I first ate plov (плов) in a small canteen in Turpan, an oasis city in the deserts northeast of the Tarim Basin. Uyghurs call it “polo”, and restaurants in Xinjiang make it in gigantic kazans outside, dishing it out as ordered and topping it with a hunk of fatty lamb meat. It was one of my first tastes of Central Asian cuisine, and incidentally the first dish I started cooking with. I’ve learned a lot about making plov since my first post on it over a year ago; this is a complete re-do of the old recipe with new photos.
Plov could be considered a pan-Asian dish; whether Uzbek plov, Uyghur polo, Indian pulao, Afghan palaw, Iranian polow, or Turkish pilaf, the basic idea is the same: rice and oil. The recipe I present here is for Uzbek plov (specifically, Fergana style), which tastes very similar to Uyghur polo, and is the most common type of plov in restaurants outside of Central Asia. Uzbekistan is the spiritual “homeland” of plov with many different regional varieties.
How should plov taste?
In the ideal Uzbek plov, the rice grains should be separate, maintain their form, and not stick together. The rice should be tender, yet firm: a good plov is not mushy and sticky like porridge, nor is it creamy like a risotto. The closest equivalent in European cuisine is probably paella.
Plov should be rather oily, and after eating there should be a layer of oil left on the plate. The meat for plov should be tender lamb meat. The carrots should be in big chunks, soft and sweet, having been caramelized during the cooking. Overall, the plov should have a nice balance of tastes between savory/lamb meat, salty, oily, cumin, and sweet (onion & carrot).
It is best to make plov in a kazan. In the past, I made plov in a cast iron wok (and you can see this in many of the photos), but your plov will turn out much better in a kazan. It’s very easy to mess up plov, especially if you use the wrong cooking vessel. Read this post to learn what kazans are and where you can buy one.
Making plov is a journey that will probably require many, many tries and many soggy, mushy, burnt, or not-cooked-enough plovs. I’ve been making it for over a year now and still can’t claim to have fully mastered it. Of course, the challenge is part of what keeps bringing me back to it, but even my less-than-ideal plovs usually still taste pretty good.
Ingredients (all very approximate):
1 lb rice: The choice of rice is very important! I have used basmati rice, risotto rice (Carnaroli), and now I am using a “plov rice” sold in Gourmanoff grocery in Brighton Beach (they don’t say what kind of rice it is, but it looks like a standard medium grain rice, similar to Calrose). I also know people who use Turkish “baldo” rice to make plov. All of these varieties can make a tasty plov, but the results will be very different.
In plov, it’s very important that the cooked rice grains stay separate and not a sticky mush. For this reason, it’s much more difficult to obtain a good result with East Asian rice, which almost by design is supposed to stick together. Basmati is often used by amateur plov cooks outside of Central Asia because it tends not to stick together. In Uzbekistan, plov rice is medium grain, fairly round and plump, and looks and tastes nothing like basmati rice. But for your first try, I recommend Basmati as it won’t stick and the resulting plov is still tasty, even if not very true to the original.
Risotto rice does tend to be a bit sticky, but I find the shape and texture of carnaroli resembles rice in Uzbekistan. You can buy carnaroli rice in NYC at Kalustyan’s, and Amazon has it as well.
1 lb lamb meat – Use a 1:1 ratio of rice and meat. I have used lamb shoulder chops and lamb leg, all work fine for plov. You want pieces that have some bone and fat in them.
2 medium onions
2 large carrots
Cumin seed – You need the whole seeds – cumin powder is a poor substitute. Grind a few good spoonfuls of cumin seed with a mortar and pestle – it doesn’t need to be a powder, just lightly ground is fine.
1-2 garlic heads
Dried chilies or fresh chili peppers – not that many, maybe 5-6 small ones or 1-3 big ones. Can be omitted.
Vegetable oil and/or lamb tail fat
Directions (takes about 3 hours start to finish)
1. Wash and soak the rice. Put the rice in a container, pour water over it, and mix it around with your hands. Pour out the water (being careful not to pour out the rice), then repeat this many times until the water is clear. It could take up to 10 times or even more depending on how much starch is on the rice.
After washing the rice, soak the rice in warm or hot (but not boiling) water while you prepare the other ingredients. You can put a bit of salt in the water to improve the flavor. It should soak for at least 30 minutes or even longer (I usually soak the rice for 1.5-2 hours). After you finish soaking the rice, wash it a couple more times to get the remaining starch out. Make sure to always keep the rice soaked in water, and only pour out the water right before you cook it: exposing soaked rice to the open air can adversely affect the texture.
