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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
Cooking utensils 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 have been making it for over two years and every time I make it, I still find some way to hone my technique.
There are many plov video recipes on the net, but the most simple, straightforward one I have found is this one (in Russian).
IMPORTANT! Unlike most of my other recipes, the proportions (critically, that of water to rice) are extremely important in plov. Incorrect proportions can ruin the dish. This recipe serves 3-4 people.
0.5 kg rice: The choice of rice has a huge effect on the finished product, as much so as your cooking. I recommend paella rice, specifically Spanish calasparra rice as it is the most similar in size, shape, and texture to the rice used in Uzbekistan. Risotto rice can also work, but tends to be too sticky. Basmati will work, but it isn’t at all like Uzbek rice. East Asian rice will not work because it is too sticky.
In plov, it’s very important that the cooked rice grains stay separate and not a sticky mush. The Russian term for this desired consistency is “рассыпчатый.”For this reason, it’s basically impossible to obtain a good result with East Asian rice, which by design is supposed to stick together.
Basmati is often used to make plov outside Central Asia, but in texture and shape it is really quite different from the rice in Uzbek plov. On the plus side, it tends not to stick together, making it a good choice for a beginning cook.
As a last resort, I have heard of people using parboiled (Uncle Ben’s) rice. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard it’s a foolproof way of ensuring the rice doesn’t get mushy.
Rice to water ratio: This is really important in making plov with the correct texture, and for whatever reason seems to be completely overlooked in almost all recipes. I am all for eyeballing things but this is the one time you need to be crazy precise in measuring, unless you want a pot full of soggy mush. The correct ratio is different depending on what rice you use and if you soak it or not. I do not soak rice as it introduces too much uncertainty (how much water did the rice soak up) potentially leading to mushy rice, and does not noticeably improve the final outcome. On Stalic’s website, he has an article where he takes different amounts of rice, then soaks them, then cooks them. To get the correct ratio, take the weight of the fully cooked rice, subtract the weight of the uncooked rice, then divide that number by the weight of the uncooked rice. Paella rice (calasparra and bomba): 1.4:1 Basmati rice: 1.65:1 Risotto rice (arborio): 1.1:1
0.5kg lamb meat – I have used lamb shoulder chops and lamb leg, all work fine for plov. 700 mL of boiling water – For calasparra rice, you need 1.4x water (in weight) to rice, otherwise follow the ratios listed above. THIS RATIO IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT! 2 medium onions 3 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. 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. Salt Vegetable oil and/or lamb tail fat
Barberries or raisins (optional) – barberries can add some nice acidity to the dish. I typically don’t like raisins in plov (too sweet), but some do.
Directions (takes about 3 hours start to finish)
1. Cut the onions into slices (half moons).
2. 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.
3. Debone and cut up the lamb meat. Cut out the fat and bones, and keep aside. Chop the lamb meat into medium sized pieces.
4. Heat up the kazan and heat the oil. Put the kazan on high heat. Once the kazan is hot, add vegetable oil to cover the bottom in a fairly deep layer, and wait a bit until the oil heats up.
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. I buy it at the Fortuna grocery in Brooklyn.
5. Prepare the oil. If you are using vegetable oil, take a small onion, remove the skin, and fry it in the oil, letting it cook on all sides until the whole thing is brown, then remove the onion and discard it. While vegetable oil in small amounts lacks any discernible taste, the amount we are using means you are going to notice its flavor. Vegetable oil has a weird taste to it, and putting the onion in helps absorb the weird flavors and replace them with onion-y flavors. If you really can’t bear to use up the extra onion, you can skip this step, but your plov might taste off.
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 help to further flavor our oil.
7. Fry the meat. Fry until it develops a nice golden brown around the edges, then remove it and set aside so it doesn’t overcook during the next steps.
8. Fry the onions until they are a light brown color. They don’t need to be fully caramelized, just a little brown around the edges is fine.
9. Put in the carrots and add about 3/4 of the prepared cumin seed. Fry for 15 minutes until the carrots are soft. Cook them as long as you need to until you can easily pierce them with a fork. Then add the meat back in and fry everything together for a minute or so.
10. Make the broth. Take the boiling water (700mL to 0.5kg of rice, or 1.4x the weight of the rice) and pour it over everything. 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 low heat, and let it simmer for at least 40 minutes to 1 hour, uncovered. This broth is called “zirvak.”
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.
