Spiced with cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and black pepper, this labor-of-love Afghan beef biryani, also called Kabuli pulao, makes a complexly-flavored dish to anchor any festive table.
I've mentioned before the little Afghan restaurant on St. Mark's that I used to frequent as a college student. There was a whole section of the menu devoted to biryanis, complexly-flavored rice dishes with chunks of spiced meat and vegetables. You could close your eyes and point and you'd come up with a winner every time. The beef biryani was probably my favorite, and for years I scoured the internet looking to recreate it. At long last, I've managed the feat, and now I can have kosher Afghan beef biryani anytime I want.
Okay, well, not exactly whenever I want, because this is a multi-step dish that requires some planning ahead. That being said, it makes a great, festive center to the table, perfect for Shabbat or a holiday. I like to save an hour of the cooking time for the beef stew/stock by using a pressure cooker, but you can simply simmer it on the stovetop, too. I've included instructions for both methods below. You can also cook the rice in a rice cooker, if your cooker has a saute function. Otherwise, it works well in a large pot on the stovetop.
1️⃣ Step 1: Soaking the rice
First of all, about the rice. Persian rice is ideal to use here, but basmati is also great. Persian rice can be more difficult to track down; I'm lucky to live in an area with a large Persian Jewish community so I can find it at my local kosher market (along with dried limes and other Persian must-haves). If you can't find it, basmati really does work well here, too.
You'll want to soak your rice for 2 hours, so plan ahead for this. If you're making your beef stew/stock on the stovetop, you'll need about 2 hours for it to simmer anyway, so you can start soaking the rice and making the stew at the same time. If you're using the Instant Pot method for making the stew, you'll want to start your rice soaking an hour before you put on the stew.
If you like your rice to be separate and dry, rinse your the rice after soaking until the water runs clear. I actually like my rice softer, so I don't do this.
2️⃣ Step 2: Making the beef stew and stock
In the second step, you'll cook the beef, at the same time making a delicious beef stock that will then go into cooking your rice. Like many a stew, this begins with frying onions and garlic and browning the meat, either in a stockpot or the Instant Pot. Once everything is nicely browned, you pour water over, season with salt, and simmer away until the meat is tender, 2 hours on the stovetop or 1 hour under high pressure in the Instant Pot.
When the meat is ready, remove it from the stock using tongs and set aside, reserving the stock to be used in cooking the rice.
3️⃣ Step 3: Preparing the spice blend (masala)
It's tempting to reach for ground spices here, but they are truly incomparable to grinding whole spices in this dish. It's a patchke already, so go ahead and get out your spice grinder (I use the grinding blade on my NutriBullet). Pinch out the little cardamom seeds from the pods, measure out the rest, and pulse to a coarse grind. You want a little texture, so don't process all the way to a powder. Set aside the masala to add to the rice later.
4️⃣ Step 4: Preparing the rice
An interesting twist here is that you caramelize sugar before adding the rice to the pot. To do this, cook 2 tablespoons sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons water over medium heat, until it turns golden. Then, add the soaked and drained rice, plus the reserved beef stock from step 1. Bring the rice to a boil, then simmer until soft, 20-30 minutes; or use the "white rice" setting on your rice cooker. (I caramelize the sugar right in my rice cooker using the saute function.) Check the rice after 15 minutes and add more (plain) water if needed.
The spice mix gets fluffed into the rice after the rice is fully done cooking.
5️⃣ Step 5: Preparing the carrot and raisin topping
While the rice is simmering, soften the carrots and raisins in a skillet over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, along with a bit of sugar and salt.
To serve the dish, you mound up the rice, place the chunks of beef on top, and top with the carrot and raisin mixture. (But to eat, mix it all up to get all the textures and flavors in one bite!)
Afghan Biryani (Kabuli Pulao) (meat)
- 1 ½ cups Persian - sella rice (or basmati), soaked for 2 hours - 300 g
- 2 Tbsp sugar
- 2 Tbsp water
- Salt - to taste
Meat and stock:
- 1 lb beef stew meat
- 1 large or 2 medium onions
- 1 Tbsp minced garlic
- ¼ cup oil
- 5-8 cups water
- Salt - to taste
Spice mix (masala):
- 1 Tbsp cumin seed
- 1 cinnamon stick - 3"-4"
- 6 cardamom pods - seeded
- 12 black peppercorns
Carrot and raisin topping:
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 cups coarsely shredded carrots - from 4 medium carrots - or 1 small bag (8 oz / 225 g)
- ⅓ cup raisins
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
Soak the rice:
- Begin by soaking the rice for 2 hours (1 hour ahead of the stock, if making in the Instant Pot).
Prepare the meat and stock:
- Slice the onions. In a pot or an Instant Pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and browned, 5-7 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook for 1 minute more.
- Add garlic paste and mix, then add meat and salt.
- Brown the meat on both sides, about 5 minutes per side.
- Add the water and season well with salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and continue cooking for 2 hours, until the meat is very tender. This can also be done in an Instant Pot on the "stew" setting (or manual high pressure) for 1 hour.
- When meat is tender, carefully remove from the stock with tongs and set aside.
Prepare the spice mix:
- Place the whole spices in a spice grinder or small blender jar and process until coarsely ground (do not grind to a powder).
Cook the rice in the stock:
- Begin by caramelizing the sugar: place a large pot or rice cooker over medium heat and place the sugar and water inside. Stir to combine, then leave to caramelize, undisturbed, 3-4 minutes.
- When the sugar is caramelized, add the rice and stir. Pour the reserved stock from cooking the meat over the rice. Cook rice until soft, 20-30 minutes, checking after 15 minutes and adding water as needed.
- When rice is ready, add the masala spice mix and fluff the rice, working in the spices. Taste and season with more salt if needed.
Prep the carrots and raisin topping:
- In a skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the carrots, raisins, sugar, and salt and fry until softened, 3-4 minutes.
Assemble the dish:
- Mound the rice on a serving platter and place meat on top. Sprinkle the carrot and raisin mixture on top.