On an American menu, the words rice pilaf mean . . . well, rice. There might possibly be another ingredient in there too, and by rights the double-barreled name should at least imply that the grains will be separate, rather than cooked to mush. Don’t count on any of this, though.
Most of the world’s pilaf cooks would be shocked. From India to the Caribbean, pilaf nearly always means rice cooked with something--meat, nuts, vegetables, fruits. (In our defense, we got our idea of pilaf, and the word pilaf itself, from the Turks, who happen to call plain rice sade pilav. )
Texture is all-important too. Throughout the pilaf belt, people wash their rice repeatedly before cooking it, often even soaking it overnight to get rid of the last bit of surface starch that might make the finished rice gummy. Once the rice is cooked, most recipes say to cover it and leave it over low heat to steam for half an hour or so. The careful washing and the final steaming ensure that the grains come out fluffy and separate.
These two elements are the soul of pilaf, a dish that takes rice in exactly the opposite direction from all the comforting puddings and risottos of the world. It is rice as a delicate heap of independent grains, each one infused with a subtle flavor from the ingredients they were cooked with.
Stalking the Ancient Pilaf
There are two theories on where pilaf came from. Arguing for an Indian origin, the word is usually traced back to the Sanskrit pulaka , which would have become pulao in some later Indian languages. Now, pulaka doesn’t actually mean pilaf in Sanskrit; it means “shriveled or blighted or empty or bad grain,” which doesn’t sound very promising. However, it comes from the Sanskrit verb that means “to stand on end” (as in “my hair stood on end”), so conceivably it could have been applied to a dish where rice cooked up in distinctly separate grains.
Those who think pilaf originated in Iran can’t point to a Persian ancestry for the word. On the other hand, there’s no sign of pulao in India before the late Middle Ages, when it appeared in the Persian-based cuisine of the country’s Muslim rulers. Many Indian pilafs call for Near Eastern ingredients such as raisins and pistachios and have Persian names like zarda (golden) pilau or hazar pasand (thousand excellencies) pilau .
On top of that, people in India think of pilaf as a Muslim, and therefore Persian, dish. “The art of Pillau making is innate in the Mahommedan,” wrote the famous restaurateur E.P. Veeraswamy some 60 years ago. “This is evidenced by the fact that all the professional Pillau makers are Mahommedans and the cities of India most famous for Pillaus are (predominantly Muslim) Hyderabad, Lucknow and Delhi.”
The oldest Persian cookbooks only go back as far as the 16th Century, so the best we can do to check this out is to look into the medieval Arabic recipe collections, which include many Persian dishes. In two 13th-Century Arabic cookbooks we do find pilaf, under the name ruzz mufalfal (roughly, “rice grains as separate as peppercorns”), which the Arabs still use.
One ruzz mufalfal recipe in “The Link to the Beloved” shows the basic procedure: Cook rice with meat until it’s done, then drain off any excess water and cover the rice over low heat to steam. In “The Book of Familiar Foods,” you even cover the pot with a cloth before putting on the lid in order to keep condensed steam from dripping onto the rice, a step often specified in careful modern recipes.
So pilaf was known in the 13th Century. However, there’s no sign of it in a Baghdad cookbook dating from the 10th Century, which makes it look as if pilaf was invented in Iran (or, though it’s less likely, smuggled in from India) some time after the 10th Century. And maybe not very long before the 13th Century, because Arabic cookbooks written in 13th-Century Spain don’t yet show the recipe.
Pilaf on the Silk Road
The first pilaf recipe with a special name seems to have been qabuli (sometimes called qabili ) palaw . The name means “acceptable pilaf,” possibly because it was used as a hospitality dish. The household book of the Moghul emperor Akbar (1542-1605) gives a qabuli recipe involving meat, rice and garbanzos, but mentions that some people add raisins and almonds. Two Persian cookbooks from the same period also throw in spinach, chestnuts, two kinds of beans, dates, figs and other dried fruits. By that time there was already a special kind of pot for cooking qabuli palaw .
