Anbar, Mosul, Bosra, Samarra. What do you think of when you hear these names? Chances are, you think of violence, of roadside bombs and IEDs, of suicide bombers and gun fights. How sad it is that these cities, once famous for their history and traditions, are now thought of in the context of war and conflict. Samarra, that ancient city, once most famous for the fabulous spiral minaret that every art history student studies.
I’ve been doing research recently about the culinary traditions of different Middle Eastern cities: Aleppo’s unique use of spices, Anataklia and its eggplants, the biscuits of Saida. Mosul is famous for its kibbe mosul, a casserole of ground lamb and rice, and the cuisine of Bosra is characterized by its use of dried limes. It got me thinking about those city names, that those cities can have more than one meaning, that in the past when someone said Iraq one thought of Babylonian gardens, the cradle of civilization, an old and rich culinary tradition, and not of war.
My goal here is not political, in fact, by writing about Iraqi foods my aim is to depoliticize. When you understand what someone eats everyday, how they shop, how they prepare their foods, you begin to understand how they live and what their values are.
That region often in the headlines, el Anbar, was once known for producing some of the best rice in the world. Iraq’s most esteemed anbari rice is slender and highly aromatic. Unfortunately, Anbari rice is no longer available, but you can make a truly witching pilaf using the similar basmati rice. You’ll find this rice dish from Iraq to Oman and it is particularly popular in the Gulf, but it uses those most beloved Iraqi ingredients: dates, cardamom, and rose water. The dish also reflects the Iranian influence on Iraqi cuisine: the technique of cooking the rice to yield a crispy crust and the spice mix similar to the Iranian mix advieh.
Quite frankly, this is one of my favorite recipes, it always shows up whenever I’m cooking for a crowd and sometimes I make the whole recipe just for the two of us so we can eat it all week long. It has the wonderful scent of rose water, cardamom, and saffron, with a hint of sweetness from the dates. (Or, if you’re feeling cheap, a bit of safflower in place of saffron) The rice is par-boiled, then mixed with the seasonings and cooked over very low heat so that the bottom of the rice forms a delectable crispy crust (tah dig in Persian). Making the crust is part experience and part sheer luck: turn the heat too high and the crust will burn, too low and the crust will be pale and not crisp. The real talent is to be able to turn out the dish in one piece so that the crust makes a beautiful crown on the serving platter. Despite practice, I am never this lucky, and usually half my crust sticks to the pan, in which case you can just crumble the crusty bits over the top, which tastes equally as good. I actually don’t mind if it gets a touch burnt, it adds a nice toasty crunch.
I’ve called this dish Anbari rice pilaf, not because it is specific to el Anbar, but rather in remembrance of that legendary rice. I hope you’ll make it mainly because it’s amazingly good, but also so that next time Anbar comes on the news maybe your senses will be flooded with the scents and tastes of rice pilaf, and not just images of war.
Anbari Rice Pilaf
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed in cold water
1/2 cup date molasses*
1/2 tsp ground saffron
1/2 tablespoon cardamom
2 teaspoons rose water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ghee or butter
1. Combine, saffron, cardamom and rose water in a small cup.
2. Bring a large pot of water to boil with the salt. Add the rice and boil uncovered for precisely 8 minutes, then drain.
3. Mix the date molasses with the rice, then mix in the rose water mixture.
4. Choose a medium sized heavy bottomed pot. Melt the butter in it over medium heat. Add 2 spatula-fulls of rice and mix with the butter, patting down to cover the bottom of the dish. Pile the reminder of the rice in a loose cone shape and poke a few holes in the rice with the spoon handle. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of water over the rice, then wrap the pots lid with a towel and cover the dish. Place over very low heat and let cook for 20-25 minutes. Keep a close eye at the end as the rice can burn (use your nose to see if it begins to smell burned).
5. The easiest way to unmold the rice is to prepare a sinkful of cold water, dip the bottom of the pot in cold water for about 30 seconds, then invert the pot onto a serving platter. If the rice crust does not release fully, simply break up the crunchy pieces that stuck to the pot and scatter over top.
*Date molasses is available in Middle Eastern groceries. You can make a quick substitute by placing 1/3 cup minced Medjool dates in a small saucepan with 3 tablespoons water. Bring the mixture to a simmer and mash with a fork so that the dates melt into a paste.
Serving Suggestion: this rice is delectable alongside any saucy dish (I often serve it with Sweet and Sour Fish), but our favorite serving is the following. Mound the rice on a platter, or on individual plates. Take shredded cooked chicken meat (from a roast chicken or poached chicken breasts, whatever you’d like), scatter the chicken meat over the rice. Get some good plain yogurt, add a pinch of salt, and thin it with a bit of water so that the yogurt is thick but pourable. Pour the yogurt all over the chicken to cover. Sprinkle cinnamon over the top. Serve immediately.
Note: In parts of the Gulf this dish is called Muhammara- which just means red. The name muhammara is often used to refer to any reddish colored dish, do not confuse it with the red pepper dip from Syria or the Iraqi dish of rice with tomatoes, both of which bear the same name.