Moghul Style rice Pilaf with Curried Chicken and Grilled Tomato
Few dishes span geography and history in as grand a manner as rice pilaf. Or pilau. or palov. Or palau. Or pulao. Or sopa seca, if you will. How the did rice cooked in broth become a common dish stretching from Asia to the Near East, North Africa, Europe and Central America?
It starts with the Persians (that’s what Iranians used to call themselves), and their neighbors in Central Asia, who were some of the first rice cultivators in the world. Having rice (typically of a long grain Basmati-style variety) as your staple food can get boring very fast, so the Persians developed multiple preparations for their rice, each producing a very different result based on the steaming/boiling/par-cooking methods used.
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that cooking the rice in a seasoned broth would be considered both highly nutritious and a little luxurious, what with broth being relatively more expensive than plain water. When Alexander the Great encountered the Persian Empire; he was fed a variant of pilaf by the locals; enjoying the dish so much that he brought the recipe back to Macedonia where it was in turn spread throughout Eastern Europe.
The story of pilaf is the story of the rise and fall of empires. The Persians spread the dish through Afghanistan, Central Asia, Turkey and the Arabian peninsula. The Turks brought it with them into their conquered territories, including parts of Europe and Asia Alexander never reached. During the course of the geopolitical rise of Islam the Arabs spread it throughout their domain, from the Middle East and North Africa all the way into Spain and Southern Italy.
The Spanish dishes of Arroz con Pollo and Paella and the basic methods behind Italian Risotto all stem from that Arab/Persian legacy. More on Spain in a moment.
The dish also spread eastward. The Mughal rulers of Northern India (and modern day Bangladesh, Kashmir and Pakistan) brought Islamic culture and religion to the subcontinent, and with it a variety of pilaf variations, such as Briyani and Pilau. In the parts of Southeast Asia where ethnic Indian communities traveled to (Burma and Indonesia especially) they brought variants of pilaf with them. Visitors to Singapore and Malaysia will find the same cooking style for pilaf utilizing Southeast Asian ingredients and flavors.
Over on the Iberian peninsula; the Spaniards reconquered their country after almost 800 years of Muslim rule. In 1492 they began both a campaign of ethnically cleansing Spain and Portugal of Jews and Muslims, as well as their exploration and colonization of the New World. Rice came with them, as well as refugee communities of Sephardi Jews who brought the Middle Eastern style rice, noodle and broth preparations. The descendants of those dishes can be seen on the everyday Mexican table in the Sopa Secas (literally “dry soups”) served with all main meals.
Rice pilaf has even become a staple in the US. What did you think Rice-a-Roni was?
Sopa Seca con Fideos
The running current of all these dishes, beyond being rice cooked in broth, is that they lend themselves to being served to large groups. Pilaf isn’t something you throw together for yourself, it’s a dish representative of hospitality traditions spanning the globe. From the breaking of a Ramadan fast in Jakarta, an upscale hotel in India, a Bedouin tent or a Quinceañera in El Paso- the presence of a rice pilaf transforms a meal into a feast.
So how the hell do you make it?
At it’s most basic; all you’ll need is long grain rice and good flavorful stock. The rest is a matter of plugging in different savories, spices, meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts and noodles to customize it to whatever framework you want it to fit in. Below is the basic technique, along with a few different variations you can try. Mix and match them. Experiment. That’s how we got the wealth of pilaf recipes we have now.
Your basic ratio should be 1 part rice; 2 parts stock.
Any long grain rice will do, but Indian Basmati rice is ideal for fluffy pilafs where the grains are separate. I recommend rinsing and draining the rice three times, making sure it’s not too damp when you’re ready to cook.
The flavor of the stock is up to you. Neutral stocks like chicken and vegetable tend to be flavorful without overpowering the other components. If you’re serving lamb with your pilaf, then use lamb stock, and so on. Make a little more than you need, just in case, and have your stock just short of boiling when you’re ready to cook.
Before you heat up your cooking fat in a heavy bottomed pan with a tight fitting lid; you’re going to need to consider a few things. Namely; which of the following ingredients you care to incorporate:
- Cooking Fat:
Vegetable oil, Olive oil, Grapeseed oil or Ghee (clarified butter)
Rice (rinsed), dry toasted noodles (like fideos)
Onion, Garlic, Carrot, Chopped Peppers, Ginger, Mushrooms.
Curry or Cardamon and Fennel Seed (for Indian-style), Cinnamon and Cardamon (Turkish/Persian), Saffron, Cumin and Cardamon (Middle Eastern).
- Veggies, Fruit & Nuts:
Peas, Tomatoes, Raisins, Grapes, Cashews, Slivered Almonds, Sultanas, Chopped Dates, Apples.
So you heat your fat in the pan to medium high. Throw in your onions and saute until translucent (or brown them if you prefer a stronger flavor).
Toss in your rice and stir constantly until each grain is lightly toasted.
If you’re using toasted noodles; throw them in now.
Add your spices and remaining savories and stir until lightly toasted.
Add your stock and any fruits, veggies or nuts you plan on adding. Stir well.
Bring to a boil and cover. Immediately bring to a low simmer.
That’s it! It should take about 35-45 minutes to cook.
DO NOT OPEN THE POT BEFORE THAT!
Once all the liquid is absorbed; fluff with a fork and serve immediately. If you don’t open it too many times; you can keep it warm in the oven with the lid tightly sealed.
Serve by itself or with anything that sounds good. Enjoy.