We continue our journey through Azerbaijan with what is probably considered the national dish : plov.
Plov or aş (ash) in Azeri, is what is referred to as pilaf in a number of other countries. I already shared the ancient history of this rice preparation when I made the delicious version from Uzbekistan 2 years ago.
Plov is cooked for guests to show respect and sympathy and also during special occasions like weddings, birthdays and other important family events, such as a farewell meal before a long journey. The dish is a very important part of a traditional Azeri wedding. Dancers in national costume typically set the plov alight and present the flaming dish to the bride and the groom in a ceremony that is often accompanied by big fire sparklers. The flame refers to the couple’s future life, and signifies success, friendship and warm family feelings. The rice represents wealth.
It is often said that there are more than 40 types of plov in Azerbaijan. The reality is that there are probably way more as each family will have its own version of each recipe.
The most famous recipes of plov include kourma plov with lamb and onion,
chilov plov with bean and fish, sabzi qovurma plov with lamb and herbs, toyug plov with chicken, shirin plov with dried fruits, syudli plov with rice cooked in milk, sheshryanch plov, the six-color plov with sunny side up eggs on a fried green and white onions.
Traditional Azerbaijani plov typically consists of three components that are most of the time served on separate platters: rice, gara (fried meat, dried fruits, eggs, or fish), and aromatic herbs. In the region of Nakhchivan however, plov is also prepared with the local staple grain called yarma, a ground pearl wheat also known as Azerbaijani bulgur.
There are three main preparation methods plov: dashma plov, suzme plov, and dosheme plov.
Dashma plov, also known as chekme in some regions, is also the oldest and easiest to make. It is probably the method that is most common in Western cuisines. In this preparation method, rice is boiled in water until it is all absorbed. Meats, vegetables, dried fruits and herbs are cooked with the rice in the same pot.
The suzme plov (drained pilaf) method consists in parboiling presoaked rice in salted water. The rice is then drained and heaped in the form of a pyramid. Saffron and butter are often poured over the rice, which is then steamed until light and fluffy. Suzme plov is traditionally served with toppings that may include beef, lamb, poultry, or fish, with sweet or sour dried fruits, fresh fruits, chestnuts, and fresh herbs.
Dosheme plov, which is the method I decided to use today, consists in parcooked and drained rice that is then cooked in a pot in alternating layers of meats, vegetables, dried or fresh fruits, and herbs. It is then served all together. The layers that are served under the rice are called plovalti, which literally translates as “under-rice”.
Today’s parcha-dosheme plov recipe was shared by our newest culinary expert Feride Buyuran, the award-winning cookbook author of the first published Azeri cookbook in the US: “Pomegranates and Saffron: A Culinary Journey to Azerbaijan”. Her recipe is called parcha-dosheme plov. This version can be prepared with lamb or chicken.
In a traditional plov, long grain rice is steamed with saffron on top and a layer of golden crust called gazmag (or qazmaq) forms at the bottom. This crust can be prepared from eggs, flour, butter and yogurt. It can also be prepare with sliced potatoes or lavash (flat bread). The simplified version we are making today doesn’t include the qazmaq layer. This layer is the same as the one called tahdig by Persians that we featured in our Persian kebab and rice recipe.
Parcha-dosheme plov is similar to the recipe of shirin plov, an exquisite rice dish originating from Azerbaidjan’s capital Baku. However, shirin plov traditionally doesn’t include any meat. Shirin plov alone features dozens of versions depending on family traditions but also seasons. In the fall, chestnuts are typically added. In the winter, dried black plums give a warm sour flavor. In the summer, the tartness of apricots provides a balance with the sweetness of raisins.
The dried sour plums that are used in Azerbaijan are called albukhara. They are similar to dried greengage plums. These dried plums are used in a variety of plov like turshu plov (sour pilaf) or turshu qovurma (sour fried meat). When chestnuts, dried apricots and raisins are added like in today’s recipe, the dish is sometimes called shirin qovurma (sweet fried meat).
What makes the cuisine of Azerbaijan so unique in addition to all the influences from the surrounding countries is its climate. Indeed, out of 11 climate zones that are known in the world, the Azerbaijani climate features nine. This diversity in climate contributes to the fertility of the land and the richness of its cuisine, with an abundance of vegetables, greens and fruits used seasonally as in today’s recipes.
Plov is such a famous dish in Azerbaijan that it now has its festival. The International Plov Festival has been held in December in Baku for the past 2 years. It attracted cooks not only from Azerbaijan but also from Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other countries.
I made the parcha-dosheme plov at Vera’s for a shabbat dinner feast with the whole family while I visited Paris this month. For that festive dinner, in addition to the traditional salads, we had also made dolmas, a lamb tajine and pakhlava. Yes, the diet should definitely have started the day after!
- 3 cups long-grain white Basmati rice
- 4 tablespoons butter , melted
- 1 cup peeled chestnuts
- ½ cup pitted dried apricots
- 1 cup dried sour plums (golden plums or prunes, pitted, or dried barberries)
- ½ cup pitted dates
- ½ cup golden raisins
- 1½ lb skinless , boneless chicken cut into 2-inch/5cm cubes
- 1 onion , peeled, cut in half, then thinly sliced
- ⅓ teaspoon ground saffron threads , dissolved in 3 tablespoons hot water
- Black pepper
- Place the rice on a fine-mesh strainer or colander and wash thoroughly under lukewarm water until the water runs clear. The rinsing process removes the starch so that the rice grains will remain separate after cooking.
- Soak the rice in a large container filled with lukewarm water mixed with 1 tablespoon of salt.
In a medium frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons butter (30g) over medium heat. Add peeled chestnuts and stir-fry for about 3 minutes.
- Add dried apricots, plums and dates and stir-fry for another 3 minutes. Add raisins and stir-fry for 1 more minute. Remove from heat.
In a large non-stick saucepan, combine 10 cups (2,5l) of water and 2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil. Drain the soaked rice and add it, in batches, to the pot. Boil for about 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, to prevent rice grains from sticking to the bottom. Watch the rice closely so as not to overcook. It must be barely done - not fully cooked and not too soft.
- Drain the rice in a large fine-mesh strainer or colander. Set aside.
Rinse the pot you boiled the rice in. Melt 1 tablespoon (15g) butter over medium heat. Arrange the meat in one layer at the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and pepper, to taste.
- Follow with the layer of sliced onions. Simmer over medium heat uncovered, without stirring, for about 3 minutes.
- Place half of the rice in the pot over the onion. Arrange the dried fruits and chestnuts in one layer on top of the rice. Pile the rest of the rice on top of the fruits, mounding the rice in the shape of a pyramid. Pour 1 tablespoon melted butter over the rice.
- Place a clean dishtowel or 2 layers of paper towel over the pot and cover firmly with a lid to absorb the steam. Lift the corners of the towel over the lid.
- Reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes. Then open the lid and sprinkle the saffron water on top of the rice.
- Cover again and simmer for another 30 minutes.
- When ready to serve, gently take 1 spatula full of rice, fruits and meat at a time, placing it on the large serving platter.