I have a thing about rice.
In my store cupboard you can find wild rice from France, arborio from Italy, Indian basmati rice and of course arroz bomba from Spain. I have a selection of brown (integral/wholemeal) rice too.
Pilaf is an English term borrowed from the Turkish pilav which in turn is derived from Persian polow. It is also known as plov (doesn’t sound so good, does it?) pilafi, pulao and polou, etc.
The ambiguous pilaf can be found in a whole host of countries including Greece, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. And no doubt lots of other countries too.
And then there are variations in Spain (paella), UK (kedgeree), Italy (risotto), Caribbean (rice & peas) and so on.
Alexander the Great (he died in 323 BC, it was one a few historical dates that I got right at school) enjoyed pilaf whilst in Persia and his soldiers brought it back to Macedonia where it spread throughout Greece although to be honest despite having visited Athens (and several Greek islands) more than twenty times; I have enjoyed great and wonderful food there but never pilaf.
My favourite version is pilau which was probably introduced into the Indian subcontinent by Alexander although most Indian restaurants in the UK (8 out of 10 are actually run by Bangladeshis by the way) serve their own version – biryani.
However, the best pilau I’ve ever tasted was cooked by the wife of the owner of The Bridge Chippy in Norden, Lancashire. The chippy had been in the same local family for a generation or two but the children decided that frying chips wasn’t their life time vocation so it was sold to an Asian family around 1980 who were actually kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin in the early 1970s and then settled in Blackburn before making the move to acquire the chippy.
Lo and behold this acquisition was not readily accepted by the majority of the locals until rumours spread about the size of the portions of chips!
I’ve tried many times to repeat the fabulous flavours that bounced around my mouth when eating Mrs Uganda’s pilau but my efforts, whilst quite good are nowhere near a match to hers.
Anyway, it is an easy enough one pot:
100ml basmati rice
150ml water (or stock)
Small red onion, chopped
Garlic (quantity of your choice)
½ tsp mustard seeds
Cardamom pod, crushed
Knob of fresh ginger, shredded
1 red or green chilli (seeds and membrane removed if desired)
Small potato, peeled and diced
Small carrot, peeled and diced
Small handful green beans, sliced
Bay leaf or two
Pinch mustard seeds
½ tsp garam masala
Salt to taste
Wash the rice in several changes of water then cover and leave to soak for 20 or 30 minutes
In a frying pan (with lid) add some oil (don’t be stingy) and throw in the mustard seeds and cook until they sizzle and pop then add the onion to sauté not brown.
Add the ginger, garlic and chilli… fry off for a minute or two before adding the rest of the vegetables.
Then add the bay leaf, sultanas turmeric, garam masala and cardamom pod giving the pan a good shake.
Drain the rice then add it to the pan making sure it gets an oily coating and is coloured by the turmeric.
Add the water making sure the lid is a tight fit (otherwise cover the pan with foil) and simmer for 20 or 25 minutes until the rice has absorbed all of the liquid. If it is a little bit soggy then remove from the heat and place a tea towel over the pan.
And if by chance the rice has caught on the bottom of the pan then don’t worry as you will have created “socarrat” – Socorrat, from the Spanish verb socarrar (meaning to singe).
I sometimes wonder where Mrs Uganda is today.