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Pilaf : The 5 Schools of Pilaf : Foodways: From India to the West Indies, cooks have spent centuries refining this non-mushy approach to rice.

December 09, 1993|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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