Today, most of the extra ingredients have dropped out, and in places as remote as Afghanistan and Albania, qabuli or kabuni survives as a pilaf of meat, raisins and almonds. Just possibly the dish also reached Indonesia, where a chicken and rice dish called nasi kebuli (“hospitality rice”) is made.
Since the 15th Century, five great local schools of pilaf have developed: Central Asian, Iranian, Indian, Turkish and Caribbean. Each has its own repertoire of pilafs and its own style of cooking.
Central Asia, which is basically all the countries ending in "-istan” except Pakistan, follows the simplest and most ancient recipe. You fry onions, then meat and then carrots; then you add whatever other ingredients you want along with water to cover and stew everything together. When the meat is done, you sprinkle rice over the stew (a shorter grain is preferred than in most pilaf-cooking countries), add water to the depth of one finger joint--"That’s canonical,” a woman told me in Samarkand; “that’s what it’s always been"--and boil until the only liquid left is the stew under the rice.
Finally you heap the rice up, cover the pot and steam over low heat. The advantage of this recipe is that it doesn’t require careful measurement. There’s always liquid under the rice to keep it from burning.
In Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the rest of these countries, cooks stay close to this basic idea, getting a remarkable amount of variety by limited means. Except for wedding pilafs, to which they add everything they can get their hands on, Central Asian cooks vary the basic recipe by adding just one or two more ingredients, the most unusual being sour green apricots.
In these countries people make pilaf in the qazan , a sort of giant cast-metal wok that was originally carried by Turkish-speaking nomads on their wanderings. It’s so well suited to pilaf cooking that many non-Turkish nations now use it too. The usual household qazan is about 18 inches across, but for celebrations such as weddings--where by tradition the ideal number of guests to invite is yetti mahalla (“seven neighborhoods”)--professional pilaf-masters use huge qazans three or four feet across.
All for Tah Dig
Iran is famous for its polos made with aromatic domsiyah rice. They are subtle and elegant, especially by comparison with the hearty palaws of Central Asia. The aromatic flavorings can be humble lentils or vegetables, but the most characteristic ones are based on fruits such as cherries, quinces or apricots.
Instead of being cooked on top of the stew, the rice is usually cooked separately from it and the stew is mixed in at the steaming stage. The reason is the Iranian obsession with tah dig (“bottom of the pot”), a golden rice crust that forms during the steaming process. It’s a point of honor to offer some of this crunchy browned rice to your guest, and people even brew a kind of tea out of tah dig . But obviously it won’t form unless you make sure the bottom layer in the pot is rice.
Some cooks take tah dig a step further by putting a layer of thinly sliced potatoes or paper-thin bread at the bottom of the pot, and others have been known to line the bottom with a layer of cooked rice mixed with eggs and fried onions. Curiously, considering how important tah dig is today, the Persian cookbooks of the 16th and early 17th Centuries don’t even mention it.
Wheat vs. Rice
In India, you’re basically either a wheat-eater or a rice-eater. Madhur Jaffrey writes that when grain is rationed there, they ask you which you are and stamp your ration card with a big W or R. In the rice-eating south of the country, rice is a daily necessity; pulao is primarily a rice dish of the north of the country, a wheat-eater’s way of enjoying rice as a special-occasion treat.
This, as well as the extravagant court traditions of the Moghul school of cookery, has made India the home of some very elaborate pulaos . For instance, you might stew lamb with curry spices and yogurt, cook rice in the gravy and then bake the lamb in the rice with apricots, oranges, mangoes, grapes, pistachios, cashews and brazil nuts. Even a simple vegetarian pulao will show the usual Indian free hand with spices.
Turkey, on the other hand, sees pilav primarily as a side dish, rather than a main course. There are some main-course pilafs--several baked in filo dough, as a sort of rice pie--but most are simple and flavored with one ingredient, such as eggplant, mussels or toasted vermicelli. If Central Asian pilafs are hearty and the Persian style is elegant and Indian pulaos are extravagant, Turkish pilavs are shrewd and precise.
