Plov (aka Pilaf, Pilau, etc) is a prominent feature in the regional cuisines of the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, all located in the region called Middle Asia. Each country has its own variation of plov and different methods of preparation. Plov’s main ingredients are meat, rice, carrots, and onions with occasional addition of other goodies like raisins, dried apricots, pomegranate seeds, garlic, and various spices. In Middle Asia, plov is cooked in a thick-walled cast iron pot called kazan, which can sometimes be so huge that it is kept outside and is heated over a fire pit. In Russia, plov is a very popular dish, although an Uzbek or an Azerbaijani will almost certainly complain that Russian plov is bland, lacks authenticity, and is generally prepared without due diligence. Yet I heard so many times that a Middle Asian plov prepared in a traditional way is an amazing dish seen as a symbol of prosperity and is often served on festive occasions like weddings. They even have a saying in Middle Asia: “If you are poor, you eat plov. If you are rich, you eat only plov.”
I was so keen on the idea of making proper plov that I started researching various recipes and experimenting. Finally I arrived at a recipe that worked very well – my plov turned out moist, aromatic, and very tasty. It’s an Uzbek-style plov, which means that meat and rice are cooked together in the same pot.
There are several rules that have to be followed to ensure success. First, use a thick-walled pot or other dish that can go from stovetop into the oven (I use my trusty cast iron pot). Why does it have to go into the oven? Plov needs a long and slow simmering, and when I left it on the stovetop for the entire cooking time, it always burned. Second, don’t use more rice than stated in the recipe, and don’t skimp on carrots, onions, and oil – otherwise plov will be dry. Third – traditionally, lamb is the preferred meat for plov, and lamb belly fat is used in place of oil. However, I prefer to use beef because lamb is for some reason very expensive in North America and is generally not of a good quality, and lamb belly fat is simply not available. And fourth – do not stir plov after rice has been added, or you will certainly ruin it. Other than that, it’s quite simple to prepare – check out my recipe below.
Makes 6-8 servings
- ~800 g (1 1/2 lbs) beef
- 1/2 cup sunflower oil, grapeseed, or canola oil
- 2 onions
- 2-3 large carrots
- 1 1/2 tbsp salt
- 1/2 tbsp cumin
- cayenne pepper – to taste
- 1 1/4 cups long grain rice
- 1 head garlic
- 1 large ripe pomegranate
- 1 bunch cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
1. On stove-top, heat oil in a cast iron pot or other thick-walled dish that can safely go from stove-top into oven.
2. Meanwhile, cut beef into fairly large cubes (approximately 3cm or 1 in per side). Dry beef with paper towels. Add to pot and fry, stirring often, until browned.
3. Bring a kettle of water to boil. Start preheating the oven to 375F.
4. Peel and slice onions in quarter rings. Peel and julienne carrots (or slice in matchstick shapes with a knife).
5. Add onions and carrots to pot and stir. Add salt, cumin, and a couple of dashes of cayenne pepper (or more, if desired). Fry stirring, until onions and carrots produce juices and are limp.
6. Rinse rice. Put rice into the pot in a single layer over meat, onions, and carrots. From this moment on, do not stir the rice until plov is ready to eat.
7. Place a wooden spoon or another utensil over the rice and carefully pour hot water on the utensil taking care not to disturb the rice layer. Pour enough water to have a finger-width layer (about 2 cm) covering the rice.
8. Remove the outer layers from the garlic bulb. Carefully insert the entire garlic bulb into the rice layer taking care not to disturb the rice.
9. Transfer the pot into the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until all of the water has been evaporated and absorbed into the rice.
10. When plov is ready, mix the meat and rice layers. Take out the garlic head, remove the skin, and serve alongside the plov. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and finely chopped cilantro or parsley (or both).