Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lamb & raisin pilaf from China's great northwest

Fragrant rice medleys stretch all the way across the main body of Asia, from the buttery rice and noodle pilafs of Armenia, the pilavs of Turkey, and the Persian polows that hover around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and start trickling east into the desert regions of Central Asia, where the Uzbekis know it as palov and the Russians as plov, down through South Asia and the brilliant yellow pulaos of India and palaus of Afghanistan, and then curling back up over the Himalayas into western China, where the Uyghurs call it polo.

All along the way, the name stays very similar – pilaf, pilav, polow, palov, plov, pulao, palau, and polo, plus an assortment of alternate spellings in between – but when it gets to China, such foreign nomenclature is tossed out the window in favor of a description that goes right to the heart of the matter. 

The Chinese refer to this West China creation as zhuafan, or “grabbed rice,” because this is one of the few Chinese rice dishes that are not eaten with chopsticks, but rather with the fingers of the right hand in the Muslim manner.

Echoes of Central Asia therefore remain, and it is of course completely halal. This is an ideal accompaniment to any of the local lamb dishes, as bits of that meat dot the rice along with fruit and vegetables to provide visual and aromatic contrast: onions, golden raisins, and carrots.

The standard recipes I looked at called for a sort of fried rice, with cooked rice browned in the fat from a lamb’s tail and then simply tossed with all of the other ingredients. It was good, but I transported the traditional way of cooking pilafs in Armenia (and, for good measure, risottos in northern Italy, not that I'm starting a thrash here about the origins of Italian food) to Xinjiang and gently browned the onions, lamb, and raw rice in a combination of oil and butter (lamb tails are rather hard to find around here, I've found to my considerably dismay) before being simmered in a broth; the raisins and carrot are added toward the end so that they get to keep some of their personality.

This is easy and delicious, as well as a happy contemplation on a food that must have traveled a distant, winding path over countless years along ancient caravan routes as traders dined on golden piles of rice in walled oases, fell in love, and brought the recipe home as a treasured souvenir.

Uyghur pilaf 
Zhuāfàn 抓飯 
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish 

3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
Long grain brown rice
½ medium onion, chopped into ½-inch dice
4 ounces (about ½ cup) lamb, chopped into ½-inch dice (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup raw long-grain rice (see Tips)
Boiling filtered water as needed
½ cup moist golden raisins
1 medium carrot

1. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium-high until it starts to shimmer and then add the onion, lamb, salt, and pepper. Lower the heat to medium and fry the onions and lamb until they just start to turn brown on the edges. Scoot the meat and onions up the side of the wok or pan away from the heat.

2. Raise the heat to medium-high, add the butter to the pan, and when it is melted pour in the raw rice. Stir the rice over the heat until it starts to turn golden and smell nutty. Mix the rice with the lamb and onions. Pour in 1 cup boiling water and stir the water into the rice. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook the rice gently uncovered, stirring once in a while and adding more boiling water as needed.

3. While the rice is cooking, rinse the raisins and drain them. Peel the carrot and cut it into thin lengths about the width of the raisins. Then, cut across the carrot strips to make pieces that are about the same size as the raisins.

4. When the rice is almost done, toss in the raisins and carrots so that the carrots are just barely cooked at the same time that the rice is done. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more butter if you like. Cover the pan, remove it from the heat, and let it steam from the residual heat for about 10 minutes before you serve hot.

Lamb neck meat

Any cut of lamb can be used here as long as it is of good quality. Remove any sinews or silver skin so that you are left with only tender morsels.

Vegetarians can, of course, eliminate the lamb and substitute some tasty variety of mushroom cut in ½-inch dice.

Use long grain rice, not short grain, which is too starchy for this dish. I like brown rice here, as it adds an extra level of nuttiness to the pilaf.

The amount of water used varies according to the type of rice used, the heat of the stove, and so forth, so just keep an eye on the pilaf as it cooks and add a bit more boiling water as needed to keep the rice moist and fluffy.

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