12. Wash the rice and add it in. First, wash the rice, mixing it around with your fingers then pouring out the cloudy water. Do this a few times until you get the water fairly clear. Then carefully add the rice in a layer on top of the other ingredients. DO NOT MIX THE RICE IN WITH THE OTHER INGREDIENTS – IT NEEDS TO BE IN A LAYER ON TOP. Carefully smooth out the rice into an even layer.
All of the water we see in the pot needs to be absorbed by the rice (some will evaporate, but the majority will go into the rice). This is why the measurement in the last stage is so critical. If we added too much water, the rice will be forced to absorb too much, and become soggy and mushy.
This is the stage at which most plov recipes incorrectly tell you to add water and is the culprit of so many soggy and overly cooked plov. If you measured the water correctly in the previous step you do not need to add any additional water. In fact, if you watch videos of professional plov makers, they never add any additional water, and the rice sits “dry” on top of everything.
13. Cook the rice. Turn the heat as high as possible. There should be big bubbles bursting all over the top of the rice. Rake the rice back and forth so that the top layer can get cooked too. Rake the rice from areas which are not bubbling to areas which are bubbling. 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 rake 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 rice should have absorbed the water, but not be “done.” In other words, the rice should have grown 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 crunchy and undercooked when you bite into it. However, it should not be so hard that you cannot chew through it. If the rice is too hard to chew through, add a tiny 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, don’t overcook your rice thinking it’s water and trying to boil it off. 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 heat for 25-30 minutes. Make sure that the cover is tight and no steam at all escapes – wrap the lid with towels for a tighter seal and weigh it down with something (I use a bowl). After a minute or so, the cover should be hot to the touch. This final steaming stage is what makes the plov fluffy with individual, separate grains.
16. Finished! Take off the lid, and remove the garlic and chilies and bone pieces. If the rice is still undercooked, then you can steam it for longer (re-cover it, heat up to medium until the pot is hot again, then turn down to low heat again).
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.
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 became a sticky mush / overcooked – This happens if you use too much water and unfortunately by the time you realize it, the rice is pretty much ruined. It’s critical to err on using too little water, and add as needed.
The 1.4:1 water to rice ratio is for Calasparra rice, but the ratio for other variants of rice is different, as mentioned above.
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.
Tasteless/not salty enough – Besides the obvious culprit of not salting the broth enough, this can happen if you don’t brown the onions enough.
Rice burns at bottom – this happens if you aren’t careful about keeping the rice in a layer at the top.
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 instead of a kazan.
Soman is my absolute favorite Uyghur food. I have never been able to find it outside of China, and today I made it for the first time. It’s been nine years since I’ve eaten it!
Soman goes by a few names – sometimes just “soman”, sometimes “din din soman”, in Central Asia “дын-дын цомян”, and in Chinese 丁丁炒面(ding ding chao mian – literally “stir fried noodle cubes”). It’s essentially the same dish as lagman (recipe here), but the noodles are chopped up into little cubes before cooking. You get lots and lots of little noodle pieces that you can pick up and eat with a spoon – the closest analogue in Western cuisine is the German spaetzle. Despite being similar to lagman, it’s really a completely different eating experience!
As with lagman, the dish can be served in a stew, or stir fried with the toppings. This recipe is for the stew version, but the stir fried one is simple – just put less water in your sauce, then add the soman noodles after cooking and stir fry everything for a bit.
How to make the soman
The general process I follow is: 1) make the dough and rest it 2) do all the prep for the lagman 3) coil the dough into noodles 4) cook the lagman sauce and let simmer 5) chop up the noodles and cook them 6) serve.
The first few steps are exactly the same as in the laghman recipe. My only extra tip is to make sure your dough is not too dry, and that you don’t leave it out for too long. Soman is usually a bit thicker than lagman, and if it dries out, it’s possible for the center to not cook through.
1) After coiling the noodles, brush them well with oil and put them in the fridge for a bit. When you are ready to chop the noodles, start uncoiling the dough pieces and stretch each one out into a basic noodle shape. With soman, you don’t have to be as careful about making your noodles uniformly round & thin like lagman. Using a knife, start chopping the dough into little cubes. Pile the cubes up on an oiled plate.
Chopping the noodles can take much longer than it seems. Try not to pile too many noodle cubes onto one plate, and put the plates into the fridge when full. Otherwise, the noodle pieces can end up sticking and melting together if you leave them for too long.
