02 September 2012

Israeli couscous "biryani"

It seems that everyone is on a whole grain kick lately. Quinoa, farro, millet, barley, bulgur...not a day goes by without someone singing the praise of them. Poor old simple white rice has decidedly taken a back seat to these grains as well as its more exotic varieties such as brown, black or wild rice. I love all kinds of whole grains but will be a rice-lover forever...after all, I am South Indian and I do live in Thailand! Somewhere in between these grains and rice comes one of my favorites, Israeli couscous. Called ptitim in Hebrew and maftoul in Arabic, these chewy, pearl-shaped grains don't have much in common with couscous at all, though they are also made of wheat. I have yet to see Israeli couscous here in Thailand, but I tend to pick up a pack of it whenever I'm in the States. At the Dekalb Farmer's Market in Atlanta, I found whole wheat Israeli couscous, which seemed like a healthier and nuttier option, which I figured we would love.

Since most whole grains can be used interchangeably with rice, I decided to make a biryani with the whole wheat Israeli couscous. Biryani is a regal Indian rice dish, usually made with meat, eggs or vegetables and garnished with nuts and dried fruits. The dish is probably Persian or Moghul in origin, but has been adapted into all kinds of delicious regional versions on the Indian subcontinent. The biryani of Hyderabad are particularly famous, and my mouth just waters thinking about it! The Israeli couscous was a great stand-in for rice and made for a much easier dish, since everything is just mixed together rather than layered. Biryani is usually a meal on its own, served with just a simple raita or other salad, and that's exactly how we ate this. But it would also make for a nice accompaniment to any number of other Indian dishes.

Don't let the long list of ingredients intimidate you...this is very easy to make! Pick up some Israeli couscous (whole wheat or regular), commonly sold in the U.S. at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and most major supermarkets and in Europe in Israeli or Arabic shops, and add this to your menu for this week!

Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive, canola or sunflower oil
1/2 stick cinnamon, broken
6-7 whole cloves
3 green cardamom pods
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 jalapeno chili, minced (leave the seeds in for heat)
1 inch piece of ginger, grated
1 cup Israeli couscous (whole wheat or regular)
2 plum tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Salt, to taste
Sugar, to taste
1/4 cup water
2/3 cup frozen green peas
1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves
1/4 cup cashews, chopped and lightly toasted
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/8 cup fried onions (optional - look for them in Ikea)
1/4 cup fresh chopped coriander
Scant quantity of milk
Pinch of saffron

1. In a large saucepan, warm the oil over medium heat. Add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms and bay leaf and saute until fragrant, which should take just a couple of minutes.

2. Add the onion, garlic, chili and ginger and saute until the onion is translucent.

3. In the meanwhile or at the same time, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the couscous until it is al dente, about 8-10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

3. Mix in the tomatoes and stir well. Once they begin to break down, add the first 1/4 cup of water.

4. When the water is absorbed, add the cumin powder, coriander powder, turmeric, chili powder, salt and sugar. Mix well and add the other 1/4 cup of water.

5. Add the peas and the fenugreek leaves, which you should rub and crumble between your hands. Stir well until you have a well blended mixture.

6. Add the couscous and stir well, making sure that all of the grains are well coated with the spice paste.

7. Transfer to a serving dish and cover with the cashews, raisins, fried onions and coriander.

8. Warm the milk for a few seconds in a microwave or on the stovetop and add the saffron to it. Gently stir with a small spoon and pour it on top of your biryani.

If you loved the Israeli couscous, try my recipe for wild mushroom Israeli couscous "risotto" as well... you will love it!


  1. Hi Ramya, I hate to admit that I have only had Israeli couscous a few times and was never really impressed, but you have me convinced to try it again with this recipe, looks great!

  2. I am in love with your twist on biryani my friend :D


  3. Looks delicious! You can probably also replace the fried onions with fried shallots at an Asian market. I didn't even know you can find those at IKEA!

    Can't wait to make your egg curry for dinner tonight.

  4. My goodness, this looks luscious, and right up my alley. So glad I discovered your blog!

  5. SUCH a great idea to use couscous to make a biriyani!!!! You are so creative! I love it (and am TOTALLY going to try it!) HUGS!