Anyone who has had their children leave the parental nest, for any reason, and then return home for a much-awaited reunion, knows the joys of cooking that first shared meal.

What is it that your child will want to eat when they return to the home base? Mine said, “Mutton pulao, shami kabab, chicken curry, palak, raita and kachumber.”

I couldn’t have raised a more desi-palated kid, considering she is an American-Born Confused Desi (ABCD) in common parlance. Needless to say, I’m a happy mom. Being a food writer, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that I’ve been able to pass on the baton, or better still, the understanding, respect, appreciation and sublimity of owning the cuisine of our forefathers.

I’m a pulao fan myself, hence, over the years I’ve stumbled upon some wonderful anecdotes regarding this centrepiece of a dish.

The oldest cookbook in the world, Annals of the Caliphs Kitchens, has some exceptional stories about the rice dish, as does Scents and Flavors, a Syrian cookbook containing ancient recipes.

However, my favourite has to be the one when I ate pulao in Tashkant, Uzbekistan, some 27-plus years ago.

Try these pulaos which are beautifully flavoured and deliciously fragrant

The central Asian countries had just been liberated and had opened up for business to the rest of the world. As fate would have it, I sat at the home of a high government official who dined us with the exceptional rice dish, telling us an ancient pulao legend that he said originated in ancient Bactria (ancient region currently encompassing modern day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan).

He said the dish travelled to Greece with the soldiers of Zulqarnain (believed to be Alexander) as they marched back to Greece after conquering the modern day Subcontinent. Of course, I thought this story to be fiction rather than fact until, a few years ago, when I was researching the history of pulao as a food writer, I stumbled upon this exact story and penned it in my article, Food Stories Pulao. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.

Yakhni Pulao/ Punjabi Pulao

Ingredients

2 1/2 lbs. mutton, goat leg or shoulder meat 1 1/2 tablespoon fennel seeds 3 tablespoon coriander seeds 2 large onions 1 teaspoon garam masala powder 1 teaspoon cumin seeds 1/4 to 1/2 cup oil 8 1/2 mugs water 2 mugs rice Salt to taste 1 1/2 tablespoon yoghurt 2 teaspoons ginger and garlic (chopped)

Method

Quarter a large onion, add mutton, corriander, fennel, salt to taste and water, bring to boil, reducing heat to medium, until mutton is tender and stock (yakhni) is reduced to half its original quantity (nearly four and a half mugs).

Remove mutton pieces from stock and strain. In a large pot pour oil, brown thinly sliced onions, adding mutton, ginger, garlic, garam masala powder, cumin seeds, salt to taste and yoghurt, and stir on high heat for a few minutes. Add mutton stock, bringing to boil on high heat and adding pre-washed rice. Maintain high heat until rice fluffs and stock is just a thin layer on top.

Taper heat to low and seal pot, initiating the dum (steam cooking) method. Let it sit on a low heat for 30 minutes. Voila!

Afghani Pulao

Ingredients

2 ½ lbs chicken or mutton 2 small onions 2 teaspoons ginger and garlic 2 teaspoons black cumin ½ cup oil Salt to taste 1 teaspoons garam masala 2 mugs rice ½ cup each, raisins, almonds and cashews 3 grated carrots ½ teaspoon sugar

Method

Heat oil, adding meat, ginger and garlic, and fry for a few minutes, adding sliced onions until meat changes colour. Add black cumin, garam masala and salt.

Fry for a few minutes, adding eight mugs of water and ¼ cup each of raisins, cashews and almonds. Once the meat is tender and stock is halved, add pre-washed rice to the cooking broth. Maintain high heat until rice fluffs and stock is a thin layer on the top.

Transfer to an oven-proof dish, seal and place into preheated oven (medium to low heat) for 20-30 minutes.

In a frying pan, heat three tablespoons oil, pour sugar, grated carrots, remaining dry fruit, stir fry for a minute and use as garnish. Afghani pulao is ready to be devoured.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 18th, 2021

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