All About Pilaf… How It Originated In Persia, The Best Way Of Making It, And How To Achieve The Elusive Tahdig

“Working over two centuries, linguists have been able to create an astonishingly detailed shared word-picture of the Proto-Indo-European world of about five thousand years ago, the world from which Achilles came. It sounds, first, like a dream environment, teeming with life: wolves, lynxes, elk and red deer, hares, hedgehogs, geese and cranes, eagles and bees, beavers and otters have cognates in all of the Indo-European languages. There are no shared words for laurel, cypress or olive: this cannot have been a Mediterranean place…..”

Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead, Why Homer Matters

I suppose it’s obvious, but until I’d read Nicolson’s book I’d never given a thought to how revealing language can be. And language describing food does not just provide a snapshot of a particular era, it’s also a kind of living history, a link between the ever-developing present to the foundations of the past.

An excellent example of this is the pilaf. A couple of thousand years after Homer was writing about geese and bees, another word picture, this time opening out onto the middle-eastern world emerges, particularly in terms of food, with ‘pilaf’ being common to cuisines of the many different nations included in that immense area. All of these regions have different, same-root words for pilaf – palau, pilau, plov, pelau, piláfi, pulav, palaw, pilaw, pulaka…..

The source seems to be Persia, and that must have been a place of rice.

Persia as the originator of the pilaf

One of the earliest references to the pilaf occurs in a history of Alexander the Great describing a time around 330 BC when he was staying in a part of Persia known as Bactria, and a feast was held to celebrate the capture of Samarkand. You can see plates of what looks like rice in the friezes at the ruins of Persepolis (in the image above) in modern day Iran. Some 1300 years later a tenth century scholar, Abu Ali Ibn Sina, wrote a medical book which included an analysis of the ingredients and methods used for preparing this dish.

Pilaf spreads as far afield as India and western Europe

The dish spread from Persia to Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Uzbeks and Tajiks, Pashtuns and Afgans and to Jews living in the middle east. Moving rapidly forward to modern history it spread from Uzbekistan to other nations in the old USSR and down to south Asia. It also occurs in India. Pilaf reached western Europe probably from Turkey, and it is now enjoyed even in the Caribbean.

The perfect way to use up leftovers

Got a fridge heaving with odds and sods? Pilaf is the thing to cook. The whole concept of this dish is not only that it is a method of cooking fluffy, non-sticky rice, but also that it incorporates ‘other ingredients’, which can be anything which needs using up. Leftover beef… leftover carrots? Throw them in with cinnamon, fennel seeds, paprika, saffron, barberries, spring onion, and almonds….it becomes food for the Gods!

How to make a fluffy pilaf

The fluffiness – the individual grains of rice remaining separate – is achieved partly by washing it first (not so necessary in today’s world, where, if anything we tend to over-refine things), and partly by inserting a cloth under the lid of the saucepan to absorb condensation from the steam and prevent it dripping back down onto the rice.

How to achieve the holy grail – the tahdig

For purists there is a further real treat of a sophistication: the tahdig. The word means ‘bottom of the pot’ – well-named as it’s the golden crust of rice which forms where the rice meets the pot bottom.

In the village in Hampshire where I live the vicar (who has sadly moved on now) was an oil executive in a previous life and had been posted to Iran. His wife explained that if you want to dislodge this precious crust in one piece you need to immerse the bottom of the pan in cold water for a minute first before turning it over onto a serving plate. If you’re feeling nervous you can line the bottom of the pot with baking paper instead but that method is just as much of a fiddle as manhandling the pot in the water in my view. Whatever you do, though, use a non-stick pan!

It looks great if it all comes out in one, but if it doesn’t you can simply scrape the crispy bottom out of the pan and pile it with a flourish on top of the rice. The tahdig is my favourite bit – as is the crispy crust which forms on the bottom of fried mashed potato – that hardly ever comes out in one piece either. A friend of mine describes it even more lyrically:

“A tahdeeg layered with yogurt, saffron, orange zest and butter is out of this world, with its crispy crust and fluffy interior. I can’t stop eating the stuff once it’s on my plate.”

For non-purists there is another option of replacing the rice with bulgar wheat or freekeh (young green wheat that has been roasted and cracked).

A couple of things to add to your pilaf to make it special:

  • Stir in a couple of tablespoons of toasted vermicelli. You can buy it ready-toasted or otherwise fry the dry pasta in a saucepan with some olive oil for a minute or two before boiling.
  • It’s a very nice idea to serve the pilaf with thick yoghurt
  • For jewelled rice, add golden Angori raisins at the beginning of the cooking process, and pomegranate seeds, and chopped dill or parsley, right at the end
  • a herb pilaf with coriander, parsley (use the stems of both these herbs), chives and dill and spring onion (use at least an inch (couple of cm) of the green part).
  • make it very Persian by adding barberries (or dried sour cherries… even raisins), toasted flaked almonds, cinnamon sticks, chicken, ginger, turmeric, a squeeze of lime, spring onions and garlic

You can transform a pilaf into a full-blown meat dish as in Turkish lamb pilaf.

Or you can make a fresh vegetable pilaf with dill, mint, broad beans, frozen peas, halloumi, or even better, Caucasian cheese (half the weight of the rice), spring onions and black nigella seeds;

Or you can serve a plain version with a chicken dish such as the Turkish Acem Yahnisi, or the Persian fesinjan.

How to make pilaf:

One of the best, and most poetic, ways of making a pilaf is described in The Janissary Tree, the first of Jason Goodwin’s series about the Ottoman detective, Yashim.

“How do you find three men in a decaying, medieval, mist-benighted city of two million people?
You don’t even try.
You cook.
…… Yashim selected several small, firm onions. He peeled and sliced them on the block, first one way and then another…. The rice had gone clear so he threw in a handful of currants and another of pine nuts, a lump of sugar and a big pinch of salt. He took down a jar from the shelf and helped himself to a spoonful of oily tomato paste which he mixed into a tea glass of water. He drained the glass into the rice, with a hiss and plume of steam. He added a pinch of dried mint and ground some pepper into the pot and stirred the rice, then clamped on a lid and moved the pot to the back of the stove….”

Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree

You can do the same as Yashim, or you can limit yourself to boiling the (rinsed if you can be bothered) rice for several minutes in water and then draining and seasoning it. Melt butter in a new pan and add cardamom pods, a cinnamon stick, several filaments of saffron, and a couple of strips of lemon peel (minus the white pith). For more specific quantities and times follow this link.

You can achieve the same attractive yellow, golden look for the rice less expensively by substituting turmeric for the saffron, or by putting a little sugar in the pan first, allowing it to caramelise and then adding the boiling water and rice.

A minute later, when you start to smell the spices, and they begin to sizzle, add a couple of tablespoons of water and an inch or so layer of rice, then another inch, then another, and so on. The idea is not to pack it down, you want the air to escape. It also helps to push the handle of a wooden spoon down several times to make holes for the air. At this stage you can pour a little mixed melted butter and water over the rice. Wrap the saucepan lid with a tea towel and cook in the oven for about half an hour or so.

To test when the rice is done, lick your finger and place on the side of the saucepan around the level of the top of the rice within. If your finger hisses, the rice is cooked. 

Turn out as described by the vicar’s wife, above.

fresh vegetarian pilaf with halloumi
Fresh vegetarian pilaf with halloumi
This post is dedicated to Errol and Sue Williams.
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