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The Middle Eastern Treat

October 28, 1998|CHARLES PERRY

When people visit Middle Eastern restaurants, they often find themselves saying, "Hey, we're eating Rice-A-Roni!"

Close enough. The "San Francisco Treat" is a traditional pilaf known as rizz bi-sha'riyya in Arabic and sehriyeli pilav in Turkish.

It goes back more than 500 years. A 15th century Damascus cookbook entitled "Kitab al-Tibakha" included the following short and sweet recipe: "Brown noodles in the oven and cook them with rice."

Why do this? Well, Middle Eastern cooks simply enjoyed playing off the whiteness of rice by mixing it with something of another color. There was (and still is) a custom of dyeing some rice grains with saffron or pomegranate juice and sprinkling them on pilaf for contrast.

The 15th century noodle was made by rolling out pasta and slicing it. Although its name, rishta, comes from a Persian word meaning string, it was probably as wide as fettuccine.

Then Italian pasta-making technology spread into the Middle East in the 19th century. There had probably been very thin noodles there before, but now commercial pasta makers could produce vermicelli by the Italian method of extruding dough through a die with tiny holes in it. Vermicelli (sha'riyya, sehriye) became the fashionable noodle for this pilaf.

Meanwhile, many Middle Eastern cooks had kept on making rishta at home, often by still a third method: rolling tiny balls of dough by hand into short strands. It could have been this homemade rishta shape that was used by the Armenian neighbor from whom Tom and Lois DeDomenico learned the dish in the 1950s.

The DeDomenico family happened to own the Golden Grain pasta company of San Francisco, and the rest is history. Golden Grain doesn't seem to be making a big deal of it, but this year is the 40th anniversary of the Rice-A-Roni brand.

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