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When most people hear the term pilaf, they may think immediately of rice pilaf, usually thought of in America as a side dish that contains seasoned rice, and veggies like carrots and peas. This may differ from traditional pilafs, also called pilau, which may not contain rice. This dish also has specific cooking methods, though ingredients can vary.
Any type of whole grain may be used to make pilaf, though rice is probably the most commonly used. Most recipes start with a similar process. The grain (usually dried) is sautéed in oil, fat or butter to brown it slightly. To provide full cooking, liquids like broth are added, which add incredible flavor to the dish. Depending upon recipe, a variety of vegetables and meat may be added too, so you can create much more than a side dish with pilaf; it can be a whole and filling meal instead.
Though you’ll now find numerous versions of pilaf throughout the world, food historians often date pilafs back as far as about the 5th century BCE, and likely first occurring in the Middle East. Some credit the Persian Empire with the dish’s creation. Due to extensive trading with the Persians, the dish became particularly popular in most Mediterranean cuisines, including those from Armenia and Greece, and it was also popularized in parts of Eastern Europe, in places like Israel, and elsewhere.
Exploration of the “New World” brought the dish to the Americas, and to areas like Jamaica. Each culture has created its own version of pilafs. Jamaican pilaf may not taste anything like Russian versions of the dish.
One fairly constant aspect of pilaf is that the grain used is seasoned by cooking it in broth, with various spices, meats and vegetables added. Usually, any liquids are cooked down or sometimes drained if liquid remains after the grain is fully cooked. Additions at the end of cooking can include a bit of butter, though the dish is often so flavorful it hardly needs dressing up.
A number of dishes take their cue from pilaf. Jambalaya and paella are variants. Fried rice in Asian cuisines is somewhat similar. Risotto is another dish that can be directly tied to this the early Persian dish.
As for the dish as available in Middle Eastern cuisine, you’ll find a number of variants. Some recipes like chelow and pelow precook the rice by boiling, and then drain the liquid and allow the rice to continue to steam, which creates a crust on the bottom of the dish. Biryani, found in Iran, Pakistan and North India, are heavily spiced pilafs that may include a variety of meats, vegetables, and may vary tremendously in each region.