Here’s a traditional Zarda recipe that takes the guesswork out of classic Meethe Chawal (or Sweet Rice). Yes to old-school, nostalgic flavor without fear or fuss. This recipe requires 6 ingredients, one pot (if you’d like), and around 15 minutes of active time. Tested to perfection!

A bowl of Zarda ready to be eaten with a spoon.

One of most thrilling parts of blogging is demystifying those nuanced, aspirational recipes like biryani, dahi bhallay, or kashmiri chai. I’m here for transforming ideas into concrete formulas, turning the art into science, making a recipe run like a code that you won’t have to debug.

Case in Point: Zarda.

It’s taken me years to figure it out, and now that I have, I realize how simple it was all along. So allow me to shorten your Zarda learning curve and share a few tips I’ve gleaned after dozens (yes, this number is embarrassingly accurate) of trials.

Zarda Demystified

  1. The Rice: The key to a good zarda is well-cooked rice. At first, I’d parboil the rice like I would for biryani, cooked but with a bite to it. After several trials of less-than-perfectly-soft rice, I realized this: When making Zarda, boil the rice until it’s cooked enough so that you could eat it that way. More details, including timing, below!
  2. The Sugar Syrup: The Chashni, or sugar syrup, is what makes Zarda so elusive. But it’s actually quite simple. You’re looking to dissolve the sugar, but not thicken the syrup. More below!
  3. The Steam: The last Zarda conundrum – when to start the steaming, or ‘dum‘. Along with details, timing, pictures, and video, it all comes down to this – You want to see more rice than water at the surface. And once cooked, just let it be for another 10 minutes.
Bowls of Zarda served with almonds and malai.

What is Zarda (or Meethe Chawal)?

Zarda is an iconic Pakistani and Indian dessert. It’s often served as a celebratory dish for special occasions such as festivals, weddings, or holidays such as Eid. Distinguished by its deep-yellow color, Zarda gets its name from the word zard, which means “yellow” in Urdu.

Zarda is made with simple ingredients like rice, sugar, and milk, and is often (very aptly) called ‘Meethe Chawal’, which directly translates to Sweet Rice. Another common name for it is Zarda Pulao, which alludes to the rice being infused with ghee, sugar, spices, and nuts.

Zarda (Meethe Chawal) in a large plate with malai and nuts on the side.

History & Origins

Zarda’s Persian roots are evident in its saffron yellow color and the use of nuts (called dry fruit in Pakistan & India).

As seems to be the case with biryani, Zarda’s saffron-infused color was slowly replaced by the cheaper and more readily available food coloring called ‘zarda rang’.

Ingredients you’ll need

I’ve kept this recipe simple with only the essentials:

Ingredients for Zarda (Meethe Chawal)
  • Aged, long-grain basmati rice – I use Royal’s Chef’s Secret Basmati Rice. Another good option is Sella Basmati rice, which is steamed while still in its husk. This variety is sturdier and can withstand a bit of overboiling better than traditional basmati. Sella rice requires longer boiling and soaking than regular basmati rice.
  • Whole Milk – I love the creaminess and flavor that the milk adds. See variations for dairy-free options.
  • Food coloring – This is the powdered form of food coloring found at Desi stores. I usually use yellow but you can also use a saffron-orange color.
  • Ghee – Ghee is obviously the most authentic choice, but you can substitute it with butter or even neutral oil. Note that butter has more water content than ghee, which means you may have to boil out the excess water for 1-2 minutes longer before steaming the rice.
  • Cardamom pods – If you’d rather not use whole green cardamom pods, you can substitute a pinch of ground cardamom.
A bowl of Zarda with cream on the side.

How to make Zarda – 3 Main Steps

Here’s how to make it and tips on what to look out for at each stage:

Parboil the Rice

  • Soak the rice: This helps create softer, fluffier rice. If you don’t soak it for long enough, you’ll have to boil it longer. And if you soak it for too long, boil for less time.
  • Parboil the rice: As I mentioned earlier, the rice needs to be boiled until you would be fine eating it.

For reference, here’s how my rice acts minute-to-minute:

  • At 3 minutes, the rice still has a raw center.
  • At 4 minutes, the center has mostly cooked, but the rice kernel is still tough.
  • Around 5 minutes, the rice starts to swell and the rice is just-cooked.
  • At 6 minutes, the rice is cooked, but starts to break easily without getting mushy.
  • At 6-7, the rice starts to get slightly mushy when pressed between your fingers. This is when you’ll want to drain the boiling rice.

