Pilaf dishes have a steamy, savory allure RICE IS NICE

April 22, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Like a lot of the world's oldest ideas, pilaf is completely up-to-date. The idea of combining rice with vegetables and seafood or meat for a one-dish meal, which may have originated in the rice-growing regions of the Middle East, is perfect for today's health-conscious, time-sensitive home cooks.

"Rice lends itself to modification and glorification," says Copeland Marks, a New York cookbook author whose most recent book, "Sephardic Cooking," includes many variations on the pilaf theme from North Africa, the Middle East and India.

Rice retains its shape and texture when cooked with other things, he points out. "The rice becomes a sponge and absorbs all these flavors."

Some pilafs -- the dish is also called pilau or polo -- contain rice, vegetables and seasoning, and are designed for meatless meals or to be served with a simple grilled or roast meat.

Pilaf is generally found in places where rice is grown, Mr. Marks says. "Cuisines are based on agriculture. These creations occur because the rice is there."

Most pilafs use basmati, or long-grain rice. India is "the last stop on the eastward trail" for long-grain rice, he says; Chinese cuisine uses short-grain varieties.

But so sometimes does Turkish cooking.

"Unlike the Persians and the Indians," writes Ayla Algar in "Classical Turkish Cooking," "Turks often seem to favor short-grain rice for pilaf; it is similar to Italian Arborio rice. They also use other grains such as bulgur and couscous."

"The period in which pilaf made its first appearance cannot be fixed exactly," she writes, although she notes that the Persians cultivated rice as early as the the 6th century A.D. "It must have been consolidating its supremacy on the culinary scene in the 15th century, because it is then we find the Persian gastronomic poet Bushaq of Shiraz imaginatively celebrating its triumph over bughra (an old Turkish noodle dish) to become the monarch of foods, crowned with saffron."

Turkish cooks contributed such unconventional pilaf ingredients as shellfish, olive oil, eggplant and even anchovies, Ms. Algar writes. She devotes an entire chapter in her book to pilaf.

"Certain cultures developed their cuisines much earlier than others," Mr. Marks says. "Persian and Chinese cuisines are very ancient. But none of these cuisines really got their act together until about 1800," with the spread of rice to Europe and America and the spread from the Americas to the rest of the world of such culinary delicacies as chilies and sweet pepper, potatoes and corn, pumpkins and squash, pineapples and tomatoes.

"It was the movement of culinary objects that made it possible to fully develop cuisines," Mr. Marks says.

Once the ingredients were there, it made sense to toss everything in the pot and let the flavors mingle. "In Bokhara, in Samarkand, they make 'polo' -- chicken and rice and carrots," he says. "They put a huge pot on, they feed all the kids and the neighbors -- it's a convenience food. It was invented for that reason, I believe . . . as a family time-saver, because everything was put in one pot."

In the United States, rice dishes are often associated with the South, where rice was growing by the 18th century.

"Most of the rice cookery came with the slaves from West Africa," says South Carolina author John Martin Taylor. He owns a culinary bookstore called Hoppin' John's in Charleston, S.C., and has just published his first cookbook, "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking." Long before South Carolina was settled in the 1780s, he says, one-dish meals were typical of cooking from the rice-growing regions of West Africa.

And even though the rice culture ended in disaster in 1911, when hurricane winds drove salt water into the low-country rice fields, rice is still a staple of the coastal plain diet. "There are very few places in the country where rice is a basic starch. We eat rice almost every meal here," Mr. Taylor says.

There are as many variations of pilau -- "the 'national' dish of Carolina" -- as there are cooks, Mr. Taylor says. He compares it with the "national" dish of Louisiana, jambalaya. "You can throw anything in it -- other vegetables, other meat, cut-up bits of country bacon, cooked chicken . . . and even okra's often included."

Whatever is in it, in South Carolina, he says, "rice cookery is always covered-pot steaming." The rice is cooked very slowly -- "until every grain stands separately" -- and it is "never, ever touched with a spoon, but always fluffed with a fork."

"The beauty of rice is that you can add anything to it," says Mary Jo Hogue, manager of the test kitchen at the U.S.A Rice Council, an industry group in Houston. "You can add vegetables or meat -- and it will take on hot spices and seasonings that are characteristic of pilafs."

Pilaf is a really good way to create new dishes with leftovers, she pointed out. Plus, rice is good for you:

"Rice is very low in calories, and it's an excellent source of complex carbohydrates," Ms. Hogue says. "A half-cup serving has only 82 calories, just a trace of fat, and it's cholesterol-free and very low in sodium."

But it is Mr. Marks who has perhaps the definitive reason why pilaf has been so popular and so enduring across the culinary spectrum: "It's delicious and it's filling."

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