20 February 2008

Anbari Rice Pilaf

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.


Sarah said...

I know that this is seven months late, but thank you for posting an avocado ice cream recipe. I had it once, at a cafe in Severna Park, but have never seen it again. Not to be too dramatic, but you may have changed my life today.

By the way, I really love your blog and I hope you're happy in your new home.

Meeta K. Wolff said...

This is an incredible post! We have a friend who comes from Aleppo here and he has shared great stories about his family and food. Merce, this is a lovely thought provoking post and I simply love the rice pilaf.

Miss T said...

Sounds fabulous, and so does the fish recipe!

Anonymous said...

This is such a wonderful post, Mercedes. I find it such a tragedy that the only thing most people know about this ancient and fascinating country is its current political nightmare. Hopefully the day isn't too far off when we'll see Iraq more famous for food like this than for this horrible war.

Anonymous said...

what a lovely reminder and tribute to Anbar.
the cooking technique and bottom crust reminds me of Spanish Paella... we are all a lot more alike than we sometimes think.

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

I think pilafs are much underrated, don't you? Or at least, often overlooked. I like the sound and appearance of this one, and thanks for the serving suggestions, too - all very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Does that come out crispy? I love crispy rice dishes!

Dori said...

It's great to try and show another side of people that most never see...this goes for everyone. The rice looks delicious :)

Callipygia said...

I had it in my mind to make Baqala Polo (something a friend made for me years ago) this weekend, but I am going to try this instead. Thank you for a thought provoking post, I will think of the splendors of the region while I eat.

suzanneelizabeths.com said...

This has always been one of my favorite cooking blogs, but today you really out-did yourself!

The quality of your writing, and your ability to incorporate a compassionate world view with an obvious love for food and fine cooking really makes this blog a wonderful place to visit.

Thank you again, keep up the great work.


Unknown said...

I tagged you. Go to my blog to play along.

Aparna Balasubramanian said...

We make a lot of different types of pilafs (or pulav as we call it) in India. I make something like this using caramelized onions and raisins instead of the dates.

Hilda said...

Mercedes, I make rice in a polo paz and so does my mother which is how we manage the crust staying in one piece when we flip it, but my grandmother didn't, and the only way that I know that she kept the tah dig whole was by putting a ton of butter in the rice. I mean a TON of butter. I don't know if you want to try that...

Andrea said...

I love rice dishes, and this one sounds wonderful. Reminds me of my stay in the Middle East.

Mercedes said...

Oh my, I have been so busy with work that I have been terrible at replying to comments!
Thank you all for the lovely feedback and thought provoking words.
Hilda, I laughed when I saw your comment because that is the really great way to make a crust- tons of butter. I just can never bring myself to do it, though I've certainly eaten it in all it's deliciousness. Some people also add a couple spoonfuls of yogurt to the first bit of rice to help make the crust, but I haven't tried it myself yet.

La Cuisine d'Helene said...

What a great looking rice. I love middle eastern food and dates. Yesterday I made a cake with dates. It's delicious.

Anonymous said...

Sounds delicious! I make Persian rice often and am not able to get the crust. I'll keep trying!

Lyra said...

Mercedes, thank you for such an insightful post. I often think about the implications of our invasion of the cradle of civilization. I sent this post along to a friend of mine who is in Baghdad now. I too hope that someday soon Iraq will not be world famous for IEDS and the globe's worst refugee crisis. Thank you for reminding us all that Iraq has so much to offer.


Truly a nice blog... Informative and entertaining... The entry about Baklava... Awesome!

Anonymous said...

I like to make rice for Chinese cooking with the crispy bottom. I good way to do it, which I think would work here is use a CAST IRON pot or pan. It works flawlessly every time

UmmBinat said...

I love what you say here,

"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."

This rice was wonderful, aromatic and flavourful. Mine did not gain any crust at all but it may be due to the type of pot I cooked it in. I used real Iranian saffron and powdered my own cardamom with a mortar and pestle, I used Iranian rose water, which I prefer and sea salt and butter. Using the rest of the ingredients as stated. I served it with http://www.food.com/recipe/raita-anarkali-pomegranate-seeds-raita-57435 and a lovely Iraqi turnip recipe I will be posting soon insha Allah.

UmmBinat said...

This is wonderful. A crust formed very well using a properly seasoned cast iron pan with additional butter, turning up the heat to more than just "very low heat" did the job. I can see why this is one of your favorite recipes. It is the best Muhammar I have made and I have tried a few! I used Iranian saffron, which is the best kind, ground my own cardamom from whole, which I absolutely love, used Iranian rose water (in my opinion the best as well), sea salt, and the date molasses. I will be making this again for sure!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Thanks for this particular article! It had been invaluable.

tasteofbeirut said...

I searched high and low in Beirut for this rice; I am going to have to go to Iraq to get some! truly wonderful and thanks for posting such a wonderful recipe. I remember our family trip to Southern Iraq and the Marshlands where this rice comes from as the highlight of my youth.