How to avoid mushy/sticky plov and get fluffy, separate rice grains (рассыпчатый плов)

Properly cooked plov: rice grains separate from each other, not mushy

For the longest time, my plov would always turn out too sticky and mushy, and I didn’t know why. I assumed it was because I didn’t have the special rice used in Uzbekistan. Occasionally, my plov would magically turn out perfect, but I wasn’t able to replicate it. Recipes online had all sorts of conflicting information, from soaking the rice, to not soaking the rice, to adding 2cm of water on top of the rice, to adding no water at all. I experimented with all sorts of things and in the end usually just ended up with a pot of sticky rice.

But now, after two years of making plov, I have finally figured out what causes it, and how to make perfect plov every time.

Overly sticky plov is caused by cooking the rice with too much water. To make perfect plov, figure out the exact water to rice ratio required by the rice you use.

It’s as simple as that. All of that water you add to the pot needs to be absorbed by the rice or evaporated. Most of it will be absorbed. If you add too much water, the rice absorbs too much, and it becomes sticky and mushy.

Ironically, most plov recipes seem to be rather vague about how much water is needed, usually suggesting you add 1-2cm of water on top of the rice. Adding that much water is most likely going to lead to mushy rice. In fact, when you watch videos of professional plov makers, it usually looks like they are pushing around a big layer of dry rice on top (it is cooked by steam).

Further complicating things is the issue of whether the rice should be soaked or not. Some claim that this can remove more starch and make the rice less sticky. After going through a long period of soaking the rice, I have decided it is best not to soak the rice. Your rice is going to absorb some amount of water depending on how long it soaks, how absorbent the rice is, and ambient conditions. If it absorbs more, you need to add less water later, and vice versa. Since it’s difficult to know how much the rice absorbs, this adds a layer of uncertainty. It is very easy to add too much water, ending up in a ruined, overly sticky plov. If you do not soak, you can control exactly how much water goes into your rice. You can achieve a perfect plov texture without any soaking. It’s best just to avoid this potentially plov-ruining step.

Step by step, here is how to ensure the right water amount.
1. Determine the correct water to rice ratio. The ratio is of weight, not of volume. To figure this out, you can weigh a small amount of uncooked rice, then cook it to the ideal texture and weigh the cooked rice. The difference of weight, divided by the weight of the uncooked rice, will tell you the water to rice ratio. Here is a page from Stalic Khankishiev where he tries this on several different rice variants. I calculated the ratios for some common ones below:
Paella rice (calasparra and bomba): 1.4:1
Basmati rice: 1.65:1
Risotto rice (arborio): 1.1:1
Importantly, these are only guidelines, and the ratio may vary even for different brands of the same type of rice. You may find you need more or less water for your specific rice.

Calasparra rice I use for plov.

2. Do not soak your rice. As stated above, this introduces uncertainty because we don’t know how much gets soaked up. You could, in theory, weigh the soaked rice, figure out a ratio, then soak your rice in the exact same way each time, but I just don’t see the point. Plov tastes perfectly good without soaking.

3. Measure exactly the right amount of water, and add all of the water in the broth stage. Eyeballing the ratio is not going to work reliably. I eyeball basically everything in cooking, but this is the one thing I do not.

4. Do not add any extra water during the rice cooking stage. Only add water if your rice is too hard (literally can’t chew through it) and there is no water left in the pot. By not soaking and not adding any additional water later, we have controlled the maximum amount of water our rice can absorb.

This is what it looks like when I put the rice in for cooking. No additional water is added.

The water to rice ratio is the number one determinant in whether the plov will be sticky/mushy or not. But here are a few other things to consider:

Pick a rice type and stick with it – Some variants of rice are more prone to stickiness than others. East Asian rice is simply unworkable no matter how careful you are with water ratios, as it is naturally sticky and starchy. Risotto rice tends to be sticky. Basmati rice tends to be un-sticky, but isn’t really the correct shape or texture. I have been happiest with paella rice. The important thing is to pick one type of rice, learn exactly how to cook it, and stick with it. When you switch rice types, you are apt to screw up the plov.

Wash the rice – Don’t soak the rice, but just before adding it in, you need to wash it – run the faucet over it, mix it around with your fingers, and pour out the cloudy water. Repeat until the water is nearly clear (you won’t get it perfectly clear). Then add directly into the broth. This gets the starch off the rice, helping it to be less sticky.

How to make fluffy basmati rice like in Indian restaurants

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Hyderabadi biryani with fluffy basmati rice.

I started an Instagram: @silkroadchef – follow if you want to see what I’ve been cooking! I’ll still post here but it’s an easy way for me to post cooking photos that don’t justify an entire post.

