I'm going to show you how to make the best lemon rice you'll ever eat, and I'm going to show you how to do it in about 20 minutes.
Lemon rice is a south Indian staple, and a food I became familiar--and fell in love--with when I married a Tamilian. This was one of the dishes that my mom-in-law always packed for long road trips (usually to temples) every time we visited family in Madras or Chennai, as it's now called, because it's easily made, easily packed, and easily eaten with no need for fussing around with curries and dals.
But elumichai saadam, as lemon rice is known in Tamil, is not just travel-friendly food. It is extraordinarily delicious. And versatile. You can serve it with any saucy dish. I often make it to accompany north Indian dishes like chana masala or palak paneer, and it never fails to make any meal that much more special. But more on that later.
Why you'll love this lemon rice
- It's lemony.
- It's so fragrant with the basmati and spices.
- It's foolproof. Even a beginner cook can't go wrong.
- It comes together in about 20 minutes.
- It's super versatile, and works well either by itself or as a side.
- It makes a great brown bag lunch.
Lemon rice ingredients
- Basmati rice: Basmati, with its long grains and heady fragrance, is the best rice here. Wash it thoroughly before using to get as much of the starch off as possible so the grains are long and separate after you cook. Brown basmati works as well, but will need a longer cooking time.
- Vegetable oil: I use avocado oil for most of my Indian cooking, but peanut oil is a fine substitute or you can use coconut oil, which works very well in this recipe.
- Black mustard seeds: These are part of the tadka or tempering along with the following few ingredients, and they infuse flavor throughout the dish. Be sure to wait until the seeds have popped in the oil or they will taste a little bitter.
- Urad dal (split black gram dal): Lentils play the role of adding flavor and an extra crunch to south Indian rice recipes. They are also good for you and with the rice form a complete protein.
- Dry red chili peppers: Use the dry chili peppers you can buy at an Indian store or a spicy pepper like the Mexican arbol. Arbol can be spicy so deseed if sensitive to head and use less. You can also use red pepper flakes.
- Curry leaves (coarsely chopped): Curry leaves, indispensable in south Indian cuisine, add tremendous flavor to this dish, so please try and use them. At a pinch, if you absolutely can't, use chopped cilantro. I like chopping the curry leaves because they can be eaten more easily than if you were to leave the leaves whole.
- Fenugreek seeds (optional): Fenugreek seeds are extremely healthful and add a very faintly bitter undertone, which really helps build the layers of flavor in this dish. They are bitter so don't use too much, and make sure they don't burn in the pot.
- Cashew nut pieces: Cashew nuts add more healthful protein to this recipe but more importantly they taste marvelous here, their nutty crunch contrasting nicely with the lemony rice.
- Peanuts: Add them for the same reasons as the cashew nuts. You can also just use either cashew nuts or peanuts if you'd rather not use both.
- Turmeric: For health and all of the wonderful things it does to your body, and for that stunning color.
- Lemon juice. This is of course one of the stars of this recipe. You can add a lot or a little, let your tastebuds direct you on how tangy you want this rice to be. I use half a cup.
- Lemon zest: This is not an ingredient traditionally added to south Indian lemon rice, but I add it because it adds more amazing lemony flavor. If using the lemon zest always be sure to use an organic lemon.
- Salt to taste
- Cilantro, for garnish, and for a hit of lemony freshness at the end.
How to make the best lemon rice
- Try and use a fragrant rice, like basmati, although any rice will do. Basmati rice not only tastes great, but if properly cooked, its grains do not clump together, making it easier for the spices and lemon to disperse evenly and also making for a better presentation.
- Cook your rice first and separately until it's just done. I do this in the microwave, but you can do it any way you like, in the Instant Pot, in a pressure cooker, or on a stove. Your rice should be fully cooked, unlike when we do a biryani where the rice is left partly uncooked. That's because you won't do any more cooking once you mix the rice with the tempered spices.
- For the tempering, you'll need mustard seeds, curry leaves, dry red chili peppers, turmeric, urad dal (black gram dal--always use the split dal for seasoning, not whole), fenugreek seeds (you can leave these out, but they add a really nice sweet-bitterness that enhances the taste of this rice), and nuts like peanuts and raw cashews. You can just go with one kind of nut or the other. If you want to make this nut-free, just leave the nuts out.
- I chop curry leaves when I add them to rice dishes, because although curry leaves are edible, some people are put off by the large leaves and don't know what to do with them. Chopping the leaves also makes them crisp up nicely.
- I like using lots of lemon juice in my lemon rice--about a third to a half cup of lemon juice for 2 cups of uncooked rice. Obviously this is a matter of taste, so you can start out with less and add more depending on how lemony you want your rice to be.
- Speaking of lemony, while my lemon rice is quite traditional, I have made one modern tweak that I really like--I add to it some lemon zest. The aromatic oils in the zest make it even more fragrant, and I strongly recommend it. Don't overdo it--the zest of one small or medium lemon is more than enough. Also try and use an organic lemon if you plan on using the zest.
- Once you've got your rice cooked, your spices and nuts tempered, and your juice squeezed, all you need to do is mix it all together and season it. Garnish it, if you want, with some cilantro and you're all set.
- One note I'd like to add here is to not add any warm Indian spices--garam masala spices--to your lemon rice. The flavors of cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, as wonderful as they are in so many Indian recipes, will overwhelm the delicate flavor of your lemon rice and they are not welcome here.
What to serve with the lemon rice?
- The best thing about lemon rice is you can serve it just by itself, with maybe some Indian pickle and a poppadum on the side. That's also what makes it so travel-friendly.
- That said, there's nothing to stop you from serving it with any saucy, spicy dish from anywhere around the world. It would, for instance, be great with this Moroccan Chickpea Stew or this Lebanese Chickpea Stew or this African Peanut Stew.
- You can also serve it with north Indian dishes like Chana Masala or Tofu Palak Paneer or even this spicy Urad Dal.
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Lemon Rice recipe
- 2 cups basmati rice (uncooked. Rinse the rice thoroughly under running water, then cook until just done)
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 tbsp urad dal (split black gram dal)
- 2 dry red chili peppers (broken into 1-inch pieces. Or use red pepper flakes)
- 2 sprigs curry leaves (coarsely chopped)
- ½ tsp fenugreek seeds (optional. These are bitter so don't use too much)
- 4 tbsp cashew nut pieces
- 4 tbsp peanuts
- ½ tsp turmeric
- ½ cup lemon juice (from about 4-5 large lemons. Start out by adding about half of this to the rice and add more depending on how lemony you want the rice to be)
- Zest of 1 lemon (optional)
- Salt to taste
- 2 tbsp cilantro (finely chopped)
- Heat the oil in a pot large enough to hold the cooked rice. Add the mustard seeds.
- When the mustard seeds sputter, add the curry leaves followed by the urad dal, dry red chili peppers and curry leaves.
- As soon as the dal is lightly blonde, lower the heat and add the fenugreek seeds and the nuts. Saute until the nuts just start to turn color. Keep an eye on the fenugreek and don't let it brown because it can char and turn intensely bitter.
- As soon as the nuts are lightly golden, add the turmeric and salt and stir. To the pot add the rice and the lemon juice.
- Turn off the heat and mix gently, taking care not to mash the rice. Add salt as needed.
- Garnish with cilantro and serve hot or at room temperature.