A few weeks ago, one of my closest friends came over for an Indian cooking lesson. We made two things: coconut chutney and this lemon rice. There were very few leftovers.
Lemon rice is a simple, home-style, spiced rice dish. It isn’t often found on Indian restaurant menus, but it is a very typical offering at Hindu temples, where food is offered (for free) following most ceremonies. Because it contains no onion or garlic, which are not permitted inside temples, and can easily be made on a large scale (they serve it from enormous steel bowls), it’s a common feature there.
I was hooked the first time I tried it—slightly citrusy, with bursts of flavor and spice from the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and peanuts. It’s a dish that goes well with just about any meal. We sometimes have it as a snack too, alongside strong, Indian-style tea.
White basmati is the preferred rice for this dish, as it is for most Indian meals. It has a wonderfully aromatic flavor, takes 10 minutes to cook, is light on the stomach, and is perfectly suited to both Indian and non-Indian meals alike. While I do like brown rice once in awhile, I do not eat it on a regular basis. For one, it contains higher levels of arsenic than white rice (Consumer Reports), and it is also high in phytic acid.
What is phytic acid? It’s an anti-nutrient found in the outer bran of brown rice that prevents us from absorbing many of the nutrients found within (white rice has its outer bran removed so while it is slightly more refined, it’s easier to digest). Unless brown rice is soaked or sprouted before cooking, which breaks down that pesky phytic acid barrier, your body can’t get much out of it. Kind of like eating a locked treasure chest full of healthy food, instead of opening it and eating the food itself. So if you’re not going to soak or sprout your brown rice, just go for white and don’t worry about it.
If you’ve never had Indian mustard seeds before, I really encourage you to buy a pack and give them a try—they are tiny and black and pop like popcorn when you put them in hot oil. They have a complex, addicting flavor; not so much mustardy as deeply nutty and a little pungent (they are not hot/spicy). Fresh curry leaves can be found at any Indian grocery store. Finally, note that the vibrant color of this dish comes more from the turmeric powder used than the lemon juice.
2 to 4 tablespoons oil or ghee (I use a combination of almond oil and ghee)
1/4 cup raw peanuts or cashews
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
5 to 6 fresh curry leaves
1 to 2 Indian green chilies, finely chopped (skip if you are spice-adverse)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 to 3 cups cooked basmati rice (leftover, cold rice is best)
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt, to taste
Fresh cilantro, for serving
Heat 1 tablespoon of your oil/ghee in a large pan with lid. Once hot, add nuts, lower heat and fry until lightly golden. Remove from oil and set aside.
Add remaining oil and heat until very hot (this is essential for getting the mustard seeds to pop—do not use regular butter or an oil like olive oil for this, as it will burn before it gets hot enough). Add the mustard seeds and immediately cover with the lid. The seeds should immediately start popping and spluttering wildly, just like popcorn. Let them do their thing for a minute or so, until the popping dies down, then lower heat to medium. You don’t want it as hot when you add the next ingredients, or they will burn.
Add the cumin seeds, curry leaves, and green chili and fry for another minute. The cumin seeds and curry leaves will turn a deeper brown—again, just be careful not to let them burn. Add the turmeric powder and allow it to dissolve into the oil.
Add cooked rice and stir to combine. The rice will absorb the tumeric-tinged oil and begin turning a lovely shade of yellow. You can add a pinch more turmeric if you don’t think yours is yellow enough, though give it a few minutes first, as it sometimes take a little time for the full color to come out. If your rice begins sticking to the bottom of the pot, add a bit more oil (or a little water) and lower the heat.
Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the rice is hot and the flavors are well absorbed. Add lemon juice, mixing well, then sugar and salt to taste.
Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve warm.