When asked, we might describe many worldly cuisines with a handful of adjectives: vibrant, spicy, flavorful, sweet, smoky, tangy, sour, melt-in-your-mouth, exotic and so on. Many main dishes of these cuisines burst with color on our plates and delight our taste buds. However, with all that show put on by the main dish, there is always a side dish. Side dishes remind me of the middle child, never getting to take the center stage. In many cuisines, that side item next to your vibrant dish turns out to be the white fluff, called rice.
Rice has been the most important grain that is solely for human consumption for centuries and comprises 35-80 percent of the calories consumed by humans. USA Rice Federation says there are over 120,000 varieties worldwide, mostly falling under long, medium and short grain categories. The history of rice can be traced all the way back to 2500 B.C. in China. From there, it spread to Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, eventually making its way to Mediterranean countries. In America, rice first appeared in the Carolinas region in late 17th century with rice farming taking off in other parts of the U.S. after the Civil War ended.
In Turkey, where I grew up, and in its surrounding countries, rice dishes, largely under the name “pilav” are a staple on dinner tables. These dishes range from just plain boiled white rice to extravagant dishes embellished with saffron, meat, chickpeas, pine nuts, currants, lentils and a variety of spices. In Turkey and Central Asia, pilav plays an important role at large festivals such as weddings, memorials feasts and celebrations. Turkish cuisine features rice as a side dish, as a filling in main dishes, in soups and even in desserts.
In Turkey, it is believed that the way one’s pilav tastes says a lot about that person’s cooking skills. Rice grains should be fluffy and each should hold their individuality, not sticking to each other. This is achieved by washing the grains several times to get rid of the starch and then sautéing the rice grains in butter for several minutes before the water is added. That way, each grain is coated well with fat before it’s boiled.
İçpilav (recipe below) is a traditional Turkish rice dish made on special occasions or for guests, usually accompanying a main course of meat, generally lamb. Yet, this dish is definitely not one of those humble rice dishes that hides behind the taste of a main dish. It has sweetness, crunch and freshness coming from the synthesis of its ingredients. In my opinion, with all its pine nuts, currants and spices, içpilav can be a star on its own at the table.
Next time, instead of rushing to boil some rice, take the time to jazz it up…whether with simple sautéing or with a handful of spices.You will see this white, ancient fluff in a different light.
Recipe for Pine Nut-Currant Pilav (İçPilav) ‘below the fold.’
Pine Nut-Currant Pilav (İçPilav)
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) of unsalted butter
- 1.5 cups of uncooked rice (I use Egyptian rice from the local Middle Eastern grocery store. The water amount below is per this rice – 1.5 cup per cup of rice. Check the package for the water amount for the rice you use)
- 1 medium size onion (very finely chopped in food processor)
- ½ cup of black currants (clean of stems)
- ¾ cup of pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 2-1/4 cup of water
- 1 bunch fresh dill (chopped, about ¾ cup)(optional)
- Wash the rice several times and discard the water, set the rice aside.
- Heat the pan and melt the butter. Add onions and stir frequently for about 3 minutes at medium-high heat.
- Add pine nuts and continue stirring for another 2-3 minutes until pine nuts start to get golden color.
- Add rice to the pan, stir for 30 seconds.
- Add currants, cinnamon, allspice, salt and pepper. Gently stir to combine.
- Add water, bring it to a boil. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan and let it cook undisturbed.
- After 20 minutes, open the lid, add the dill, do not stir the rice. Cover the lid again.
- After another 5 to 10 min, check if the rice is done (stick a wooden spoon vertically to touch the bottom of the pan and remove. There should not be any water collected in the opening left by the spoon). When done, take it off the stove. Put a clean dish towel under the lid, stretched over the whole pan. Cover it again, set it aside for another 15 minutes for it to rest. Stir before serving.
- Wikipedia | Rice
- Duke | A History of Rice
- History of Rice in Western and Central Asia
- USA Rice Federation