The Courtly Pulao

The Courtly Pulao

If any dish can be said to be the foundation of a cuisine, then pilaf is for Mughal cuisine. It has a fascinating history and dominates the dinner table as centerpiece. The fragrant pilaf originated in Persia and spread throughout the world with a subtle change of consonants – in India pilau, in Turkey pilav, in Russia pollov, in Uzbekistan and Albania pilaf. In Spain, with the addition of seafood and an emphasis on saffron it became paella. In Italy, butter transformed it into risotta.

One of the earliest literary references to pilaf can be found in the histories of Alexander the Great when describing Bactrian hospitality. It was known to have been served to Alexander the Great upon his capture of the Sogdian capital of Marakanda (modern Samarkand, Uzbekistan) in 329 BC. Alexander’s army brought it back to Macedonia and spread it throughout Eastern Europe. It is believed that proper preparation of pilaf was first documented by the tenth century Persian scholar Abu Ali Ibn Sina (popularly known as Avicenna), in his medical science book. He had elaborated several types of pilaf and today in Tajikistan, Ibn Sina is considered as “father of modern pilaf”.

The pièce de résistance of Persian cuisine was pilaf. Between the eighth and tenth century, the pilaf was nomadic shepherds dish, prepared over their campfires. The dish usually consists of barley or wheat as main ingredient. As rice was a luxury at that time and only nobles imported it from India.

Emperor Humuyun (1530-1556) brought with him a strong preference for Persian culture and a large number of Persian cooks. Needless to say that Mughal dynasty introduced the pilaf cooking techniques to Indians. However, Indian cooks often incorporated their local dishes into the courtly culinary repertoire. And many innovative ideas were welcomed and accepted. So, by the time of Akbar (1542-1605), pilaf became a standard fare in the palace kitchens and there were numerous variations, such as fruit pilaf, turmeric and saffron ones; some varied by the addition of onion and garlic, or with raisins and almonds, and others varied by the color of the rice. In can be evidenced from British traveler Sir Thomas Herbert’s writings (1668) about varieties of pilaf in the subcontinent.

Royal cooks judged the quality of a pilaf by the rice, which was supposed to swell up completely, but without becoming sticky and forming into lumps. A good pilaf was also highly aromatic, filling the room with the delicate scent of its spices. Their cooks soaked the rice in salted water for many hours to ensure that, when it was cooked, the grains were gleaming white, providing a striking contrast to colored grains that ranged from coal black to yellow, blue, green and red. As John Fryer (17th Century East India company physician and a sailor) put it this way: “you may know their cooks are wittie.” And as an echo of their wit can be still found in Indian restaurants today, where pilaf rice comes in different shades like pink, yellow and orange. However, today with growing health concerns, addition of vegetables have replaced the use of food colors in many households.

Thus, pilaf is one of the most diverse dish today. Over the years with variations and innovations by Persians, Arabs, Turks, Armenians and Indians. Yes, there is no definite recipe for it, as every region and country has their own versions to surprise us. It is one of the reason for the popularity of the dish throughout Middle East, Asia and beyond.

© 2010 Malar Gandhi,  All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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