Today’s post is all about how to make fluffy basmati rice like you may have tried in Indian or Persian restaurants. This style of rice cooking is used to make plov/chelow/polow/pulao in Iran, Azerbaijan, and the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the method used for Uzbek plov where the rice is cooked together with other ingredients and absorbs the broth, in the “Persian” method, the rice is cooked by itself, drained, then steamed. This ensures fluffy rice and individual grains that don’t stick to each other. We’ll go over specific recipes with this rice, like Hyderabadi biryani or Azeri plov, in another post.

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Azeri style plov with kazmakh (Persians call it ‘tah-dig’) – the crispy rice at the bottom of the pot.

For a long time, I would buy basmati rice in the store, cook it, and find it tasted nothing like the fluffy rice in Indian restaurants. The secret to making perfectly fluffy basmati rice is 1) using high quality rice, 2) draining, and 3) steaming for a long time.

sella
“Sella” basmati rice.

High quality rice is really half the battle. I use “sella” basmati rice and it comes out great every time – it’s almost impossible to cook wrong. On the other hand, if you use a cheap, generic brand basmati rice, it may not turn out that amazing no matter how good your process is. And of course it goes without saying you need basmati – other types of rice will always be somewhat sticky no matter how you cook them. Try to buy your rice from specialty South Asian or Middle Eastern grocers. I buy my “sella” rice from Kalustyan’s in NYC.

Process:
1)Wash your basmati rice several times until the water runs clear. Then soak the rice for 20-30 minutes.

2)Pour water over the rice until 2-3 inches of water cover the rice. Add salt and oil to taste. If you are making Indian style rice, you can put in cardamoms and bay leaf. Set this on high heat until you get a rolling boil.
rice_cooking

3)Let the rice cook in the boiling water for a few minutes, sampling a rice grain every now and then. The rice needs to taste 80-90% done – maybe a tiny crunch left on the inside, but it needs to be edible.

4)Quickly, drain the rice in a colander. I can’t overemphasize how important this step is – this is what differentiates this type of rice from rice cooker rice.
rice_draining

For Azeri or Persian rice, you may want to make a kazmakh(Azeri) or tah-dig(Persian) – the rice that turns crispy from touching the pot. Getting this right will involve trial and error and most likely it will just stick to the pot without coming off cleanly. Mix some yogurt and egg in a bowl, and add some of the mixed rice. The mixture should be mostly rice, and not too liquid.

You can also make a saffron infusion to add color and flavor (if you just want the yellow color, turmeric will give the same effect and is much cheaper). Just grind up some saffron stalks and mix with hot water.
saffron

5)Now we start the steaming phase, but don’t turn the heat on for now. Ready an empty pot – a kazan works best if you have one, but just use a regular pot otherwise (don’t use a wok!). If you made a kazmakh or tah-dig, spread it in a layer over the bottom of your pot. Then put the drained rice into the pot, and form it into a mountain. If making Azeri or Persian rice, you can drizzle some saffron-infused water over it
basmati_ready_to_be_cooked

6)Now you need to bundle up your pot so the steam can stay inside. If using a regular pot, put either paper towels or clean cloth towels between the lid and the pot, and close tightly. If the pot is too wide for the towels to span it, just wrap it tightly with cloth towels. In either case, weigh down the lid with a bowl or other heavy object – we don’t want any steam to escape.
steam_rice

7)Now turn the heat to medium and let the rice pot warm up for about 5 minutes. Then turn this to minimum heat, and let it steam for at least 20 minutes, ideally 30 minutes or even longer. More steaming = fluffier rice.

8)If making Azeri rice, you can open up the pot after 15-20 minutes, put a big slab of butter in the middle of your mountain, then wrap it up again and let it steam for another 20-30 minutes.
butter_in_rice

9)The rice is ready! Lift the lid (being careful not to burn yourself on the escaping steam), fluff the rice up a bit, and serve. For Indian rice, you may want to add a touch more oil after the rice is done cooking and mix well. If you made a kazmakh/tah-dig, pry it out with a knife and serve it with the rice.

basmati_with_butterchicken
Butter chicken served with basmati rice.

Central Asia food report!

I’ve returned from a 2-week trip to Central Asia! I spent a week in Uzbekistan and a week in Kyrgyzstan, eating some of the foods I write about on this blog. Prior to this trip, it had been 8 years since I was last in Central Asia (in Xinjiang) so it was good to eat some old favorites and try some new foods.

