The Story Of The Pilaf: Decoding The Turkish Origins
Image Credit: The pilaf is actually individual grains of rice that are cooked separately.

There are largely three kinds of Indian cultures that go big on rice as far as my knowledge is concerned. One are the Bengalis who love their fish and prawn curries with a side of steamed rice, then there are South Indians who also love rice as much as the parottas and finally, Biharis, to whom I’m been a fair witness. Having been close to a Bihari friend for the past nine years, something that I have established about their eating habits is that they cannot compromise on their rice. They need it at least once in a day and the more, the merrier and like she’s told me, that’s the case with their entire village. 

Now, if rice is so important in certain Indian cultures, then so would be the rice-based dishes. Take biryani, for instance. From Lucknow to Hyderabad to Old Delhi, there are plenty of Indian regions that are famous for their biryanis. The dum pukht slow-cooked biryani or the quick Punjabi-style pressure cooker biryani, each one has its own unique texture and flavour. This one pot meal reminds me of another relatively simplistic dish, pulao. Not necessarily meaty, the pulao can be filled with all kinds of vegetables and cooked together in a kadhai, pressure cooker or a steel utensil. There are several derivations of this name, some call it pilau, plov, pulaka, palau or wait, have you heard of pilaf? 

What we once thought was the original dish is actually vice-versa. All these names have their roots in the pilaf. However, where are the roots of the pilaf then? 

Historical Theories And Notions 

While some allocate the origins of pilaf in the Turkish cuisine, we’ve got a plethora of South Asian, Mexican and Caribbean versions today which overthrow such claims. Through the series of notions, it can be deduced that there are largely two believable schools of thought on the origins of pilaf. One of them places the rice dish in the lap of the Persians with the traces of pilaf in Iranian cuisine. It is believed that somewhere between the 10th century and 13th century, this dish acquired a native flavour and was brought to lime-light through Arabic cookbooks during this period.  The mention of ruzz mufalfal, which means separate rice grains, in two Arabic cookbooks of the 13th century serve as evidence. 

The remains of the feast relished by Alexander, the Great upon the victory of Samarkand, are found in Persepolis of present-day Iran. This included grains of rice which serve as a marker of the fact that pilaf was consumed during this time. Moreover, a 10th century Iranian scientist produced a document containing the analysis of the ingredients of this dish. 

While there is enough proof for the Persian links to the pilaf, the tale of Indian origins also has some substance. It is believed that the term pulaka from Sanskrit language resonates with the idea of pilaf but these claims can be dismissed on the fact that pulaka actually means a lump of boiled rice whereas pilaf is much more than that. However, another interesting point to be noted here is that pilaf is not just a dish but can also be used to refer to a method of cooking rice i.e. water absorption of rice. This brings Indians one step closer to the pilaf.

In the words of restaurateur E.P. Veeraswamy, “The art of Pillau making is innate in the Mahommedan”. The existence of pulao was not known in India until the Middle-Ages and most often, people link pulao to be a Muslim dish, originating from the Persian cuisine as does the use of several Middle-Eastern ingredients like raisins and fruits in the making of the pilaf or pulao, which is actually the Persian style of cooking it. 

The Five Ways Of Cooking Pilaf 

There are largely five schools of pilaf since the 15th century, each with their own unique way of sprucing up the rice dish. One is the Iranian polos which are famous for their tah dig (bottom of the pot) cooking. In this, the rice is quite subtle and elegant with vegetables and lentils and load of fruits. This differs from the hearty palaws of Central Asia, where the rice is sprinkled onto the cooked vegetables and meat and usually short-grain rice is used in the making.

Then you’ve got Turkish essence of pilaf, which is usually a side dish as opposed to being a main dish in the Persian cuisine. It is generally a combination of rice and meat along with spices. This dish even spread to Spain in the form of paella with the trade conquests of Arabs in the region. The Indians under the colonial rule were influenced by the British empire and also lent the dish to the Caribbean who developed their own distinct style.