2) Boil a pot of water and pour all your noodle pieces in! You may find that the noodle pieces have ended up sticking together and to the plate in one big mass of dough. Don’t fret – if you oiled them enough in the coiling stage, they should come apart in the boiling water. Use chopsticks to poke around in the noodles and make sure they separate and don’t stick to the bottom.
3) After the water returns to a rolling boil for a few minutes, try the noodles. They should be al dente. Quickly remove all the noodles, place in a sieve, and briefly rinse in cold water and toss.
How to make the stew
The stew is the same as in the lagman recipe, but make sure you chop every ingredient (meat, vegetables) into a cube shape. The whole idea behind this dish is that everything is chopped up so you can eat it with a spoon.
When the stew is done, plate the soman noodles and generously ladle the stew over it, making sure each plate has a good amount of sauce. Mix everything together in the plate a bit. Enjoy!
This recipe is for the Uzbek bread, obi non, or in Russian “lepyoshka“, but you will see various breads that look very similar to this all over Central Asia – round, and pressed down in the middle, almost like a giant bagel or pizza crust. In Central Asia, bread is such a basic staple food that you get it with literally every meal, without asking for it. If you visit someone’s house, they will bring you bread and tea.
This is a versatile bread and tastes great just eaten by itself, fresh out of the oven. It’s also great to eat with soups and stews, or with jam. It’s most similar to a baguette in taste and texture. This bread is pretty similar to the Uyghur version I wrote about earlier. The difference is that it is much thicker and the pressed down part in the middle is smaller. If the Uyghur nan bread is like a big pizza crust without any sauce on it, the Uzbek nan bread is like a giant inflated bagel.
Making bread is truly an art – don’t be surprised if it doesn’t turn out right the first few times you make it. I had to make this bread 20+ times before it turned out the way I like it, and I’m still trying to perfect my technique.
In Central Asia this bread is made in an oven called “tandyr”(similar concept to a tandoor oven), slapping the dough directly onto the oven walls, as you can see in the video below. I obviously can’t replicate that at home, but I’ve gotten good results with a pizza stone. Failing that, it would probably turn out OK on a baking pan.
I use some bread stamps I bought in Uzbekistan to make the patterns on the bread. They are called “chekich”; you can see the bakers in that video stamping the dough with them in the beginning. You can buy them from this store on Etsy, or if you know someone traveling to Central Asia, ask them to buy a couple for you – they only cost a few dollars and should be sold in almost any bazaar. In New York, you can buy bread stamps at Fortuna grocery in Brooklyn – they sell small wooden ones behind the checkout counter, along with plates and teapots. If you don’t have a chekich, you can just use a fork.
Milk – optional, use instead of water to make the bread more soft. I like using a mix of milk and warm water.
Egg (optional) – to glaze the bread
Toppings for the bread – sesame seeds, nigella seeds, finely minced onion, garlic
Make a pile of flour with an indentation in the middle. Don’t worry about how much or how little flour to put; you will either end up with a bigger or smaller bread and after a few tries you will know roughly how much flour makes how big a bread. In the middle, pour some warm water. Put in half a packet of dry yeast, a teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of flour. Then stir up the middle and wait for a few minutes until it bubbles up and turns into a foam.
Begin mixing the water into the flour. Mix until everything is dry and slowly add more water until you have a semi-solid dough, scraping the excess flour off the walls of the bowl. Don’t worry about exactly how much water to put; if you put too much water then put in more flour until it’s solid. I generally err on the side of too little water, because the dough will end up getting very sticky once you start kneading it. You can always add more water.
When it is solid enough to work with your hands, flour a clean surface and start kneading the dough, adding more flour as required if it gets sticky. Knead this for 10 minutes until it no longer sticks to your hands and is relatively firm and pliable.
Put this in a bowl and let it rest for 40 minutes in a warm place, covered with a clean cloth.
After the 40 minutes are up, the dough should have risen (but don’t worry if it appears not to have risen that much). Take out the dough and knead it again for a few minutes, then shape it into a fat disc and let it rest for another 15 minutes, covered. Why do we rest the dough so much? So that we can form it into a big doughnut later. If we don’t rest it enough, we’ll find the dough is resistant to shaping.
After the 15 minutes are up, take the dough and roll it out into a big circle, not too thin. Then use your fingers to press down the middle of the dough, pushing the air outwards. Don’t make the middle too thin. Use your fingertips to press a circular ring into the middle of the dough. You really want to define a nice circular edge, it’s not so important to press the middle down. Let this rest for another 5 minutes.