Plov
Uzbekistan is the motherland of plov and it did not disappoint in this regard! I ate plov in every city I visited – Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. Each region has its own plov variety, which I found really interesting as there is basically only one variant of plov(or “polo”) in Xinjiang. The Uzbek plov was generally oilier than mine, and their rice grain is different. I had been using basmati, but in Uzbekistan they use a thicker, rounder grain of rice, almost like risotto or Japanese sushi rice. Here’s my plov recipe.

bukhara_plov2
bukhara_plov1
Plov in Bukhara.

samarkand_plov
Plov in Samarkand. Note the chickpeas and how all the elements (rice, carrots, meat) are separate.

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Plov in Khiva. Note how the rice is all white.

Laghman
Finally, to eat laghman made by someone other than myself! While Indian biryani or even Turkish pilaf has some resemblance to plov, there’s basically nothing like laghman to be found in the West. I keep cooking and cooking laghman at home, and after 8 years away from Central Asia, sometimes began to wonder if anyone else on earth eats this dish. Here is my Uyghur lagman recipe.

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Uyghur-style laghman at Chinar restaurant in Bukhara

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Kovurma laghman at Besh Chinor restaurant in Samarkand

The traditional Uzbek lagman is more like a noodle soup with all sorts of vegetables and potatoes in it. It’s often flavored with dill. However, they do have other varieties of lagman like “kovurma lagman”, which resembles the Uyghur version (noodles with a sauce on top), and many restaurants sell Uyghur-style laghman as well. I personally much prefer my laghman with a sauce topping rather than in a soup.

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Guiru laghman at an Uyghur restaurant in Osh.

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Guiru laghman in Bishkek.

I was pleasantly surprised by the food in Kyrgyzstan, at least in the cities. While the traditional Kyrgyz food might not be that exciting, due to their location in between Uzbekistan and China they have some great restaurants serving Uzbek, Uyghur, and Dungan cuisine. The laghman was great, and actually surprisingly similar to the one I cook at home. Of course, since my own recipe comes from an Uyghur chef from Bishkek, perhaps it’s not so surprising.

Manti
A staple of our travels! This is one dish I rarely make at home because it’s just so time consuming; plus it’s easy to just buy frozen dumplings from the Chinese grocery even if they aren’t the same thing. But Central Asian manti are really quite special, especially with some yogurt sauce. Chuchvara soup is even more time consuming; I admit I’ve only done it myself once because it takes so long to fold all those tiny dumplings. Here is my manti recipe.

khiva_manti

samarkand_manti

Meat
In Kyrgyzstan I ate a dish called “kuurdak” which is very similar to “kazan kebab”(I haven’t posted the recipe yet). Basically roasted meat with potatoes. It’s rather oily, but very tasty.

kuurdak
Kuurdak at an Uyghur restaurant in Osh.

I also ate plenty of shashlik/kebabs in Uzbekistan. Here’s a meal from a rest stop in the middle of the Kyzyl Kum desert on the road from Khiva to Bukhara. For being in the middle of a desert, they had surprisingly good food.

shashlik_lunchShashlik lunch at a rest stop in the Kyzyl Kum desert

shashlik_samarkand
Shashlik at Besh Chinor restaurant in Samarkand

national_food
On the left, “hasip”, a type of Uzbek sausage; on the right, “naryn”, cold noodles with horse meat. At “Miliy taomlar”(National foods) in Tashkent.

Bread
In Uzbekistan they generally make a big, puffy, round sort of bread as opposed to the flat disc-shaped bread you see in Xinjiang. I bought myself some Uzbek bread stamps in Samarkand – a cooking tool almost impossible to find in the West, though you can order one at quite some cost from China – details in my nan bread recipe. I found them in the Siyob bazaar in Samarkand, sold for 10,000 som each (around $2.50 USD). Not really a common tourist souvenir so may be hard to find outside of a bazaar, although I remember seeing them being sold in Khiva as well.

samarkand_nan
Beautiful bread bought from Samarkand’s Siyob bazaar.

boor_sok
In Kyrgyzstan, they served a type of bread called “boor sok.” It’s little pockets of frybread, not unlike sopapillas. Very tasty. I’ll have to try making them at home.

uzbek_bread_stamp
Uzbek bread stamps.

gosh_nan
G
osh nan or Uyghur meat pie. Here’s my recipe.

Cold dishes/appetizers
At every meal, some type of salad was served, usually with the bread. Typically a simple salad from tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, and a pinch of salt, but sometimes flavored with some fresh herbs too. You can see the little salad in most of the pictures above.

ashlyanfu
Ashlyanfu at Arzu restaurant in Bishkek

I also got to try “Ashlyanfu”, which comes from Dungans (Chinese Central Asians). It’s a cold noodle soup with wheat noodles and mung bean jelly noodles. Sounds strange, but very good. I’ve yet to try making this one at home, maybe because it seems rather labor intensive (making the jelly noodles). In mainland China, they eat something similar called “liang pi”; I eat it sometimes at the Chinese places near my home.

