EPICURIOUS: THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT PULAO

Published January 15, 2023
Masoor aur qeema pulao | Photo by Faryal Diwan
Masoor aur qeema pulao | Photo by Faryal Diwan

What is it about pulao that keeps you wanting more?

There›s a certain je ne sais quoi about this rice dish cooked in a stew (made from any protein or vegetables or both) that can be traced back a millenia to the Abbasid caliphate in Iraq. Why is a bite of pulao decadent one moment and much-needed comfort food the next? While the answer has proven elusive, the rapid and wide popularity of pulao and its various iterations (biryani, paella) is a testament to its ingenuity.

One can find a version of pulao from Tanzania to Xinjiang in China, each representing local quirks and tastes. One can even find pulao in Tobago, a Carribbean Island where it is called pelau and is made with crab. In Armenia, pulao is made with bulgur (cracked wheat) combined with pasta such as orzo or vermicelli.

People living in the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan) will be more than familiar with maqluba (which means upside down in Arabic), a dish of rice, meat and fried vegetables such as eggplant and cauliflower. True to its name, the pot that the dish is cooked in is flipped upside down when maqluba is ready to be served.

The famed Spanish dish paella (made with round-grained rice cooked in a chicken broth or seafood stew) owes its creation to the pulao — or a version of it — popularised in the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs. In fact, Arabs — through their dynastic conquests or trades — introduced rice, the essential ingredient in pulao and other such dishes, to the world. Where would one›s cuisine be without pulao? I shudder to think.

A Kutchi interpretation of this familiar dish is comfort food at its best

Masoor aur Qeema Pulao

Masoor aur qeema pulao is a quintessential regional dish — it’s different enough to wow you but familiar enough to be a comfort food. This pulao — a mix of qeema [minced meat], masoor dal [lentils] and rice is not as decadent a dish as mughlai biryani or shahi pulao but it makes an impact nevertheless. Originating from the Kutch region of Sindh, it›s one of many dishes from Kutchi cuisine that›ll make you fall in love with food all over again.

Recipe

1/2 kg minced chicken/chicken qeema
1/2 kg rice (soaked for half an hour in water)
1 cup masoor dal (soaked for half an hour in water)
4 onions (finely sliced)
4-5 chopped potatoes
4-5 chopped tomatoes
3-4 large green chilies (cut in half)
1-2 lemons (sliced)
Finely chopped coriander (as needed)
2-3 star anise
2-3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon white zeera (cumin, whole)
7-8 black peppercorns
4-5 cloves (whole)
2 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
2 tablespoon red chili powder
2 tablespoon coriander powder
1 tablespoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon garam masala
Salt to taste
1/2 cup yoghurt
Oil or ghee (as needed)

Method

In a saucepan boil the rice. Add hasb-e-zaiqa (according to your taste) salt. Don›t cook the rice all the way through — leave it slightly uncooked, otherwise the rice will turn to mush when cooked at the last stage.

Chop the potatoes into medium-sized pieces and lightly fry in salt (to taste).

In another saucepan, boil the dal with salt (to taste).

Finely chop two onions. In a frying pan, add oil and fry the onions till they are crisp and brown. Set aside.

In another large pot, add some oil or ghee. Once a bit hot, add the ginger-garlic paste and fry till it browns. Add the zeera, peppercorns, star anise, bay leaves and cloves, and stir. Chop two onions and saute them in the spices.

Once the onions are sauteed, add the tomatoes. Cook well. Then add the qeema and sprinkle with salt. Stir well so that the minced chicken and the spices mix well.

Drain the water from the masoor dal once it›s boiled. When the qeema is almost cooked, add the dal to the minced chicken mixture, followed by the potatoes. Add the rest of the powdered spices such as the tumeric, coriander powder and the red chili powder. Add some more salt to taste.

Continue cooking and stir well.

Drain the boiled rice of the excess water and set aside.

In a separate large pot, add the yoghurt. Then add 1/3 of the rice, followed by 1/3 of the qeema-potato-dal mixture. Add some of the sliced lemons and the halved green chilies. Sprinkle with coriander. Repeat this two more times. Add some rice for the top-most layer.

Garnish the top layer with garam masala and chopped coriander. Add the browned onions, green chilies and lemon.

Cover the top of the pot with aluminum or cloth and seal it in place by tightly placing the lid on top. Place the pot on a tawa (hot plate) and then cook the rice mixture with dum/steam.

Serve hot.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 15th, 2023

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