Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pilaf, paella and pulao - how a rice dish conquered the world

The old Persian Empire was at one time the largest empire of the ancient world. Geographically, modern Iran is only a shadow of those former glories, yet the Persians left a clear influence on the cultures of many nations in Europe, North Africa and Asia. One notable aspect is culinary, and a prime example of this is the pilaf, a dish that probably originated in ancient Persia but now exists in various forms all over the world. In its most basic form, pilaf is rice, often cooked in stock, and often combined with spices, meats and vegetables. Some of its descendants - India's biryani, Spain's paella, the plov of Central Asia - are some of the most popular of those respective cuisines.

While rice had been grown in East Asia and India for thousands of years, the Persians only began cultivating it on a large scale sometime between 1000 BC-500 BC. Around this time, some enterprising Persian invented the first pilaf. It is quite possible that the technique is actually from India, which had a longer history of eating rice; but in any case the name that stuck was Persian.

Polo or polow, as it is called in modern Farsi, is one of the flagship dishes in Iranian cuisine. Usually containing lamb or chicken and often featuring dried fruits and nuts, it comes in many varieties. Butter and saffron are commonly used to flavour the rice, which must be basmati or another top-quality variety. Zereshk polow (pictured) is a well-known variation which features chicken and dried barberries.

With the Persian Empire extending deeply into Central Asia, pilaf was introduced there as well. It had become a common enough dish to be recorded as being served to Alexander the Great of Macedonia when his armies conquered Persia around 330 BC, and they introduced the dish, now called pilafi, to Greece upon their return. Today, plov is a dish of enormous cultural significance in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijian and surrounding countries, essential at weddings and other celebrations. It is now consumed as far east as Xinjiang province in Western China. Carrots are a very common addition in Central Asia, with mutton being the usual meat used. One of Afghanistan's national dishes, qabuli pulao, uses grated carrots, raisins, lamb, aromatic spices, almonds and of course basmati rice.

The dish was reintroduced to Europe by the Turks. Originally a Central Asian people, they began their move into what is modern-day Turkey around 1000 AD, and by the 17th Century the Ottoman Empire extended as far as Algeria, Somalia and Central Europe. The Ottomans are also credited with introducing coffee into Europe, while that quintessential Austrian dessert strudel is based on the Turkish filo pastry. While the Turks still make their pilav from rice, bulgur wheat is a very common substitute (pictured). Today, pilaf is a common method of preparing rice throughout Greece, the Balkans, Bulgaria and Romania, a legacy of Turkish rule in the region. While it was probably already familiar to the Greeks from the days of Alexander, this would have been reinforced by the Turks for whom pilaf has always been a quintessential dish.

The Indian subcontinent was constantly under the rule of invaders from the northwest, and in particular the Mughal Empire (1526-1827), originating in Persia, had a profound effect on Indian cuisine. Famous North Indian dishes like korma, paneer and kebabs are legacies of this era. And of course pilaf, or pulao as it is known in India. An elaborate variation of pulao is the well-known dish biryani, which is pulao rice layered with meat, vegetables, dried fruits and nuts. Indians make the spiciest variation of pilaf, as might be expected, yet the spices used tend to recall the dish's Persian origins - cardamom and saffron in particular. One of the most renowned variations is the Hyderabadi Dum Biryani (pictured), in which the flavours of South India meet strong Mughlai influences.

The dish made it as far south as Sri Lanka, where it is called pilau, while biryani is a much-loved dish there as well as in Mauritius, brought by Indian migrants.

The Arabs were quick to pick up the art of cooking flavoured rice from the Persians, and the rise of Islam meant that they spread their culture and cuisine far and wide. In Indonesia, a dish called nasi kebuli (pictured) is a legacy of Arab trade in the region and is commonly prepared by restauranteurs with Arab descent. Despite using obviously SE Asian ingredients such as lemon grass and sometimes coconut milk along with meat (goat or chicken) and rice, it also uses clarified butter and spices such as cinnamon, cumin, cloves and cardamom which are typical of Middle-Eastern cooking but not of Indonesian; indeed, its name translates as "Kabul rice".

