curd Rice
Curd rice is often pictured in conjunction with Kerala and other South Indian states. Its cooling and nutritious properties have made it a popular dish anywhere people are feeling hot and sweaty. Nowadays, you can find versions of it up and down the Indian subcontinent.
Pre-cooked rice is prepared with curd, usually a local form of yoghurt. It is said that the dish helps keep the body cool during the hotter months, as well as aiding and soothing the digestive system.
Curd frequently has probiotic qualities too, friendly bacteria that can aid with gut health. It’s also seen as a good source of protein, calcium, and vitamins A and D.
If you want to give your curd rice a slightly sweet edge, why not scatter over a few pomegranate seeds? To really give your taste buds a balancing act to be dazzled by, add spice with fresh or dry roasted chilli.
10. Jeera Rice
Jeera is another term for cumin, the popular spice used not only in Indian cooking but in some other forms of spicy cuisine around the world. This traditional Indian dish is most popular in the North, where you will often find it as an accompaniment on any table and on any menu. It can be prepared with less ghee than some other forms of rice such as pilau, making it a marginally healthier option for some.
Pongal is a venerable dish from the South, popular with families throughout Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. There are various types, but two of the most popular are chakarai pongal and ven pongal.
The former is a sweeter version, prepared by boiling rice in milk and jaggery. Ven pongal on the other hand is a more savoury affair, often involving rice and moong lentils, along with spices such as asafetida, cumin, and black pepper.
Amongst some Tamil communities, the preparation of pongal can be a ceremonial affair. Some believe that if the pot boils over during the preparation of pongal, this is an auspicious sign, one that confers good luck and prosperity upon the family!
12. Vangi Bath
This is a rice dish made with brinjal, or aubergine, most popular in the city of Mysuru (sometimes known as Mysore). Its popularity in that particular region is partially due to the readily available bottle-shaped aubergine that goes into making the dish.
You will even find supermarkets that sell special vangi bath masala, a spice mix specially designed for the meal. Vangi bath is also a popular choice at weddings and other celebrations up and down the region.
Kheer is a form of rice pudding, also frequently prepared for special occasions, family celebrations, and traditional feasts. Its sweetness is matched by mixed nuts, dried fruits, cardamom and saffron. Sugar will often be added before the rice is slow-cooked.
Some Indian cultural critics have even pointed to the fact that kheer is mentioned in Indian folk tales, an indication that, like many of the dishes on this list, it has a long and vibrant tradition behind it.
You will also sometimes hear pulihora referred to as tamarind rice. It’s a dish that can vary in taste based on which region it appears in, but the tanginess of tamarind will usually be a mainstay.
Some chefs will prepare this along with yellow lentils, roasted sesame seeds, and crunchy nuts. The crunch and saltiness offset by the tamarind tang has some of the taste elements in popular chaat dishes up and down India. These are dishes where a range of wildly different flavour profiles and textures combine in single mouthfuls to provide unforgettable tasting experiences!
Additional fragrance and heat can be added to pulihora by the inclusion of tempered mustard seeds, curry leaves, and fresh chilli.
We hope this survey of some of India’s greatest rice dishes has helped you look at this mighty grain with fresh appreciation. Rice has maintained its status over the years as a feeder of billions, not only because of its nutritious and delicious profile, but because of its versatility and texture.
With a bit of imagination, a flaming stove, a pan, and a modest spice rack, you can really cook up a rice-led storm. Use these dishes as starting points ready for you to dive into, or experiment with your own Indian-inspired creations.