Pilau Talk

I was thinking about the word pilau and about all the geographical and culinary variations and possibilities that that small word opens up. The reason I was thinking about this was that I had, by chance, solved the geographical test set by our barista. OK, so, we go every morning to the same place for coffee. Devo Coffee has a fluid staff of 4-6 baristas, one of whom will be the barista for that morning. Eve might offer some of her psychedelic art for us to muse over. Bronwyn usually posts a coffee-based witticism on the blackboard.

Georgie sells her own beautifully scented candles. But Matt, he makes us work for our coffee. He draws, on the cafe blackboard, a map with perhaps the country’s flag, the name of surrounding countries and seas. The test is to name the country. Today I guessed correctly, can you?

Not as good as Matt’s map

And that, dear readers, is how I came to be thinking about Georgia and, of course, that led to pilau and then to the Silk Road – and I would love to do a comprehensive pilau or even Silk Road post but that is for a time when I have all of my books around me and I can dip in and out and marvel at connections and agonize over what I can include and what I have to leave out. Today I am keeping it simple.

And so, to mainly Georgian palaw, or plov, or pilau by any other name. In the present day, Central Asian, Indian, Turkish, Iranian and Caribbean cuisines are considered the five major schools of pilaf. Today it is the turn of C.Asia.

One of the earliest references to pilau (held by some to be apocryphal) occurs in a history of Alexander the Great, and details his stay in a part of Persia known as Bactria. A feast was held to celebrate his capture of Samarkand around 330 BC. Apparently, he and his army were so impressed by the varieties of local pilaf that they took many recipes home with them. On the friezes commemorating the capture of Samarkand, at the ruins of Persepolis in modern-day Iran, you can see what looks like plates of rice.

Some 1300 years later a tenth-century scholar, Abu Ali Ibn Sina, considered the ‘father’ of modern pilau, wrote a medical book which included an analysis of the ingredients and methods used for preparing this dish. The word pilaw comes from medieval Farsi. The dish spread from Persia to Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Uzbeks and Tajiks, Pashtuns and Afgans and to Jews living in the middle east. It also occurs in India. Pilau reached western Europe probably from Turkey. In today’s Caribbean it travelled from India, Europe, and Africa.

In modern times, and for our purposes, as a dish plov spread from Uzbekistan to other nations in the old USSR, including Georgia, and down to South Asia. In C. Asia and Russia, the term plov co-exists with the term palaw. The C. Asian palaw, or plov, is a heartier dish than those found in India, presently in Iran or in the older Persia. In 16th century Persian cookbooks, there are recipes which show ‘elegant and imaginative fruit-flavoured pilafs, such as quince, barberry, sour cherry, pomegranate, and mulberry’ (p625, The Oxford Companion to Food).

Most recipes for pilau (pilaf, plov, pulao, paella) present it as a rice dish although, in some regions, bulgar wheat is used. C. Asia and Georgia in particular, are alone in using both long and short-grain rice. The recipe usually involves cooking the grain in stock or broth, adding spices, and other ingredients such as vegetables or meat. The meat ‘stew’ element is cooked first and is added to the ‘plov’ element along with vegetables (for instance, stubby local yellow carrots and onions), spices such as ground star anise, cumin, coriander, and chili pepper, and other ingredients such as currants and chickpeas and finally the rice. Almost every region has its own version, even if the differences can be quite subtle sometimes. Tashkent plov,  is made with the ubiquitous yellow carrots, but Florian from Food Perestroika tells us that it can be served with kazy, horse sausage. An alternative account holds that C. Asian plov differs from other preparations in that rice is not first steamed, but instead simmered in the rich stew of meat and vegetables until all the liquid is absorbed into the rice. Uzbek-style palov is found also in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. In Xinjiang, where the dish is known as polu, it is often served with pickled vegetables, including carrots, onion, and tomato.

I have come across references to sweet pilau but could only find a couple of Georgian recipes. One of them comes from the excellent Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey by Najmieh Batmanglij. The other is from the cuisine section of the Georgian Journal and it is called ‘Georgian sweet rice pilaf with dried fruit and apples’ and so that is what I present as this week’s recipe.

Weekly Recipe

Georgian sweet rice pilaf with dried fruit and apples