Sue Quinn breaks down the making of this ancient grain-based dish
There are as many variations of pilaf as there are grains of rice or wheat in a bowl of this gloriously aromatic dish, or so it seems. Riffs on it are also numerous, including (but by no means confined to) pilau, pilav, palov, plov—and even paella if you’re happy to stretch the definition just a little.
In essence, pilaf is a dish of rice or wheat, prepared in a manner that ensures the grains stay separate—not wet and clingy, risotto style—when cooked in a rich stock. This makes a starchy vehicle for other flavours to hitch a ride on, and these vary according to the departure point.
In India, for example, pilaf woos the hungry with fragrant spices, while a plateful found elsewhere might entice with meat, chickpeas or raisins. In rice versions, meat and vegetables are sometimes buried in grains that have been partially cooked in stock, effectively steaming them, with caramelised onions. Sometimes, the most relished element is the intensely delicious golden crust at the bottom of the pan.
Nadia Stokes, the co-founder of Elpiniki (previously known as Gourmet Goat), conjures her magical version with bulgur wheat, which is typical of the pilafs of Cyprus, where she was born and raised. According to Nadia, a Cypriot pilaf is often served as the centrepiece at a wedding or celebratory feast. “It symbolises life and abundance and the generosity of nature,” she says.
Her pilaf requires time to tease out and layer the flavours. Strands of vermicelli are fried in plenty of good Greek olive oil until lightly golden and toasty smelling. Onions are added and gently cooked for two hours until very soft and sweet, then tomatoes go in. “It’s a lengthy process but these are core flavours: the toastiness of the vermicelli and the sweetness of the onions can’t be replicated any other way.”
Coarse bulgur wheat is added to this oniony base, along with some water, and simmered until tender. To add crunch, toasted fava beans (from the British brand Hodmedod’s) are folded through at the end. The pilaf is served with a punchy slaw made from cabbage, dates, sumac, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil, and topped with a choice of kid goat kofta, slow roast rose veal or grilled halloumi. But in Cyprus, a mound of pilaf crowned with natural yoghurt is considered a splendid meal in itself. Little wonder.
Onions are cooked low and slow in butter, oil or ghee until translucent, soft and sticky. This makes a tasty buttress for other flavours to build upon.
Rice or wheat
Rice or wheat forms the bulk of the dish. Rice is often soaked and rinsed before cooking to wash away the starch, which would otherwise make the grains clump together. Toasting before adding the stock ramps up the flavour volume.
Stock plumps the grains during cooking and delivers flavour: rich meaty broths or fragrant vegetable ones are both used.
Variations are endless: meat (often lamb), chicken, vegetables, dried fruit, nuts and/or pulses are sometimes cooked (effectively steamed) in layers with the rice, like culinary strata.
Extras can be flamboyant or modest: from pomegranate seeds and peas, through to barberries and mulberries. In Cyprus, yoghurt is all but mandatory.