The soaking accomplishes 2 things: 1) it helps to remove starch from the rice, making it less sticky when cooked and 2) it helps the rice cook faster, which will be crucial later in the recipe. If you notice the water getting very cloudy during the soak, you can replace it with new water.
2. Cut the onions into slices (half moons).
3. Cut the carrots into big sticks. You want fairly big pieces, maybe ~2 inches long and 1/4 inch thick. While it may seem like a lot of carrots, keep in mind they will shrink dramatically during cooking. Generally err on the side of too much carrot. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plov with too much carrot, but I’ve certainly noticed when there is too little.
4. Debone and cut up the lamb meat. Cut out the fat and bones, and keep aside. Chop the lamb meat into medium sized pieces. Leave a bit of meat on the bony pieces, as we’ll cook them, then top the plov with them, as you can see in the picture on the top of this page.
5. Heat up the kazan and heat the oil. Put the kazan on high heat. Once the kazan is hot, add a lot of vegetable oil to cover the bottom in a fairly deep layer, and wait a bit until the oil heats up. You must put a lot of oil or the plov will not cook correctly and/or burn! Having lots of oil will also help keep your rice oily and not stick together – very important in plov. Err on the side of too much, rather than too little oil.
If you are lucky enough to have lamb tail fat (курдючный жир, kurdyuchniy zhir) then instead of oil, you can cut the fat into slices and melt them into oil. The resulting fat crisps make a tasty snack. Remove the crisps. Lamb tail fat is a luxurious rarity for me here in NYC, so I usually melt the fat pieces into oil, then add vegetable oil.
6. Fry the fat and bones and meaty bone pieces. Fry these pieces until they get to a nice golden-brown and you smell the aroma of lamb fat. Then remove them and keep the meat and bones aside (you can discard the fat pieces). This will flavor our oil, and give the plov the right taste.
8. Fry the lamb meat. Put the meat in, then mix everything together and fry until the meat is lightly browned all over. For a nice touch, when you put the meat into the kazan, stick it onto the sides, and let it sear a bit before mixing everything.
9. Put in the carrots. Make a big pile of carrots over the meat & onions. Sprinkle about half of the cumin seed over the carrots. After a minute (steam should be rising from the carrots), mix everything together and start frying. Fry for 10-15 minutes until the carrots are soft and you smell the “aroma of plov.” The basic ingredients are all there now – fat, meat, carrots, and cumin. The carrots must be soft before you are done with this step – cook them as long as you need to until you can easily pierce them with a fork! If the carrots are still crunchy when you eat the plov, it simply isn’t plov.
10. Make the broth. Now, you can finally reduce the heat to medium. Cover everything with hot/boiling water. Put the bones back in. Put in the garlic heads and the chilies. Add raisins and/or barberries if you are using them. When the water boils, turn it to minimum heat, and let it simmer for at least 40 minutes to 1 hour, uncovered. This broth is called “zirvak.” You want the heat to be low enough that you see bubbles coming up only once every 1-2 seconds. The length of time you let this cook depends on how tender your meat is – if you are using an extremely tough meat like goat, you might need hours.
11. Remove the bones, garlic, and chilies, and salt the broth. If any of your bone pieces have a good amount of meat on them, save them for later. Keep the garlic and chilies aside. Salt the broth and taste – it should be very salty. Remember, you are going to add rice in, which will absorb the broth. With plov, generally err on the side of more salty.
12. Add the rice. Be very careful with the next few steps because this is what makes it PLOV instead of rice porridge!
To explain how rice cooks: the rice must first absorb enough water, then it must heat up enough that it changes its texture. We will first boil the water in rice so it absorbs water, then steam it so it cooks.
First, make sure all the other ingredients are in a compact layer at the bottom. Then carefully add the rice in a layer ON TOP of the other ingredients. The rice should cover everything in an even layer. When done, carefully smooth out the top of the rice, and add a little boiling water to cover it if necessary. Be very careful not to add too much water! The amount of water you add will depend on the type of rice you use, and how long the rice has soaked. If you didn’t soak it all – you need a lot, maybe about 2 fingers worth of water depending on the type of rice. If you soaked it for hours – very little, maybe just enough to cover the rice, or none if you have enough broth. If in doubt, err on TOO LITTLE water. You can’t un-soggy rice that has absorbed too much water!
Be careful not to disturb the rice layer when adding water (you can pour the water over a spatula). Because we will be cooking the rice on very high heat, we want to make sure it stays on top of the other ingredients so it doesn’t fall to the bottom and burn.
13. Cook the rice. Turn the heat as high as possible. There should be big bubbles bursting all over the top of the rice. After a while, flip over the top layer of rice so the rice on top gets to cook on the bottom. If you don’t do this, you will find the rice on top is not done when the bottom is already cooked. Try not to disturb the layer of carrots and meat underneath as you flip the rice.