Many Turks, particularly the people of Istanbul, prefer seafood to meat, so there are a number of shellfish pilaf recipes. And Turkey is much fonder of the tomato than Iran or India, and puts a warm touch of it into a lot of its pilafs. That’s probably why tomato pilaf is called “Istanbul polo " in Iran.
Other Near Eastern nations, such as the Arabs and the Armenians, tend to follow either Turkish or Persian pilaf styles. The last great pilaf-making school, however, is a child of the Indian approach. In the 18th and 19th centuries, laborers from western India brought pilaf to the Caribbean, where it mixed with cooking ideas from Europe, and particularly from Africa, to create an extremely distinctive sort of pilaf.
To put it mildly, it would never occur to anybody in Iran to marinate chicken and pork in onions, thyme, tomatoes, red pepper and brown sugar before stewing them, or to garnish the resulting pilaf with butter, almonds and pimiento-stuffed green olives. Bacon, celery and Worcestershire sauce have a pretty limited use in your usual Uzbek pilaf. The Caribbean cooks pilaf in a spirit of exuberance, and in its own way with as much lavishness as India.
It’s the last of the great pilaf-making schools. So far, anyway.
This ultra-showoff sweet pilaf, from “The Legendary Cuisine of Persia” by Margaret Shaida, would accompany roast lamb or chicken or occupy center stage at a Near Eastern banquet.
MORASSA’ POLO (Bejeweled Pilaf)
2 3/4 cups basmati rice, rinsed in 5 or 6 changes of water
1/4 cup salt
2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut in julienne
6 tablespoons oil
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
2 tablespoons slivered pistachios
Peel of 3 oranges, cut in julienne
2 tablespoons currants
1/4 cup dried barberries (zereshk)
Dash ground cinnamon
Dash ground cardamom
1 teaspoon rose water
1/4 cup butter
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon crushed crystallized sugar or rock candy, optional
Cover rinsed rice with water by at least 1 inch. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Soak 3 hours.
In skillet fry carrot strips in 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat, stirring constantly, 10 minutes. Stir in 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons Liquid Saffron and 2 to 3 tablespoons water. Cook until liquid is reduced, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove carrot strips to bowl and set aside.
In skillet toast 1 teaspoon almonds over medium heat. Set aside for garnish. Put remaining almonds and all pistachios in small saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to boil and drain. Set aside. Combine 1 teaspoon blanched almonds, 1 teaspoon blanched pistachios and reserved toasted almonds for garnish.
Put remaining granulated sugar in small saucepan with 6 tablespoons water. Bring slowly to boil and simmer gently 10 minutes. Add orange peel and remaining blanched nuts and boil 30 seconds. Drain, reserving syrup. Add peel and nuts to fried carrot strips.
Soak currants in warm water 10 minutes until puffed and shining. Drain. Separate 1 teaspoon currants for garnish and add remainder to carrot strip mixture. Pick over barberries, then gently fry in skillet in small amount of oil until glowing red color, 1 to 2 minutes. Separate 1 teaspoon barberries for garnish and add remainder to carrot strip mixture. Stir cinnamon, cardamom and rose water into carrot strip mixture and divide mixture into 3 parts.
In 3-quart saucepan add 2 quarts water and 3 tablespoons salt and bring to rapid boil. Drain soaked rice. Add to saucepan, bring back to boil and boil until grains are soft on outside but still firm in center, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain in colander and rinse with lukewarm water. Toss gently in colander.
Rinse saucepan, return to heat, add some oil and heat until sizzling. Sprinkle 1/4 of rice over bottom of saucepan. Spread 1/3 of carrot mixture on rice. Sprinkle 1/4 of rice over carrot mixture. Repeat with remaining carrot mixture and rice, ending with thick layer of rice formed into conical mound. Pour remaining syrup and 4 teaspoons Liquid Saffron over rice. Make 2 to 3 holes through rice to bottom of saucepan with handle of wooden spoon. Spread clean dishcloth over edges of saucepan and set cover firmly over dishcloth.
