Monday, 19 January 2015

Afghan Style Qabuli Pilau with Beef

A few months ago, my family and I had a delicious Kabuli pilau or pulao from a local Afghan takeaway. Though I'm used to traditional Bengali pilaus which have a little bit more spice in them, the Afghan counterpart we tried was fragrant and flavourful. I determined then that I just had to try and recreate the recipe.

So I trawled through the internet in search of a recipe, however, finding an authentic recipe was a bit harder than I imagined. I wondered if perhaps Afghan cuisine shares some similarities with Bangladeshi cooking in that it seems to be a lot of home cooking passed down through families. Or perhaps I was just using the wrong search terms in Google??

Anyways, whilst I was researching, I found that Kabuli or Qabuli has many varieties, with some using beef, lamb, or chicken. As we usually eat lamb or chicken in our pilaus, I decided to try beef. The thing that ties together all of these different versions though is the carrot and raisin topping.

Raisins of course can be quite a contentious issue when it comes to savoury food. Some people just can't deal with them at all. I quite like them however and I definitely think the sweetness off the raisins alongside the carrot complements the rice and meat. Nevertheless, I will say that the pilau tastes just as good without the carrot and raisin. In my own recipe, I used ghee and cinnamon both of which give a sweet and fragrant aroma.

Though I used this youtube video as the basis for my recipe, I did add my own Bangladeshi tweaks. I couldn't help myself from adding a few more spices, however there is no chilli in here apart from a few optional green chillis I added in for fragrance and garnishing more than for heat.

Another big difference from the video I used was the fact that the cook used a pressure cooker to cook the lamb. So her meat was done in about 40 minutes, whereas I slow cooked my beef on the stove for about 2 hours to ensure the meat was tender. As such, I would definitely recommend giving yourself a few hours to prepare this dish, or perhaps even cooking the meat the night before and finishing off with the rice the next day.

The recipe I followed also used a looot of different pots which I really wasn't keen on. I am a one pot cooking kind of girl through and through. Though I did try to take a few shortcuts, with the benefit of hindsight I'm also able to think of different ways I could cut down the cooking time the next time I attempt this dish.

The only thing I could not figure out about the recipe was the use of sugar. I have never in my life added sugar to a pilau! About 4 tablespoons of sugar are caramelised and mixed with the beef stock in this recipe. You really couldn't taste it in the rice, so I wonder if it was just for colour more than anything. If you know the answer, please do let me know!

Kabuli or Qabili is definitely a labour of love, and I understand why it is often reserved for special occasions. But the effort is all worth it as soon as you place a forkful of this dish in your mouth. Not only does it taste magnificent, served on a platter, the dish looks positively regal with the carrots and raisins glistening like jewels. If you are a fan of Indian food, but prefer more milder flavours, I would definitely recommend this recipe for you. So give it a go the next time you have some guests over!

Kabuli Pilau

Serves: 6 to 10
Prep time: 30 mins
Cook Time: 2-3 hours
By Abida at the Red Lychee


  • 800g to 1kg Beef (on the bone)
  • 2 tbs oil
  • 1 large onion chopped into chunks
  • 3 garlic cloves grated/minced
  • 1 cinnamon stick/cassia bark broken into piece
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp garam masala 
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 5-6 cups water

  • 8-10 Cups water
  • 3 Cups Rice (I used basmati)
  • 1-2 tbsp Salt
Rice seasoning:
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 6 tbsp ghee
  • 1tbsp Salt
  • Meat Broth (From the beef)


  • 4 Carrots, julienned into thin strips 
  • 1 tbsp Sugar
  • 1/4 Cup Water
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 Cup Raisins 
  • 2 green chillis sliced


-Wash and soak 3 cups of rice for about 30-45 minutes.

-While the rice is soaking, cook the meat. Add oil to a large pan, then add garlic. Wait for garlic to become golden then add the onion. Add the meat, the cinnamon, the bay leaf, the salt and the turmeric. Stir, cover with a lid and leave on a medium to high heat for about 10 minutes.

-Wait for the water to come out of the beef and then for some of the water to dry up. Then add the cumin and garam masala (I use just a shop bought mix). Cook the spices off for about 5 minutes. Then pour in the water. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and leave for the meat to become tender. This took about 1.5-2 hours for me. Check back on the meat from time to time, add some more water if the meat starts to dry up. We will use the stock for the rice seasoning.

- While the beef cooks, prepare the carrot and raisin mixture. Place a pan on a medium heat and add the carrot and sugar. Wait for sugar to melt a bit and then add the water. Cover to allow the carrots to soften. In another small pan, add the 2 tbsp oil, allow it to heat up and then add the raisins. Cook so that the raisins become nice and plump then remove from the heat. Once the carrots have wilted and softened slightly, add the raisins to the carrot mixture. Allow the carrots to soften a little more then remove from the heat. Pour the carrot and raisin mixture on to a large sheet of tinfoil. Wrap the tinfoil up to make a parcel. Set the parcel aside for now.

- While checking on the beef every now and then, move onto preparing the rice. Drain off the rice which was soaking. Then get a big pot and bring about 10 cups of water to the boil. Once the water is boiling, add the salt and the rice. Stir the rice occasionally. It will cook very quickly. Ideally, you want the rice to be about 3/4 cooked so that it can finish through steam cooking. The rice is done when it is still slightly firm but will break apart into pieces between your finger and thumb. Drain off the water in a colander, pour the rice into a large empty pan.

- By now, the meat should be tender and cooked. Remove the meat from the pan using a slotted spoon. Reserve the meat juices as it will be used as a seasoning.

- In a small pan. add 4tbsp of sugar. Allow to melt on a low to medium heat. Do not stir with a spoon, just shake it a little if the sugar is not melting. Once the sugar is almost all melted, add the ghee. Wait about a minute to allow the ghee to melt then pour in the beef stock. Stir and allow the mixture to come together. Once it has, pour the mix over the rice. Stir the rice to coat it evenly. Place the carrot and raisin foil parcel inside the pan on the side of the rice. Cover your lid with a teatowel and place the lid on top of the pan. The teatowel creates a seal and allows the rice to cook through steam.

- After about a minute or two, when the rice has cooked through, place the beef on top of the rice and gently mix through. You may have to move the tinfiol parcel aside to do this. Add the sliced chillis on top. Cover with lid to allow the beef to heat up for a few minutes. Remove from the heat and serve with salad and a chilli and lemon chutney.


  1. Assalaamu Alaykum Abida,
    I have never tried Afghani food before BUT i do love the combination of sweet and savoury in meat dishes so this is definitely a meal I want to cook in the near future in shaa Allah, it looks wonderfully flavourful Allahumma Baarik

  2. Alaikum assalam Umm H, thank you for the comment! If you are a fan of Biryanis that have some fruits or the tagines with meat and fruit then I think you would certainly like this. It really is a very striking dish to serve on a platter at a dinner party or gathering,