Plov – Uzbek Rice Pilaf with Lamb and Carrot

Plov20170730My version of Uzbek plov.

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.

Cooking plov in Turpan, Xinjiang
Plov_StepByStep
Plov preparation step by step.

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.

Plov in Bukhara

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).

bukhara_plov2
Plov served in a chaikhana in Bukhara.

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.

My kazan.
My kazan

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).

Ingredients:
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 5-6 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. Look at the difference in these two pictures below. On the other hand, in northern Afghanistan they have their own “Uzbeki pulao” which seems to be made using basmati rice. They use a special, parboiled type of basmati rice called sella rice which holds its shape and tends not to stick together or get mushy, unless you really drown it in water.

On the left: Uzbek plov using calasparra rice. On the right: Persian style palaw using basmati rice. The rice texture is totally different.
samarkand_plov
Plov in Samarkand. Notice the rice is medium grain and plump, not at all like basmati.

So to summarize, here are my criteria for correctly cooked plov rice:
1) Uses medium grain rice, not basmati, not parboiled
2) Rice grains “al dente”, a bit of chew
3) Rice grains not mushy/sticky/creamy; grains should be individually defined and separate easily when you fluff or toss the rice.

3
Close up of the kazan with a properly cooked plov. The grains are individual, cooked through to “al dente”, and not sticking together. The rice is not basmati and it is not parboiled.

Rice to water proportions: 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.  I do not soak plov 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. Essentially, you need 1:1 in volume of water to rice, plus the amount of water lost to evaporation. This will vary depending on your cooking setup and the type of rice you use (since different rice varieties can take longer to cook). I generally use 1:1 plus about 1/2-3/4 cup of water.

0.5kg lamb meat – I have used lamb shoulder chops and lamb leg, all work fine for plov.
700 mL of boiling water – note is not a ratio, so use this with 500g of calasparra rice as mentioned above. Scaling this may cause the recipe not to work.
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.
Ingredients

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.
Carrots

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.

kazan_oil
You should have at least this much oil in your kazan, maybe even more!

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.

cooking_fat
Lamb tail fat starting to cook.

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.
MeatCooking_500px

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.
carrots_and_meat.jpg

10. Make the broth. Take the boiling water 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.”

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.

This is what it looks like after I put in the rice. I don’t add any additional water.

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, slowly flipping the top layer to the bottom so that all the rice can get cooked evenly.

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 and “look” done, but it should still be crunchy and undercooked when you bite into it. If you can chew through the rice, do NOT add more water! I have ruined many perfectly good pots of plov thinking that the rice needed more water. It does not. Steaming will take care of 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 and cook until you can chew through it. 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 burn the stuff at the bottom thinking the oil is 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. 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. 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 going to turn our plov rice from “crunchy” to “done” and give it that wonderful fluffiness that we desire.

After the cover is hot, turn the heat down to low, and let this steam. The exact time is something of an art, and depends on how done the rice was in the previous stage, and the type of rice you use. If the rice tasted very crunchy and un-done, let it steam for longer: 30 minutes. If the rice tasted almost done, then steam it for less: 20 minutes.

steam_rice

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). It might only be the top layer that is undercooked, in which case just mix it well and steam until the rice is done.

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).

Plov2_2000px

Common mistakes:

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.

For more, read this post on how to get properly cooked plov without mushy rice.

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.

Enjoy!

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