Keep heat on high until rice is steaming, 2 to 3 minutes, then reduce heat to low and cook at least 30 minutes. Rice can be kept on very lowest heat as long as 1 1/2 hours total.
Remove saucepan from heat and set on cold, wet surface 1 to 2 minutes. (This helps loosen bottom crust.)
Meanwhile, melt butter. Remove 2 to 3 tablespoons rice and mix with remaining 2 tablespoons Liquid Saffron in small bowl and set aside.
Gently toss and mix pilaf, leaving crust in pot, and sprinkle on warmed dish in symmetrical mound. Sprinkle with saffron rice. Garnish with reserved almonds (both toasted and blanched), pistachios, currants and barberries.
Crush crystallized sugar into small “diamonds,” mix with 1/2 teaspoon boiling water and sprinkle over rice. Pour melted butter all over. Remove bottom crust (tah dig) from pot and serve on separate plate. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Each of 4 servings contains about:
967 calories; 1,658 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 38 grams fat; 149 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 3.15 grams fiber.
60 threads saffron
Tiny dash sugar
1/4 cup warm water
Saffron must be dry. If in doubt, warm in oven few minutes. Put saffron and sugar grains in mortar and crush to powder. Add water to mortar, rinse around thoroughly and pour into cup.
The broccoli and the cashews provide a sweet, crunchy contrast to the rice in this light and easy Indian pilaf, which is also unusual in calling for brown rice. The name means “heart of springtime.” From Julie Sahni’s “Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking.”
PULLAO DILBAHAAR (Brown Rice Pilaf With Broccoli and Cashews)
1 1/4 cups brown basmati rice, rinsed
1 bunch broccoli
1/4 cup oil
1 cup unsalted cashew nuts
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 (3-inch) piece cinnamon
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup minced onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Put rice in saucepan with 2 1/4 cups water and dash salt. Bring to boil, cover tightly, reduce heat to low and cook 40 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes. Remove cover and fluff with fork.
Separate broccoli spears. Peel stems and cut broccoli into 1 1/2-inch pieces.
Put 1 tablespoon oil in large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add cashew nuts and toast, tossing, until light brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer to plate lined with paper towels.
Add remaining 3 tablespoons oil to skillet and increase heat to medium-high. When oil is hot, add cumin seeds and fry until dark brown, about 20 seconds. Add cinnamon stick and bay leaves and fry 30 seconds. Add onion and garlic and fry, stirring, until onion is tender and begins to brown, about 5 minutes.
Add broccoli to skillet and continue cooking 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add enough water to cover bottom of skillet, about 1/2 cup, bring to boil and reduce heat to low. Cover and cook until broccoli is done but still crisp, about 6 minutes. Remove cover, mix in cooked rice and 1 teaspoon coarse salt, replace cover and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Uncover and carefully stir in toasted cashew nuts. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Each of 4 servings contains about:
582 calories; 715 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 68 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams protein; 2.33 grams fiber.
This is a recently invented Central Asian pilaf, dating from just after World War II. At first popular among teahouse pilaf cooks in eastern Uzbekistan, it’s now cooked all over that country. Most people squish out the mild cooked garlic from the whole cloves and use it as a sauce for the pilaf. From “Plovy na Liuboi Vkus” by Karim Makhmudov.
SARIMSAAQLI PALAAW (Central Asian Garlic Pilaf)
3/4 cup oil
4 to 5 small onions, diced
1 pound lamb leg meat, cubed
4 large carrots, cut in julienne
12 heads garlic
5 cups rice, soaked in 5 changes of water and drained
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground red pepper or cayenne
Put oil in large pot, add onions and saute over medium heat until light brown. Add meat and stir until browned. Add carrots and 5 cups water, and cook over medium-high heat until meat is tender, about 7 minutes. Mix whole heads of garlic into stew and sprinkle rinsed rice over. Add 8 cups water, taking care not to disturb layering of rice and stew, and boil uncovered until rice absorbs water, about 40 to 45 minutes.