Press all the way around your circular indent again. Now use a bread stamp to press down the middle and make nice patterns. The patterns aren’t just to be pretty, the holes help prevent the middle from rising, giving us that nice giant doughnut shape we want. If you don’t have a stamp, you can just use a fork to make holes all around the center. Whether you use a stamp or fork, make sure to press down hard so the holes go all the way through the dough.
Use a brush to cover the bread with a mixture of beaten egg and milk. This will give the bread a nice shiny golden brown crust when it’s done, and also make it sticky so our toppings won’t fall off. If you don’t have egg, you can use just milk to glaze the bread, or failing that, water. The point is to wet the bread – the choice of egg or milk or water just has different effects on the finished appearance. Whatever you do, just glazing the top and sides is fine – don’t glaze the very bottom because it can end up getting stuck to the peel. Then add your toppings – I usually just put sesame seed, but nigella seed works nicely too, as does finely minced onion or garlic. Imagine it’s a giant bagel, just add whatever you would like on a bagel.
Rub flour into your baking peel to create a rough surface. Now you need to be fast so the dough does not stick to the peel. Put your dough onto the baking peel. Then quickly slide the dough onto the baking stone in an oven preheated to 400F. You just put the tip of the peel on the far end of the stone and wiggle it back and forth until your dough slides off – that’s why it’s crucial to flour the peel first, otherwise the dough might stick. If your dough ends up sticking to the peel and won’t come off, it’s no big deal, just take the dough with your hands and put it onto the stone (be careful not to burn yourself).
Bake this for about 15 minutes until the bread has a nice golden brown crust. Enjoy!
This is one of my favorite soups and it’s very easy to make. Mastava is a thick, hearty soup of rice, meat, potatoes, and other vegetables, served with a dollop of sour cream. Like many Central Asian soups, it is first “fried”, then water is added to make it into a soup.
Don’t worry about the exact proportions of the ingredients, just make sure you don’t put in so many things that it doesn’t fit in your pot! You can add in whatever other vegetables you have on hand. It’s a good dish to make a big batch of on weekends if you are too busy to cook during the week, or happen to have a lot of vegetables on hand. It stores well and tastes even better the next day.
I made this Uzbek-style nan bread to eat with the soup. The recipe is very similar to the Uyghur nan bread I posted earlier, although there are some slight differences. The Uzbek nan is generally softer and thicker. I’ll do another post on it soon.
This recipe is from Восточный Пир by Hakim Ganiev.
Meat (beef or lamb) diced into cubes
Carrots, diced into cubes
Potatoes, diced into cubes
Bell peppers, diced into cubes
Tomatoes, diced into cubes
Rice (only a handful, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes) – you can just use regular rice for this as it will get soggy in the soup
Sour cream (garnish), or smetana if you have it
1. Sautee the onions in oil, on high heat, until they are slightly translucent and golden. Add the meat and garlic and sautee.
2. When the meat is browned, add in the carrots and bell peppers. Cook this for a few minutes on medium heat.
3. Add in a few big spoonfuls of tomato paste and mix well. Add the tomatoes. Mix everything well and cook for a bit.
4. Add the potatoes, salt, and spices (ground cumin, black pepper). Cook for a few minutes.
5. Pour in cold water until you have as much soup as you want. It will be a fairly thick soup in the end.
6. Turn the heat to high until the water has just started to boil. Then turn to minimum heat and let it simmer for 15 minutes.
7. Add in the rice and let it simmer for another 10-15 minutes until the rice is soft.
8. Salt to taste. The soup is done! Serve with a spoonful of sour cream and chopped cilantro.
Da pan ji (大盘鸡 “big plate chicken”) is one of the few foods that is equally popular among Chinese and Uyghurs. It originates from Xinjiang, but is claimed by neither group: Uyghurs regard it as a Chinese dish, and Chinese regard it as a Xinjiang specialty. Regardless of who originally came up with it, it’s become quite popular in the rest of China and can even be found in Chinese restaurants abroad.
Just like the name, it’s a big plate of chicken stewed in a rich, spicy sauce with potatoes, green bell peppers, and chilies. The star anise makes it amazingly fragrant when complete. There are plenty of variations in the sauce and how it is served: some places serve it with noodles, other with bread, others just by itself. I personally love eating it with Uyghur nan bread to soak up the sauce.