Tea
uzbek_teapot

Naturally, green tea was served at every meal. Unlike in Xinjiang where people “wash” the tea bowls with some hot tea and then throw it out, in Uzbekistan they pour some tea into a bowl and then pour it back into the pot, sometimes multiple times. I picked up my own Uzbek teapot and tea bowls. They were selling all sorts of fancy elaborate porcelain in the tourist shops, but I really just wanted the same exact blue and white teapot that appears in almost every restaurant in Uzbekistan (it makes an appearance in a few of the pictures above). Luckily I found them in Siyob bazaar in Samarkand for cheap – a teapot and four bowls was around 25,000 som or $6 USD.

Hope you enjoyed the photos – I’ll try to get back to posting recipes soon.

Introduction

My first encounter with Uyghur food was in the summer of 2007. I left on a 30-hour train from Xi’an, and got off in Turpan – a different world. Over the next few weeks, I became well-aquainted with laghman, kavap, polo, chuchvara, and other Uyghur foods as I traveled through Urumqi, westwards to Kashgar, and along the southern edge of the Tarim Basin to Hotan.

Seven years since, those places and that food have become almost mythical to me. Uyghur and Central Asian food has been a rare treat for me wherever I could find it – whether it be a Uyghur restaurant in Montreal’s Chinatown that has long since closed, or an Uzbek restaurant in Seoul’s “Little Central Asia.”

Here are a few of my culinary obsessions:

1. Plov

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My plov.

A person could cook plov for years and never fully master it. Every time I cook plov, I learn something new about my technique, and find someplace to improve. There are so many variables – the choice of rice, the soaking time, the amount of oil, the amount of water, how much you cook the rice, how long you steam it – and countless different variations in the technique. Here is my post about cooking plov.

2. Laghman
dapanji_laghman
I have yet to find a restaurant that makes the hand-pulled, bouncy, chewy noodles like in Xinjiang. Same for “suoman” – pulled flat noodle pieces. Even the sauce does not taste quite the same as in Xinjiang – rich and savory with tomato, with a touch of sweet. Here is my post about cooking laghman.

3. Nan bread
naan
I’ve had some decent renditions of laghman, but nowhere else in the world have I had any bread that comes remotely close to Uyghur bread in Xinjiang – specifically, the big disc-shaped bread that is flat in the middle, oily, and flavored with onion and spices. Uzbek restaurants make a type of bread called “lepeshka”, but this is often doughy and minimally flavored. Here is my post about baking nan bread: Uyghur nan bread and Uzbek nan bread.

Over the years, I searched for Uyghur recipes in an attempt to make it myself, but found almost nothing on the English-speaking web. Only recently did I discover that there is a wealth of information about Uyghur and Central Asian cooking available in Russian. It makes sense, given that most of Central Asia used to be part of the Soviet Union, and there are many expatriate Uyghurs living in these countries.

My two biggest resources have been:

1. Stalic Khankishiev. He is an amateur-turned-celebrity chef who runs a livejournal with detailed recipes and beautiful photos, and there are countless Youtube videos of his cooking shows. He’s also written several books, which I will review in another post. He is fairly well known in Russia, where most people are familiar with Central Asian food (almost all Russians have tried plov and shashlik, for example).

2. Abdulaziz Salavat. He is a professional chef who runs a Youtube channel with lots of detailed videos about Uyghur cooking.

Trying these recipes myself as someone who rarely cooked before, I found most of these recipes quite simple and forgiving for a beginning cook. It’s a blend of Eastern and Western cooking: like Eastern cooking, most dishes are simply fried or stewed without the complicated procedures of Western cooking; like Western cooking, many dishes are cooked relatively slowly, and the ingredients are few and easy to find in NYC groceries: meat, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, cumin, flour.

You may notice that I generally do not give measurements or quantities in my recipes. This is because the measurements and fussy parts of cooking were what turned me off from it originally. I like cooking simple food. I don’t mind labor intensive dishes, but I don’t like overly complicated recipes or too many ingredients. I never measure anything. Generally, your own common sense for the amounts will do just fine. The pictures should help give you an idea of proportions. If the proportions make or break the dish, I will point it out.

I am far from an expert on Central Asian food. With this blog, I will chronicle my experiences in cooking, and hope to share what I learn with others who want to recreate this amazing food at home. I appreciate any advice you have.

– Pravit

All photos on this site are my own work unless a different source is mentioned.