The spread of Islam across North, East and West Africa also brought culinary ideas with it. Senegal's national dish thieboudienne (rice cooked with fish, onions and tomatoes) and the similar joloff rice (pictured) of Nigeria and Ghana, bear witness to Arabic influence in West Africa. Pilau is also a very common dish in the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. While the name and similarity to Indian pulao may lead one to suspect this is a dish introduced by the many Indian immigrants to those countries, it appears to be a Swahili dish that predates the Indian presence in Africa. The Swahili culture is a fusion of East African cultures with that of the Persians and Arabs who traded up and down the coast from the 6th Century AD. The Somali people, themselves heavily influenced by the Arabs, also frequently consume a rice-and-meat dish called isku dhex-karis, spiced with cardamom and frequently with raisins.

Meanwhile, along Africa's northern coast, the Moors (Arab and Berber peoples) conquered Spain and introduced rice into the Spanish diet. From this resulting fusion of cultures, the dish known as paella was born in Valencia. Despite the etymological similarity of the words paella and polow/pulao/pilaf this is perhaps only a coincidence. Most sources point to the word paella stemming from the name of the pan in which it is cooked, which is also called a paella (from the Latin patella). In any case, the dish itself (rice cooked in stock with meat or seafood with vegetables) clearly recalls its distant Persian origins, particularly with the presence of saffron as an essential ingredient.

The Spanish spread their rice dishes to the corners of the globe. Thus the Philippines has its own variations of paella, while in Latin America, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) is ubiquitous. These dishes tend to eschew saffron for the cheaper spice annatto, but the result is still to dye the dish yellow, just like in Spain, India or Somalia. The name of another common Latin American rice dish is a reminder yet again of the Arab influence on Spanish cooking - Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), with white rice representing the Christian Spaniards and black or red beans representing the darker-skinned Moors. The frequent use of cumin and cilantro throughout Latin America is another reminder of the Moorish legacy in Spain - around the time of Columbus those influences would have been more pronounced.

Pilaf was to become an important part of Russian cuisine as well, due to its history of interaction with Central Asia - constantly invaded by Turkic and Mongol peoples from the 11th Century onward, then gradually expanding Russian territory southward and westward from the 16th Century onward. Thus when pilaf first became known to the chefs of Western Europe, it was as a Russian dish.

The other famous rice dish of Europe, Italy's risotto, may or may not be a descendant of the pilaf. Certainly the Arabs did occupy parts of what is now Italy, and risotto is similar to many pilafs elsewhere in its early stages of preparation - stir-frying the rice in oil with onion before adding stock is a classic pilaf method. Saffron is a key ingredient in the classic form of the dish as well. But risotto was born not in Arab-occupied Sicily, but in Northern Italy around Milan - is it possible that the region's proximity to the Ottoman-controlled Balkans gave rise to this dish? It must be said though that the somewhat sludgy consistency of risotto would be unthinkable to a Persian polow-lover, for whom the grains must be dry and separate - so it is a significantly different enough dish to call any links into question.

In any case, the results are delicious. The original polow of ancient Persia has certainly travelled a long way.

Like this? You may also find these posts interesting:

So who really invented noodles? China or Italy?

Foods That Make You Stink - Fenugreek

Green Tea is Intent on World Domination

Is Chai Latte Only a Drink for Wankers?


  1. Love it! I've been thinking a lot about the pilaf family lately, too.


  2. Awesome post! I was just pondering this as I am cooking paella today in a paella pan, but my house - being North Indian - is a strictly pulaao, no biryani, home! :)

  3. The difference of paella from Persian pilaf is saffron? Interesting, because in Iran (or Persia for you) most rice dishes contain saffron.

    1. Eurasian sensationJune 27, 2014 at 7:03 AM

      That is the opposite of what I said.

  4. A great article. Stumbled on your blog by mistake but I love the history behind the dishes :) Will definately be visiting again!

  5. Uyghur's pilaf is awesome,try it guys

  6. When I came back from my Thailand vacation I really missed their food, especially all of that chewy rice pots. For those who share my passion, I would recommend visiting cooker.guru/best-rice-cookers-for-brown-rice-reviews to find the best rice cooker to make it on yourown. The reason I'm not giving you a direct link on the cooker that I have is that it's all depends on your own preferences and needs. Have fun cooking!)

  7. If rice was first cultivated in India and Asia, it is more likely the Persians learnt the idea from the Indians/Asians, not the other way around. The Persian first theory sounds like a Western centric revisionist idea

  8. Actually the word Paella comes from the old french word paelle which means a frying pan, and interestingly the word Biryani (a similar Indian rice dish which was introduced by the muslim conquerors) is believed to be derived from the Persian word biryan which mean to fry.