Pilafs and Biryanis

Pilafs and Biryanis

By Tim Hazell

“Pilaf -Turkish pilav, Azeri plov, Romanian pilaf, Persian polow, India/Afghanistan/Pakistan pulav/ pulao, Uzbek and Russian plov, Kazakh palaw.”

Like all of the world’s truly great cuisines, Indian cooking has a distinctive architecture of its own. Culinary arts remain largely oral traditions passed on as heirlooms or through skills acquired under rigorous apprenticeship. Indian chefs regard themselves as artists, normally specializing in a particular genre and technique, becoming masters of pilaus, barbeques or spit cooking, kormas or braised meats, and vegetarian cooking.

Indian food can be hot and pungent, but many dishes are delicately flavored. Recipes derive their unique characteristics from as few as five, or as many as fifty, spices and herbs. Yogurt is to the Indian chef what wine is to the French, and many dishes make liberal use of this ingredient as a base or tenderizing agent mixed with spices to enhance the flavor of foods. Fresh-cut vegetables with lemon juice or vinegar dressing, hearty lentil soups (dahl), relishes such as chutneys for sweet and cool accents, and pickles for sour and hot, gild the Indian table. A typical meal is served in thali, dishes that hold principal rice and bread staples, surrounded by smaller receptacles for curries, vegetables, dahl, salads and relishes.

Within the realm of rice cookery, pilafs and biryanis represent crowning achievements in India and the Middle East. Innovations by the Arabs, Turks and Mughals resulted in a myriad of variations, including biryani, a Mughal rice delicacy. The word briyani is an Urdu word originating from the Persian language, spoken in different parts of medieval Islamic India. It may be derived from birinj, the Persian word for rice or beriyan (to roast).

Pilaf or pulao, as it is known in South Asia, is a closely related mixed rice dish popular in Indian and Pakistani cuisine. Here is one that makes a centerpiece or side extravaganza!

Pilaf with Cashews and Raisins

(serves 4 as a side dish)


1 tbsp. oil

2 tsp. cumin seeds

1 small onion, finely chopped

1-inch peeled ginger root, shredded

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 cup coriander leaves, chopped

1 medium potato, cubed

2 tsp. ground turmeric

1/2 cup cashew nuts

1/2 cup raisins

1 tsp. black pepper

1 tsp. salt to taste

1 cup basmati rice

2 cups water


Place cubed potato in a bowl with cold salted water. Heat oil in a saucepan until hot, add cumin seeds and brown gently. Add onions, ginger root and garlic. Fry, stirring, over medium heat until translucent. Stir in coriander. Drain the potatoes and add to the saucepan, along with the turmeric. Toss briskly until rice is translucent. Add cashew nuts, raisins, salt and pepper. Toss and fry for another minute. Add the water and bring to a boil. Lower heat immediately to simmer and cover. Simmer for twenty minutes, turn off heat and leave covered for another ten minutes. Carefully fluff the pilaf with a fork. Garnish with extra chopped coriander and serve.