A spicy, delicious Soya Pulao is an Indian weeknight dinner table favorite, and it comes together quickly with pantry ingredients. Kids love it too! Gluten-free and nut-free recipe.
Long before soy products like tofu and soy milk made an appearance in India, there were soya nuggets or soya chunks.
I remember they were marketed as a meat alternative for vegetarians and they were quite popular, despite the fact that soy, until then, had been alien to the Indian diet, not even featuring in Indo-Chinese cuisine.
The reason for their popularity was partly the unfounded insecurity Indian vegetarians have always felt about the amount of protein in their diet (despite a cuisine rich in legumes and grains that contribute more than enough--and heart-healthy--protein). Misconceptions and politically incorrect jokes about vegetarian Indians (usually south Indians) being physically weaker than Indians who ate meat were common, and the sellers must've been only too thrilled to find a vast population eager to lap up their product.
But it wasn't just vegetarians who took to it. Most omnivore Indians, at least in those days, ate meat only occasionally, and the soy nuggets offered a frugal alternative.
I remember cooking with them once or twice in those days, mostly using them in spicy curries. After moving here to the United States, I occasionally used soy chunks or TVP chunks in dishes like stews but not so much in my Indian recipes.
That changed when Jay, my son, came home to us five years ago.
Certain foods would trigger memories for him and he'd tell me about this favorite dish or that so I could recreate them for him, usually by describing it because--understandably for a kid--he had no idea what these dishes were called nor what any of the specific ingredients were.
On a trip to an Indian store, he grabbed a packet of soya chunks and began telling me about this rice dish studded with them that he had eaten occasionally at the government-run school he'd attended in Bombay. And while he remembered the school version as being bland, he was rather fond of it because, he said, he had loved sucking on the nuggets to draw out the "salty" juices inside.
Realizing that what he was describing was a soy pilaf, or a soya pulao as it would be known in India, I came up with my own version of this rice dish for him.
I did make one big change: my soya pulao is anything but bland. It is bright with spices and layers of flavors from onions, tomatoes and green peppers. And the soy nuggets add texture and protein, making this both a healthy and delicious dish.
This dish always gets a thumbs-up from Jay, so if you have little ones of your own, you might want to try it on them. It's easy to make and it's nutritious (unless you absolutely won't consume soy, in which case you can look for alternatives in the section below).
How to make the best soya pulao:
- A pulao is a word that describes a special rice dish, so you need a good rice for this, like basmati. Soak the basmati rice in cold, salted water for 30 minutes and drain before adding to the pot to get more flavor and long, separate grains of rice in your finished dish.
- You will also need to soak the soy chunks for at least 15 minutes before using. This time use hot, boiling salted water. Make sure you drain the chunks in a colander before using and press down on the chunks to get rid of any excess water the chunks have absorbed.
- Once you've soaked your rice and your soy chunks, you can get to work prepping your veggies and getting them started in the pot. I soak the rice first because it needs the longest, then soak the soy chunks, and then move on to prepping the veggies to get this done as quickly as possible.
- Because you want your soy chunks to absorb as much flavor as possible, you will first cook them with the spices and onions and tomatoes and ginger and garlic for a bit, before adding the rice.
- I use Maggi Masala Magic seasoning (which I earlier used in my Masala Pasta recipe) in this pulao and it adds some great flavor. You can skip it and use more garam masala instead.
- Once the rice goes in the pot, you want to bring it to a boil and cook for no more than 20 minutes with the lid on. Use a tight-fitting lid, and resist the urge to peek during cooking. After the 20 minutes are up, leave the rice alone for 10 minutes because it will continue to steam and cook.
- The soy nuggets are a key part of this recipe, because it is a Soya Pulao, but that said, you can replace it with tofu or even tempeh if you like. Or you can use a meat substitute. You can also just skip all of these and use more veggies (although it would be missing the added texture of the soy protein or meat substitute). I usually buy soy chunks at the Adventist store in my area, but take care if possible to buy organic, non-GMO soy. I tried finding a similar product on Amazon that I could link for you but couldn't, so I am linking instead to a brand most Indians would use. You can also find soy chunks at an Indian grocery store.
What to serve with the soya pulao:
A raita like my cucumber raita goes best with this pulao. Serve with poppadum on the side for a delightful meal.
Looking for more vegan rice recipes?
- Vegan Dirty Rice
- Jeera Rice
- Ven Pongal, a south Indian khichdi
- Vegetable Biryani in 30 minutes
- Navratan Pulao
Soya Pulao Recipe
- 2 cups basmati rice (soak in salted cold water for 30 minutes. Drain before using)
- 2 cups soy chunks (TVP chunks or soya chunks. Soak in salted boiling hot water for 15 minutes. Drain before using and press on the chunks to release as much of the water as you can)
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 5 cloves
- 5 green cardamom pods
- 1-inch stick cinnamon
- 1 large red onion (thinly sliced)
- 1 green chili pepper (like serrano, deseeded and finely minced)
- 4 cloves garlic (crushed into a paste)
- 1-inch piece ginger (crushed into a paste or grated fine)
- 2 tomatoes (finely diced)
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp cayenne (or paprika for less heat. Or skip altogether since you already have the heat from the green chili pepper)
- 1 tbsp coriander powder
- 2 green bell peppers (diced)
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 packet Maggi Masala Magic Seasoning (optional. If you don't have this, use another teaspoon of the garam masala)
- Salt to taste
- 2 tbsp cilantro (for garnish)
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the cumin seeds, bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom and saute a few seconds until the bay leaves start to turn color. Add the onions, a pinch of salt, and stir-fry until the onions are golden-brown.
- Add the green chili pepper, garlic and ginger and continue to saute another minute. Add the tomatoes along with the turmeric, cayenne and coriander powder. Mix well. Let the tomatoes cook, stirring frequently, until they are mostly broken down and pulpy.
- Add the garam masala and the Maggi masala magic if using. Add the soy chunks to the pan, mix well, cover and cook another seven or eight minutes until the soy chunks have absorbed some of these yummy flavors.
- Add the drained rice to the pan, mix well, then add four cups of water. Add enough salt that the water tastes a little saltier than you'd like your rice to be. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and continue cooking on medium heat for five minutes. Turn down the heat to the lowest point and continue cooking another 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let the rice stand, undisturbed, for another 10 minutes. Serve hot with a raita.