Chicken (1-1.5lb, I use dark meat that won’t get tough during the cooking)
Potatoes (3-4 medium sized ones)
Green bell peppers (1-2)
Chinese fermented black bean sauce (豆瓣酱 doubanjiang)
Chili garlic sauce
Star anise (八角 bajiao, 5-6 pieces)
Sichuanese peppers (optional, a small handful)
Can of beer or Shaoxing cooking wine (optional)
Prep: Chop the potatoes into medium pieces – not too big or they won’t cook through, not too small or they’ll get overcooked and make the sauce starchy. Chop the chicken into small to medium-sized pieces. Chop the green bell peppers into medium-sized square pieces.
1. Heat the wok on high heat and add oil. When the oil has heated, add a small amount of sugar (1-2 teaspoons) and mix well.
2. When the sugar has melted into the oil, put in the chicken and stir fry this until it is browned. The melted sugar will give the chicken a nice golden color.
3. Put in the onions and cook these until soft and light brown.
4. Add the black bean sauce, chili garlic sauce, and tomato paste. Add a good dollop of each – maybe 2-3 tablespoons worth. Mix everything well.
5. Salt, and add the dried chilies and Sichuanese peppers, mixing everything well.
6. Add soy sauce, add the beer or wine (if you are using it), and add enough water so the broth almost covers everything.
7. Put in the star anise. Once the water boils, turn the heat down to medium. Mix everything well, cover the wok, and let this cook for at least 25 minutes.
8. Taste the sauce and reduce if too watery. The sauce should be spicy, aromatic, and savory. Finally, add the bell peppers and let them cook briefly. Dapanji is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day after it has been sitting in the fridge; the flavors thicken and become more complex with time. Ideally, let it simmer over minimum heat for a while before serving. Serve in a big serving plate; you can put noodles or bread on the bottom to soak up the sauce, or serve them separately. Enjoy!
Samsa (самса, 烤包子) are baked buns that are eaten all over Central Asia. The filling is usually meat (beef or lamb), onions, and plenty of fat. As you might guess from the name, they are distantly related to Indian samosas. In Xinjiang, they sell these on the street in every city.
Samsa are usually fairly greasy and, like most Central Asian food, best washed down with hot green tea. I often bought samsas to eat on long-distance buses in Xinjiang; one time a man next to me saw my water bottle and cautioned me against drinking it with the samsas. The traditional belief (not only in Xinjiang, but across Eastern Europe and Asia) is that drinking cold things is bad for your digestion, especially after eating greasy food.
These are traditionally baked in a tandyr oven like nan bread – sticking them straight to the wall and prying them off with tongs. I used a pizza stone and got good results – unlike nan, you can get pretty close to the real thing at home.
The recipe here is for the standard meat samsa. You can also fill them with pumpkin and onion. Although not traditional, I imagine yam or sweet potato would work well too, maybe even taro! You can wrap a chicken drumstick with onion and samsa dough and make amazing baked chicken samsas that turn out wonderfully juicy and tender inside.
Meat (beef or lamb) – use a somewhat fatty cut
1. Make a dough of flour, water, egg, and salt. Knead this until it is fairly firm and let rest for an hour, in the fridge.
2. Take some dough and roll it out until it is very thin and takes up almost all of your rolling space. Lightly brush this with melted butter.
3. Roll up the dough sheet into a tube. Coil up the resulting dough twist and keep in the fridge. Do this for all of the dough.
4. Chop up the meat into fairly small pieces, making sure to leave the fatty bits in. Mix this with finely diced onion, salt, and black pepper.
5. Portion the dough twist into small pieces. Holding a piece upright (so the spiral faces the ceiling), press down on it with your other hand. What you are doing is squashing the spiral out and creating the layered dough.
6. Roll this dough out until it is thin. Spoon a good amount of filling in, then fold it up.
If you want to make circular samsa, just bunch up the edges and press it together in the middle (a bit of water may help it stick), but make sure the edges are fairly thin or you will end up with too much dough in the center of your samsa.
If you want to make triangles, simply fold up two sides then fold the bottom. You can fold into a packet shape (two sides, then two ends) as well.
Whatever you do, make sure your samsa are sealed well so the juices don’t leak out during baking.
7. Brush the samsas with beaten egg and top with sesame and nigella seeds.
8. Have the oven preheated to 420 degrees. Place the samsa directly onto the baking stone. Alternately, you can put them on a baking sheet lined with oiled foil.
9. Bake for about 25 minutes at 420 degrees. When they are done, you should see golden brown spots appearing on them. Enjoy!