Pilaf (also known as polo, pollo, pilav, pilau, plov, pulao, polu and palaw) is a dish in which rice is cooked in a seasoned broth. In some cases, the rice may also attain its brown color by being stirred with bits of cooked onion, as well as a large mix of spices. Depending on the local cuisine, it may also contain meat, vegetables, and (dried) fruits.
The English term pilaf is borrowed directly from the Turkishpilav, which in turn comes from Persianpilāv, Hindipulāv, from Sanskritpulāka (which in turn, is probably of Dravidian origin). The English spelling is influenced by the Modern Greekpilafi, which comes from the Turkish word. Due to the vast spread of the dish, there exist variations of the name in many languages, including polou, palov, pilau, polu, polaao (Bengali), pulao/pulav (Hindi) etc.
One of the earliest literary references to pilaf can be found in the histories of Alexander the Great when describing Bactrian hospitality. Bactria was an eastern province in Greater Iran, probably the birthplace of Alexander's wife Roxana and geographically located in modern Ferghana valley. It was known to have been served to Alexander at a royal banquet following his capture of the Sogdian capital of Marakanda (modern Samarkand). It is believed that soldiers from Alexander's army brought the preparation of pilaf back to Macedonia, after which it spread throughout Greece.
It is believed that the proper preparation of pilaf was first documented by a tenth-century Persian scholar named Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who in his books on medical sciences dedicated a whole section to preparing various meals, including several types of pilaf. In doing so, he described advantages and disadvantages of every item used for preparing the dish. Accordingly, Uzbeks and Tajiks consider Ibn Sina to be the "father" of modern pilaf.
Persian culinary terms referring to rice preparation are numerous and have found their way into the neighbouring languages: polow (rice cooked in broth while the grains remain separate, straining the half cooked rice before adding the broth and then "brewing"), chelow (white rice with separate grains), kateh (sticky rice), biryani, and tajine (slow cooked rice, vegetables, and meat cooked in a specially designed dish also called a tajine). There are also varieties of different rice dishes with vegetables and herbs which are very popular among Persians.
There are four primary methods of cooking rice in Iran:
Chelow: rice that is carefully prepared through soaking and parboiling, at which point the water is drained and the rice is steamed. This method results in an exceptionally fluffy rice with the grains separated and not sticky; it also results in a golden rice crust at the bottom of the pot called tahdig (literally "bottom of the pot").
Polow: rice that is cooked exactly the same as chelow, with the exception that after draining the rice, other ingredients are layered with the rice, and they are then steamed together.
Kateh: rice that is boiled until the water is absorbed. This is the traditional dish of Northern Iran.
Damy: cooked almost the same as kateh, except that the heat is reduced just before boiling and a towel is placed between the lid and the pot to prevent steam from escaping. Damy literally means "simmered".
Uzbek plov being prepared in a kazan in a Tashkent home
Tajik and Uzbekplov (Tajik: палав, palav, Uzbek: palov) or osh differs from other preparations in that rice is not steamed, but instead simmered in a rich stew of meat and vegetables called zirvak, until all the liquid is absorbed into the rice. A limited degree of steaming is commonly achieved by covering the pot. It is usually cooked in a kazan (or deghi) over an open fire. The cooking tradition includes many regional and occasional variations. Commonly, it is prepared with lamb, browned in lamb fat or oil, and then stewed with fried onions, garlic and carrots. Chicken plov is rare but found in traditional recipes originating in Bukhara. Plov is usually spiced with whole black cumin, coriander, barberries, red pepper, marigold, and pepper. Heads of garlic and garbanzo beans are buried into the rice during cooking. Sweet variations with dried apricots, cranberries and raisins are prepared on special occasions.
Although often prepared at home for family and guests by the head of household or the housewife, palov is made on special occasions by the oshpaz (osh master chef), who cooks the national dish over an open flame, sometimes serving up to 1,000 people from a single cauldron on holidays or occasions such as weddings. Oshi nahor, or "morning plov", is served in the early morning (between 6 and 9 am) to large gatherings of guests, typically as part of an ongoing wedding celebration.
The uzbek-style plov cooking recipes are spread nowadays throughout all post-Soviet countries.
In Afghan and Pashtun cuisines, Kabuli Palaw is made by cooking basmati in a broth-like sauce. This dish may be made with lamb, chicken, or beef. Kabuli Palaw is baked in the oven and topped with fried sliced carrots and raisins. Chopped nuts like pistachios, walnuts, or almonds may be added as well. The meat is covered by the rice or buried in the middle of the dish.
Azerbaijani pilaf. Left: gara (lamb, halved apricots, plums, apricot seeds). Right: rice (partially colored with turmeric)
Azerbaijani cuisine includes more than 40 different plov recipes. One of the most reputed dishes is plov from saffron-covered rice, served with various herbs and greens, a combination totally distinctive from Uzbek plovs. Traditional Azerbaijani plov consists of three distinct components, served simultaneously but on separate platters: rice (warm, never hot), gara (fried meat, dried fruits, eggs, or fish prepared as an accompaniment to rice), and aromatic herbs. Rice is not mixed with the other components even when eating plov.
In South Asia, pulao (sometimes spelt pulav) is a dish consisting of rice and commonly including peas, potatoes, french beans, carrots, lamb, beef, or chicken. It is usually served on special occasions and weddings and is very high in food energy and fat. Meat pulao is a Pakistani and North Indian tradition, especially among the Muslim population. Biryani is another rice dish similar to pilaf, introduced to South Asian cuisine during the Mughal period.
In Greek cuisine, piláfi (πιλάφι) is the fluffy and soft, but neither soupy nor sticky, rice that has been boiled in a meat stock or bouillon broth. In Northern Greece, it is considered poor form to prepare piláfi on a stovetop; the pot is properly placed in the oven. Gamopílafo ("wedding pilaf") is the prized pilaf served traditionally at weddings and major celebrations in Crete: rice is boiled in lamb or beef broth, then finished with lemon juice. Gamopílafo though it bears the name is not a pilaf but rather a kind of risotto, with creamy and not fluffy texture.