Pilaf is a rice dish containing rice cooked in seasoned broth. It is cooked in different kinds of meats and vegetables, with variants differing across locations. It is also known by the names of polo, polao, pilau, pilav, pilaff, plov or pulao in different languages from across the world. The word pilaf comes from Turkish language, and the roots can be traced to the Sanskrit word ‘palaka’. It is called ‘pulav’ in Hindi. Pilaf and related dishes are common to Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian, East African, Latin American, and Caribbean cuisines.
The tenth century Persian scholar Abu Ali Ibn Sina is known to have first documented the preparation method of pilaf in his books. Mention of Palau is also found in the times of Alexander the Great. In one of his conquests (of the Sogdian capital of Marakanda), it was offered to him by the Bactrians. Bactria was then a province of eastern Iran, now a part of modern Afghanistan. Alexander’s army took back the dish to Marcedonia from where it spread throughout eastern Europe.
Different languages and pilaf recipes have given rise to different terms used for the dish. Some of them are: Polow (pilaf cooked in broth, where the water is strained from half cooked rice and then broth is added before further cooking), Chelow (white rice pilaf with separate grains), Biryani, Tachine (slow cooked pilaf with meat and vegetables on a utensil called tachine), Kateh (sticky pilaf). The pilaf recipes of Iran can be classified into four methods, which are as follows.
• Chelow: In this method, rice is first soaked and then parboiled, at which stage the water is drained and the rice is steamed. Cooking by this method results in fluffy rice, with the grains separated from each other, and also a golden crust or ‘tah-digh’ formed at the bottom of the cooking pot. Rice that is carefully prepared through soaking and parboiling, at which point the water is drained and the rice is steamed. This method results in an exceptionally fluffy rice with the grains separated and not sticky; it also results in a golden rice crust at the bottom of the pot called tah-digh (literally "bottom of the pot").
• Kateh: Traditionally prepared in Northern Iran, the method involves boiling the rice till all the water is absorbed.
• Damy: In this method, the rice is boiled till all the water is absorbed, but once the water starts boiling, the heat is reduced and a towel is placed between the lid and the cooking pot, to prevent the steam from escaping.
• Polow: Rice is soaked, parboiled, the water is drained, after which other ingredients are mixed with the rice in the form of layers in between the rice. The contents are then steamed together in these type of pilaf recipes.
Types of Pilaf
In Italian cuisine, pilaf recipes involve placing rice in a tray and baking with a large onion or carrot. It is then cooled and refrigerated, to be used as and when risotto has to be prepared. The method is popular with Italian restaurants because it cuts down on time for risotto preparation.
- Qabili Palau is a pilaf cooked in Afghanistan. Pilaf recipes for this variant use basmati variety of rice in a sauce with lamb, beef or chicken. It is topped with fried slices of carrots and raisins, chopped pistachios and/ or almonds. The meat is buried in the rice, in the center of the dish. Pulao or pulav is pilaf from South Asia, made by cooking rice with meat, peas, potatoes and spices. It is high in energy and fat content. It is prepared on special occasions like parties and weddings.
- Biryani is another Indian variety of South Asian pulao, which was introduced in India during the Mughal period. It is deliciously spicy and is very commonly available in restaurants and also as street food in India and Pakistan.
- Piláfi is pilaf prepared in Greece. It is made by cooking rice in meat stock or bouillon broth. It is soft and fluffy, and is cooked in an oven. Gamopílafo ("wedding pilaf") is pilaf made with rice boiled in chicken broth to which lemon juice and staka butter is added. It is served traditionally in weddings and other celebrations.
- Uzbek plov is prepared by cooking the rice in zirvak, a stew made with meat and vegetables. It is cooked till all the stew is absorbed into the rice. The stew used in such pilaf recipes is prepared by browning lamb or mutton in oil, and then stewing it for several hours with fried onions and carrots. Sometimes chicken or beef may also be used in these pilaf recipes . Spices like cumin, coriander, barberries and garlic are used. Sometimes raisins and dried apricots may also be added. Uzbek plov is widely eaten in the Soviet Union.