Basanti Pulao, The Bengali Rice Delicacy With A Riveting History
Image Credit: Delicious Basanti Pulao, Image Source:

The memories of fragrance permeating the entire house during special occasions when my Maa (mother) used to prepare Basanti Polao or Pulao still feel fresh, and the aromas have made a home somewhere in my DNA. This Bengali sweet rice delicacy prepared with aromatic gobindo bhog rice is a burst of flavours. The addition of ghee or clarified butter, cashew nuts and raisins and elach or green cardamoms makes it ambrosial. Its USP are the golden yellow hue, scented flavour, and sweet and sapid taste. In my quest for scrummy grubs, I have yet to come across anything as saporific as Basanti Pulao. But how this Bengali culinary delight came into existence? Is it because of Bengalis' natural inclination towards sweet something? Or was it an accidental invention? 

Let's flip the pages of history and dig deep into its origin! 

Pulao's existence and evolution 

First, we must investigate the genesis of pulao. Pilaf is an English term originating from the Turkish pilav derived from the Persian polow. Pilaf or Pilau is a rice recipe commonly made with stock, spices, and vegetables or meat. According to one account, this rice cooking method dates back to the ninth century. It might have originated in Spain, travelled to Afghanistan, and then spread all across the world. It explains why biriyani, pulao, and Spanish paella have certain commonalities. The oldest recorded recipe is found in writings on medical science authored by the Persian philosopher Avicenna or Ibn Sina in the 10th century.

According to another school of thought, the terms pallao, pulao, and pilav were created by the Persians and Arabs. Pallo or pulao was already attested in Sanskrit and Tamil long before Muslim dynasties invaded India, which is significant to cite here. Do you recall Yaggaseni's reference to preparing pulao in the Mahabharata? Maharshi Charaka offered advice on similar culinary preparations as well. He noted in Ayurveda that rice cooked with spinach, oil, ghee, and other fruits is savoury, wholesome, restorative, and nurturing. A mention of pulao can be found in Yagnavalkya Smriti, a work written in Sanskrit between the third and fifth centuries. 

Basanti polao, and mutton curry, Image Source: Shutterstock

Saffron, sugar and Shahjahani royal kitchen

Shahjahani Zard pulao was likely to give birth to Basanti pulao. Many pulao meals, including certain meat dishes, were overly sweetened with sugar in Shah Jahan's royal kitchen. As time passed, the Bengali zamindars became enamoured with their sugar-laden pulao and liberal usage of saffron. It is an understatement to say that they were influenced by the Nawabs of Murshidabad. Given that there are other pulao recipes with veggies but meat instead, Zard pulao may be the only vegetarian pulao dish recorded. 

Bengali landowners eventually began adding saffron to their rice delicacies. It quickly gained fame as a festive dish. Commoners were the next to get soon won over by this rice dish. 

Basanti pulao with dry fruits, Image Source: Shutterstock

Yellow hue and sweetness

Since saffron was expensive, turmeric was substituted in commoner's version of Basanti polao. Using fragrant rice, Gobindobhog became a signature element of it. The reasoning for the sugar element may be found in Salma Hussain's book Nushka-e-Shahjahani: Pulaos from the Royal Kitchen of Shah Jahan. It is stated that sugar was utilised extensively in Shahjahan's royal cuisine. The equation was a whopping 750 grams of sugar for 1000 grams or 1 kg of pulao. It was only natural for the Bengali epicureans to embrace Shahjahani Zard Pulao as Basanti Pulao. 

Next time when you devour the Bengali Mishti Pulao, remember its flavours come from a rich history!