Tip: In Biryani, you need the rice to be cooked about 70-80% and then the curry is layered and the whole thing is put on dum. For Zarda, the rice needs to be almost fully cooked – about 95% – before draining the water.

Make The Sugar Syrup (Chashni)

Making the sugar syrup goes by quickly, so try to have your ingredients prepared nearby.

  • Once the sugar dissolves in the water, add the milk and bring it to a simmer. You’ll notice it becoming foamy & frothy. That’s when you add the rice. If the sugar syrup thickens too much, it goes into hard-candy territory. Instead of absorbing the sugar syrup, the rice will be be coated in it, making it stiff.
  • Undercooking the rice syrup is a better problem to have. All you’ll need to do is boil the water from the rice for a bit longer.

Cook the Rice

  • Carefully mix in the rice. Bring to a gentle boil and allow to simmer, undisturbed, for 2 minutes, until the sugar syrup has reduced and the Zarda is no longer watery. You want to see more rice than water at the surface. Sprinkle in orange blossom/kewra water, if using.
  • Wrap the lid in cloth or foil to contain steam as much as possible, then cover and steam (‘dum‘) for 15 minutes. The liquid should be absorbed and the rice fully cooked.
  • Turn off the heat and let it sit with the lid on for another 10 minutes. This helps the rice rest and soak in any remaining moisture.
  • Tip: If you’re worried your rice will stick to the bottom of the pot, place a heat diffuser, flat griddle, or tava underneath the pan to diffuse the heat.
Cooked Zarda in a white Dutch Oven.

Traditional Add-ins

  • Nuts: The most commonly used nuts in Zarda are blanched, slivered almonds, cashews, and pistachios.
  • Coconut: Coconut flakes or crushed coconut.
  • Make it festive: Zarda can be dressed up or down. Top with crumbles of khoya/mawa, golden raisins, or pieces of sweets/South Asian confectionaries.

When to add: You can add the nuts and other add-ins right before the ‘dum‘ to soften them or add them at the end for garnish (as I’ve done.) If you want to enhance their flavor and fragrance, you can roast the nuts, raisins, coconut, etc. (as you would for Sheer Khurma) before adding them.

Zarda (Meethe Chawal) in a large plate with malai and nuts on the side.

Variations

  • Spices: You can use ‘sweet’ spices such as cloves or a cinnamon stick along with the cardamom.
  • Marmalade + Orange Juice: For an orange flavored Zarda, replace milk and water with orange juice and add a tablespoon or 2 of marmalade.
  • Lemon or Orange zest: Add while boiling of the rice to add a hint of citrus flavor & aroma.
  • Dairy-free: Make this Zarda vegan by using oil instead of ghee and replacing the milk with your favorite dairy-free milk (coconut milk sounds amazing!), juice, or more water.
A bowl of Zarda with cream on the side.

How to Serve Zarda

Zarda is served warmed up. Serve with either:

  • Cream: Malai (or South Asian-style cream) is the classic choice to serve alongside Zarda.
  • Yogurt: If cream isn’t available, yogurt can serve as a cooling, albeit more tart, substitute for cream.
A bowl of Zarda ready to be eaten with a spoon.

How to Store & Reheat Zarda

  • Store: Zarda keeps well in the fridge for up to 3 days. You can also freeze it in an airtight container up to a month.
  • Reheat: Sprinkle 2-3 tablespoons of water, depending on how firm the rice is. You can also place a moist paper towel over the rice. Microwave until heated through. To add freshness, sprinkle some nuts or kewra water just before reheating.
Half-eaten bowl of Zarda in a bowl with a spoon on the side.

More Pakistani Dessert Recipes You’ll Love

Tried this recipe? If you have a minute, please consider leaving a comment & star rating below and telling me how it was! If you’re on Instagram, please tag me so I can see your creations. I truly love hearing from you! Thank you!

A bowl of Zarda ready to be eaten with a spoon.
5 (3 ratings)

Zarda (Meethe Chawal – Sweet Rice)

Here's a traditional Zarda recipe that takes the guesswork out of classic Meethe Chawal (or Sweet Rice). Yes to old-school, nostalgic flavor without fear or fuss. This recipe requires 6 ingredients, one pot (if you'd like), and around 15 minutes of active time. Tested to perfection!

