[pi-lahf, pee-lahf]

Pilaf, also called polao, pilau or pulao, is a dish in which a grain, such as rice or cracked wheat, is browned in oil, and then cooked in a seasoned broth. Depending on the local cuisine it may also contain a variety of meat and vegetables. Pilaf and similar dishes are common to Middle Eastern, Central, South Asian, Latin American and Caribbean cuisine.


Persian rice recipes probably go back to the expansion of rice cultivation within the Persian Empire under Darius the Great. There is historical evidence that the cultivation of rice was introduced systematically into Mesopotamia and South Western Iran on a large scale in the 5th century BC, making rice available to the people of Central Asia and the Middle East on a scale that was not possible previously. In modern Persian, Pilaf is pronounced polow (پلو), with the first syllable short, and the second long.

Persian culinary terms referring to rice preparations are numerous and have found their way into the neighbouring languages: Polo (rice cooked in broth while the grains remain separate, straining the half cooked rice before adding the broth and then 'brewing'), Cholo (white rice with separate grains), Kateh (sticky rice), Biryani, Tachine (slow cooked rice, vegetables and meat cooked in a specially designed dish also called a tachine).

There are four primary methods of cooking rice in Iran:

  • Chelow: rice that is carefully prepared through soaking and parboiling, at which point the water is drained and the rice is steamed. This method results in an exceptionally fluffy rice with the grains separated, and not sticky, and also results in a golden rice crust at the bottom of the pot called tah-digh (literally "bottom of the pot"). Chelow Recipe
  • Polow: rice that is cooked exactly the same as chelow, with the exception that after draining the rice, other ingredients are layered with the rice, and then steamed together. Variety of Polow Recipes
  • Kateh: rice that is boiled until the water is absorbed. This is also the traditional dish of Northern Iran. Kateh Recipe
  • Damy: cooked almost the same as kateh, except that the heat is reduced just before boiling and a towel is placed between the lid and the pot to prevent steam from escaping. Damy literally means "simmered."

In Italian cuisine "pilaf" is a rice pre-cooking style that allows chefs in busy restaurants to cut down time in Risotto preparation. Usually a large tray of Carnaroli or Arborio rice will be baked for seven minutes with a large onion and a carrot, in water. After that it will be placed on a marble slab to cool down. Once cooled it will be kept in the fridge and used ad hoc to prepare risotti in a shorter time, 7 to 10 minutes depend on the "al dente" texture that the chef want to achieve, rather than the usual 16 to 20 minutes.


One of the earliest literary references to Pilau can be found in the histories of Alexander the Great from Macedonia when describing Bactrian (an Eastern Iranian province probably the birthplace of Alexander's wife Roxana and geographically in modern Afghanistan) hospitality. Uzbek "plov" is often considered to be one of the oldest preparations of rice which has Persian or Turkic roots. It was known to have been served to Alexander the Great upon his capture of the Sogdian capital of Marakanda (modern Samarkand). Alexander's army brought it back to Macedonia and spread it throughout Eastern Europe.

In Uzbekistan it is considered that proper preparation of Pilaf first was documented by the scholar of X century Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who in his books on Medical Sciences dedicated the whole section on preparing various meals, including several types of Pilaf, as well as describing advantages and disadvantages of every item used for preparing it. So, some uzbek people think that Ibn Sina is the "father" of pilaf.

The pilau became standard fare in the Middle East over the years with variations and innovation by the Arabs, Turks and Armenians. It was introduced to Israel by Bukharian and Persian Jews.

The Mughals introduced many Persian dishes to the subcontinent including rice dishes. Pulao (sometimes spelt 'pulav') is a South Asian dish made of rice. It may be made with peas, potatoes, mutton, beef or chicken. It is usually served on special occasions and weddings and is very high in food energy and fat. Meat pulao is a North Indian tradition, especially among the Muslim population. Biryani is an Indian and Pakistani dish very similar to pilav introduced during the Mughal period. It is made from basmati or similar aromatic rice.

During the years of the Soviet Union, the dish spread throughout the other Soviet republics, becoming a favorite in such diverse places as Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

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