Comfort food is intrinsically connected to your origins and the foods you were given as a child. For people raised in Turkey, it is always and forever pilaf or pilav.
Confused about what exactly pilaf is, and how it is prepared? Our Istanbul guide explains all.
Pilaf is best combined with nuts, dried fruits or countless spices, while risotto is best paired with seafood, a variety of mushrooms or even red wine. Nevertheless, some sort of liquid is a requirement for both: risotto likes to dance slowly with the liquid mixture, while rice enjoys absorbing it into its soul.
The first rule when preparing a good pilaf dish is to first soak the rice in salted water for about half an hour to remove the extra starch and eliminate its stickiness. The second essential requirement is to use real butter (not margarine or olive oil). Once the butter melts, stir in the rice and mix frequently so that each grain is coated with a small amount of butter. Then, pour in your liquid of choice: this can be plain water or broth (chicken, meat or vegetable), just enough to cover the surface of the rice. Once it starts boiling, let it simmer on low heat without anymore intervention.
Etymologically, pilaf derives from its Persian roots pillow or cilow. As it migrated towards eastern Anatolia, it gained a new name: çilav. Finally, after many years and dialects, the name became widely known as pilaf. There are three major methods of cooking pilaf: salma, kavurma and buryani. Salma is when rice is cooked by just simmering it with liquid. The kavurma technique is when other ingredients such as onions or nuts are sautéed in melted butter, oil or meat fat before the rice and broth or liquid is added. Lastly, when preparing buryani style pilaf, pre-cooked meat, fish or vegetables are added to the cooked pilaf and then left to simmer together before serving.
Throughout Turkey there are numerous different methods for preparing pilaf, depending on the agricultural produce available in the region, and of course the cultural traditions of the community. For instance, in the Circassian communities, pilaf is prepared with coriander and simply called circassian pilavı. Along the Black Sea coast, pilaf prepared with anchovies (hamsi), a local fish, is a part of almost everyone’s daily diet. Another common pilaf dish in many regions is prepared with fried cubes of eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, cumin, coriander and a pinch of sugar. Pehlili Pilavı, a common dish in central Anatolia is plain pilaf, cooked with the juice of lamb and sometimes served with boiled chickpeas.
For almost all Turks, pilaf is like the lyrics of a song. Just like a song is meaningless without its words, a main course without a side dish of pilaf is unimaginable in most Turkish homes. In fact, most of the time, it is considered a ‘foundation dish’ as often the main course is served on top of the pilaf. Specifically, a meat dish served without a side of pilaf, would be like a hamburger served without the bun!
If you are just serving vegetable dishes and pilaf is not served, more than likely, your guests will leave the table still hungry. Just like an intermezzo, pilaf is often consumed in order to clense the palate between courses. For example, when pilaf is served with hoşaf, a ‘soupy’ fruity dessert, the sweetness perfectly plays off the fatty starches of the pilaf.
During your next vacation, take Istanbul tourism to the next level by making sure to try at least one variety of the ultimate Middle Eastern comfort food.