Ingredients 

  • 1 cup (~185-190 g) aged long-grain basmati rice
  • 2 tbsp ghee
  • 4-5 green cardamom pods, slightly cracked open
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) raw cane sugar, or regular white sugar
  • 1/8 tsp yellow or orange food color
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp orange blossom water or kewra essence, depending on how strong it is – optional

For serving:

  • Malai, Indian/Pakistani Cream or any thick cream (optional)
  • Slivered almonds, to garnish (optional)

Equipment

  • Lightweight nonstick Dutch oven – less chance of sticking to bottom

Instructions 

  • Place the rice in a bowl and thoroughly wash until the water runs clear. Soak in water for 30 minutes, then strain.
  • Parboil the rice: Place a medium pot or nonstick Dutch Oven over high heat and bring 5 cups (1.25 quarts) of water to a rolling boil. (Cover the pot with a lid to speed this up.)
  • Add the rice and bring it back up to a boil. Once it comes to a boil again, boil for 6 minutes and 30 seconds (no more than 7 minutes), or until the rice is fully cooked but has a slight bite to it. Instead of breaking into pieces, it should get slightly mushy when pressed between your fingers. (See Note 1) Drain and set aside.
  • Heat a medium nonstick Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once hot, heat ghee and add the cardamom pods. Stir for a few seconds to infuse the oil. Then add the sugar, water, food coloring, and salt. Stir and allow the sugar to completely dissolve (1-2 minutes). Add the milk and bring the mixture to a simmer (~1-2 minutes). The thickness of your pot will affect this timing. You’re looking to dissolve the sugar, but not thicken the syrup.
  • Add the rice and use a rice paddle to fold very gently until all the rice is coated evenly in sugar syrup. (Careful here not to break the rice. If you can, lift the pot and swirl around to mix.) Bring to a gentle boil and allow to simmer, undisturbed, for 2 minutes, until the sugar syrup has reduced and the rice is no longer watery (see photo + video). Sprinkle in orange blossom/kewra water, if using.
  • Layer the lid with a kitchen cloth (or aluminum foil) and seal tightly to contain the steam. At first, keep the pan on medium heat to allow to build steam for 1-2 minutes. You’ll start to feel the steam escaping the sides of the pot. Then turn down to the lowest heat and allow it to cook in its steam (‘dum’) for 10-15 minutes. The liquid should be fully absorbed and the rice fully cooked.
  • Turn off the heat and allow it to rest with the lid on for another 10 minutes. Serve with malai (cream), if desired.

Video

Notes

Note 1: How long you boil the rice will depend on the age of your rice (6-7 minutes for aged rice, 5-6 for younger/newly harvested). The rice should be almost fully cooked, so that if you press between your fingers, it gets slightly mushy instead of breaking. See post for more tips on how long to boil the rice for Zarda.
Note 2: The rice should be fully cooked, soft, and fluffy. If not, here are a few tips for troubleshooting the rice:
Troubleshooting Rice:
  • If the rice is firm or still has room to cook (i.e. your rice still has bite to it), it likely needed to be boiled longer initially. To fix, sprinkle 2-4 tbsp of water on the rice. Cover and allow it to cook on low heat for another 5-10 minutes.
  • If the Zarda rice is fully cooked but has a bit of moisture/water left, cover and cook on medium heat for another 5 minutes, then lower the heat to low and cook until the moisture has absorbed.
Doubling the Recipe:  If doubling or tripling the recipe, you’ll need to reduce down the syrup for longer (1-2 extra minutes) before and after adding the rice.
Store and Reheat:
  • Store: Zarda keeps well in the fridge for up to 3 days. You can also freeze it in an airtight container up to a month.
  • Reheat: Sprinkle 2-3 tablespoons of water, depending on how firm the rice is. You can also place a moist paper towel over the rice. Microwave until heated through.
Equipment: Instead of a heavy bottomed Dutch oven, I like to use a lightweight nonstick Dutch oven – less chance of sticking to bottom. I use the same nonstick Dutch oven to boil the rice and make the zarda. If you’d like, you can use a smallish stockpot so it’s easier to boil the rice.
Calories: 265kcal, Carbohydrates: 51g, Protein: 1g, Fat: 8g, Saturated Fat: 5g, Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.3g, Monounsaturated Fat: 2g, Cholesterol: 22mg, Sodium: 169mg, Potassium: 137mg, Fiber: 1g, Sugar: 48g, Vitamin A: 33IU, Vitamin C: 0.4mg, Calcium: 50mg, Iron: 1mg