When rice is done, heap rice in pot, cover, reduce heat to minimum, cover pot and steam 25 to 30 minutes. Serve 1 head garlic with each portion of pilaf. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
Each of 10 servings contains about:
569 calories; 278 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 85 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 1.08 grams fiber.
This popular side dish shows the Turkish taste for adding a warm tomato flavor to a pilaf that might otherwise be at home in Central Asia. From “The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking” by Ayla Esen Algar.
IC PILAV (Pine Nuts and Currants Pilaf)
2 cups long-grain rice
2 lamb kidneys, diced, or liver and giblets of 1 chicken, optional
1/2 cup butter
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons currants
3 cups meat or chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped, or 1 tablespoon dry dill weed
Rinse rice until water runs clear. Put rice in bowl and cover with hot water mixed with 1 teaspoon salt. Let stand until water is cool. Drain.
If using lamb kidneys, saute in 1 tablespoon butter until stiffened and set aside. If using chicken liver and giblets, simmer in boiling salted water until tender. Drain well, dice and saute in 1 tablespoon butter.
Melt remaining 7 tablespoons butter in saucepan and saute onion with pine nuts until golden brown. Stir in drained rice and cook 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Stir in currants, then stock, sugar, allspice, salt and pepper to taste and lamb kidneys or chicken liver and giblets. Cover and cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
When liquid is absorbed, stir in dill. Fold clean kitchen towel and cover mouth of saucepan. Place lid on top of kitchen towel. Leave over lowest heat, heat diffuser or other warm surface 30 minutes. Mix well and serve. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
418 calories; 601 mg sodium; 42 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 56 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.72 gram fiber.
“The process of caramelizing meat is an African practice that became part of the Creole culinary tradition,” write Dave DeWitt and Mary Jane Wilan in “Callaloo, Calypso and Carnival: The Cuisines of Trinidad and Tobago.” In the Caribbean, pilaf encountered local and African influences, but it’s interesting to see that the brown layer (the “bunbun”) that forms on the bottom of the pot is considered a treat, just like the Persian tah dig. Beef or goat meat can be substituted for the chicken; DeWitt and Wilan recommend that it be parboiled 45 minutes before using. Canned coconut milk can substitute for fresh, but check the label to be sure it’s straight coconut milk, with no sugar, not the sweetened kind used for pina coladas.
PELAU (Trinidadian Chicken and Black-Eyed Bean Pilaf)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup granulated sugar, or brown sugar, packed
1 (2 1/2- to 3-pound) chicken, cut up
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups pigeon peas or black-eyed beans, soaked overnight
2 cups rice
3 cups water
1 cup Coconut Milk
2 cups cubed Hubbard squash
2 carrots, chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bunch green onions, including green tops, chopped
1/4 cup ketchup
3 tablespoons butter
In heavy pot or skillet over high heat, heat oil. Add sugar and let caramelize until almost burned, stirring constantly. Add chicken and stir until all pieces are coated with sugar.
Reduce heat to medium, add onion and garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Drain peas and add to pot. Add rice, water and coconut milk. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, 30 minutes.
Add squash, carrots, parsley, thyme, green onions, ketchup and butter and stir well. Cover and cook over medium heat until vegetables are tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
955 calories; 260 mg sodium; 88 mg cholesterol; 37 grams fat; 122 grams carbohydrates; 36 grams protein; 4.01 grams fiber.
2 cups grated fresh coconut or 1 cup unsweetened dried coconut
1 cup boiling water or milk
Put coconut in bowl and pour boiling water (milk, if using dried coconut) over. Let steep 15 minutes. Then drain and press liquid through muslin.