14. Let the water boil off. As the water boils, it should drop below the top of the rice. We want the water to be completely gone.
At this point, the water should have absorbed the rice, but not be “done.” In other words, the rice should have swollen to its full size (only experience will tell you what the full size of any type of rice will be), but it should still be a bit crunchy and undercooked when you bite into it. However, it should not be so hard that you cannot chew through it – nor should it be so soft that it is basically done. If the rice is still too hard, add a bit more water as necessary. Otherwise, turn the heat down to medium and let the rest of the water boil off.
As the water drops, make holes in the rice to help the water escape more quickly. Check the holes and the sides of the kazan for any water remaining – keep in mind oil will always be at the bottom. When the water is gone, turn the heat back down to minimum.
15. Steam the rice. Make a small “hill” of rice, and top with the rest of the cumin and a sprinkling of salt. Push the garlics and chilies and any hunks of meat on the bone into the top of the rice layer. Make some holes in the mountain to help the steam circulate. Cover the kazan, and let this cook on low to minimum heat for at least 35-40 minutes (the exact time depends on the rice you use and how cooked it was in the previous step). Make sure that the cover is tight and no steam at all escapes – you can wrap the lid with towels for a tighter seal. After a minute or so, the cover should be hot to the touch. This final steaming stage will turn the rice from “wet rice” into “plov” with individual, separate grains.
Balancing the steaming time vs. how hard the rice is in the previous stage is a fine art, and depends on the rice you use and your kazan and stove. For my type of rice, rice that is fully swollen but still not cooked + 40 minutes of steaming works the best; for other types of rice, you may want more cooking and only 20 minutes of steaming.
16. Finished! Take off the lid, and remove the garlic and chilies and bone pieces. Taste the rice on the very top – if it still tastes slightly undercooked, don’t worry – we will fix this in a second.
Scoop up the rice and gently shake it back into the pot, to help the rice grains separate from each other.
Carefully mix the meat and carrots on bottom with the rice, being careful not to mush the rice together. If the top layer of your rice tasted a little undercooked, you can put the lid back on and steam it for another 5-10 minutes depending on how undercooked it is (you may want to turn the heat up for a minute or so just to warm things up again, before putting it back on minimum).
Plate the finished plov and garnish with the garlic and chilies and meaty bone pieces.
Serving: Plov is often served with a salad of sliced tomatoes and onions called “achik chuchuk.” Just mix sliced tomatoes and onions with salt and a dash of pepper. Sliced cucumber and hot pepper is often added as well, and I like putting in a splash of white vinegar. You can add some greens like mint or cilantro or dill if you like. Traditionally, people drink hot green tea with plov (and in general any greasy dish).
Rice too hard – Taste the rice as the water boils off and add more if it is too hard. It’s easy for the top layer of the rice not to cook if you don’t mix it well. Be aware that the rice will expand while cooking and the bottom layers will cook much more than the top layers. You have to flip the top layer to the bottom to get an even cook. Depending on the type of rice you use, it may need to boiled for longer and steamed less.
Rice unevenly cooked after steaming / rice on top too hard, rice on bottom too soft
This happens if the cover is not tight (steam escaped), or you are using a wok or regular pot instead of a kazan (because the thin-walled wok is poor at retaining heat and keeping the top warm where the rice is). In this case, you can flip the rice on top onto the bottom, mix everything up, then steam it for a bit longer.
Rice became a sticky mush / overcooked – This happens if you use too much water when cooking the rice, especially if you soaked it beforehand. When cooking the rice, you should see a lot of water get absorbed by the rice after only a few minutes – if the water is taking especially long to go away, it means there is too much. Skim off as much water as you can to salvage the plov! And in general, err on the side of pouring too little water than too much.
Depending on the type of rice you use, it may need to be boiled less and steamed longer.
This may also happen if you do not properly wash/soak the rice beforehand. Also, if you use East Asian types of rice it is nearly impossible to avoid a sticky mush.
Tasteless/not salty enough – this can happen if you don’t use enough lamb fat to flavor the oil, don’t use enough oil, don’t use enough cumin, or of course if you don’t use enough salt. The zirvak broth should taste almost over-salted before you put the rice in.
Rice burns at bottom – this happens if you aren’t careful about keeping the rice in a layer at the top. Technically, the rice should never touch the bottom of the kazan.
Meat burns at bottom – Usually happens if you cook the rice for too long during the final steps when all the water is gone. It is also very easy for the food on the bottom to burn if you use a wok or a flat-bottomed pan to cook plov. This can also happen if you don’t have enough oil.