Gourmet Secrets: Popularly known as pilaf or pullau, the good old rice dish is called plov in Uzbekistan
I can do without most carbs at a pinch, but a hot dish of any sort of rice whether it is simple dal-bhaat, a fluffy Chinese egg fried rice or an exquisite biryani, just makes me melt. I have already waxed eloquent about risotto in this column. Now to something nearer home – the pilaf, pullau or plov as I recently discovered on a trip to Uzbekistan.
Plov is served after the myriad of salads and appetisers very much like the Middle Eastern mezze. It is washed down with hot green tea. One of the nicest places to enjoy the ritual is sitting on a wooden charpoy rather like a bed without a mattress (sori) in a chaikhana, which is more like a casual restaurant than a tea house.
There are as many versions of plov as there are of biryani. I was fortunate enough to be able to take a class at the Tashkent equivalent of Hospitality School (Association of Cooks of Uzbekistan) where I learnt that unlike biryani, it is not the ingredients which makes the dish but the process. All that really goes into a plov is onions, carrots, chunks of lamb, lamb fat, dry berries or raisins, seasoning, cumin and thick rice. That’s it.
According to legend, plov was invented in the 4th century BC by Alexander the Great who instructed his cooks to prepare a light but filling rice dish for his army with what was on hand. They used lamb or quail and sometimes a bit of chilli in addition to the staples. Interestingly, Uzbeks believe that only men should prepare plov. It helps to know a bit of the history that connects all the rice dishes of this region and traces the history behind our pullau and biryani. Central Asia, through various wars and invasions and then the Silk Road, was mostly influenced by Turks and Persians. In the 13th century, the region was invaded by the Mongols under Genghis Khan. Similarly, Delhi was once ruled by the Afghans, Turks and Central Asians who were Muslim, but looked to the Persian courts for refinement and culture. They employed Persian cooks and invited Persian travellers and nobles who documented what they saw. The cooks introduced nuts to enrich dishes and thicken sauces, mutton fat as a cooking medium and mutton (goat) as a delectable meat, dry fruits in rice, and went so far as to perfume both savoury and sweet dishes with the essence of orange, rose and kewra (screwpine). Although Islam forbids alcohol, they drank wine, a tradition continued by the Moghuls right up until Aurangzeb, the austere.
Uzbeks also have a thriving wine culture. The Mughals (from the word Mongol, which differentiated them from the Muslim Sultanate which came before) added further refinement to the cuisine as part of their overall lavish lifestyle. Pullaus, biryanis (from the Persian word ‘birinj’ for rice), kormas, saalans (curried dishes), kebabs and sweets were everyday fare. Pullaus were considered superior to biryani in medieval Delhi. They were made with rice, meat and meat stock cooked together whereas in biryanis, rice was cooked separately and then mixed with cooked or marinated meat and then cooked again.
Same, but different
Babur introduced grapes and melons to the area, fruits he missed from Central Asia and which he couldn’t find “on the dusty plains of Hindustan”. While the Mughal court dined lavishly, the more humble Muslim citizens dined on kebabs, keema and naan (something you will also find in Uzbekistan even today). The main difference is that Uzbek food lacks any kind of chilli. I did see some red powder in the bazaars, which tasted similar to Hungarian paprika.
At the Plov Centre in Tashkent, large degchis of plov are doled out to hungry customers. They cut huge chunks of lamb separately and pile it on top of the rice. You can also have slices of horse meat sausage and boiled eggs as optional add-ons.
This is the recipe from chef Erdemir Taner from the Hyatt Regency Tashkent. A passionate chef from Turkey who has been living and working in the region for many, many years, chef Taner specialises in regional Uzbek cuisine in his restaurant Khiva. What makes him most happy is taking visitors around Tashkent’s busy Chorsu Bazar to discover traditional ingredients and local produce. Since he speaks perfect English, this is quite a treat.
Here is his recipe for plov. It has become so popular that he serves it at breakfast too!
800 g meat (lamb or mutton)
300 ml vegetable oil
1.5 kg carrots
1 or 2 onions
100 g fat (optional)
1 kg rice
800 g chickpeas
Barberry (also known as zereshk or berberis),
1.2 litres water
Dice the fat and melt it in a kazan (traditional Uzbek cauldron). As a result you will get small pieces of fried fat called jizza which are often eaten as a snack. Dip large pieces of meat (including bones) into the melted fat, stir fry over high heat until golden brown.
Meanwhile, cut the carrots into strips, the onions in half circles, and clean the rice. Depending on the region, family habits and tastes, plov is made with orange or yellow carrots. The orange ones are sweeter.
Once the meat is fried, add the onions, then carrots. Add water, just enough to cover the ingredients. Add spices and chickpeas. Stew everything until tender and juicy. Make sure that every ingredient is well cooked. Now zirvak (the base for the plov) is ready.
The most important part is adding the rice. In Tashkent, plov is prepared primarily from white varieties – Lazer and Alanga. Add rice in an even layer over the zirvak, add some more water if necessary, again just enough to cover the rice. Put a lid over the pot and watch the magic of the main dish of Uzbek cuisine in process.
In 20 minutes, the rice is ready. It should remain al dente. If not, let it simmer further for a while. Take out the large chunks of lamb and cut into small pieces. Place the meat on top of the rice before serving.
Author Bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.
This is a fortnightly column. The next edition will appear on May 13 .
From HT Brunch, April 29, 2018
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