Chef Maneet Chauhan loves rice so much that as a kid growing up in India, she used to leave her house after dinner and tell her neighbors that her parents hadn’t fed her so she could get a helping of their rice dishes. “I always looked at rice as an indulgence, as a luxury,” remembers the chef, who moved to Nashville in 2013. To this day, rice is one of her favorite ingredients, and it appears frequently on the menus at her four Music City restaurants and throughout her recently released cookbook, Chaat: Recipes from the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India.
Rice is a staple ingredient worldwide. It’s a familiar ingredient in the Southern United States, tracing its history to eighteenth century rice plantations in the Carolinas, Georgia, and on the Gulf Coast, where enslaved workers cultivated it. Today, heirloom grain purveyors including Marsh Hen Mill on Edisto Island, South Carolina, and Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, sell rice rooted in Southern history.
For anyone with a bag of rice idling on the back pantry shelf, heirloom or otherwise, Chauhan has some tips, be it for short-grain white rice, basmati (which Chauhan hails as “the champagne of rice”), or Carolina Gold. “Rice is so versatile, and it translates into so many different cuisines,” she says. “It can be so much more than a side dish.”
Chauhan remembers how her mother cooked lentils and rice together to make a soupy comfort food. Now, in her own rice cooking that recalls her childhood flavors, Chauhan plays with spices. She starts by heating ghee, an Indian clarified butter, and mixes it into rice along with turmeric, garam masala, and cumin. For tomato rice, she chops tomatoes and sautés them in a pan with cumin seeds and turmeric, and serves it over rice. For “a riff on a biryani,” she uses cooked rice as a base in a casserole dish, layers it with a flavorful meat or veggie sauté, and tops that with more rice. “I add some toppings like saffron, chopped cilantro, fried onions, seal it, and cook on a really really low heat,” she says, “and it makes the ultimate rice casserole.” She’s always changing it up—once, she baked this casserole in a pumpkin.
Below, Chauhan shares her own favorite rice recipe, excerpted from her cookbook Chaat. “I used to so look forward to eating this at the train station when my family traveled to southern India to visit my grandparents,” Chauhan remembers, and it was her only craving while she was pregnant with her children. She cautions home cooks to make sure not to burn their mustard seeds, as they will give off a bitter taste, and to serve the dish cold. The banana leaves are optional but add flair. “It’s just a comforting savory bite,” she says. “Curd rice has a special place in the cookbook, and in my heart.”