Xinjiang Rice Pilaf

When you speak of Xinjiang cuisine, everyone automatically thinks of lamb pilaf. Like seafood paella, pilaf is a very popular dish in Southern, Western and Central Asia.

The earliest pilaf originated in India. In Sanskrit, it is called “Pulāka,” which means to “stand up”, describing the clear grains of rice. In some places, it was called “pilaf”, or “Pilau” or sometimes even “island.”

In Xinjiang, the people called a similar dish “Polo,” which is a Spanish hot pot or a seafood rice dish. It is named after the pan used to cook it, and has nothing to do with pilaf, originally coming from the ancient Spanish rice dish called “Paella.”

Traditionally in India, Xinjiang or elsewhere people would eat the rice by hand, in fact, if you translate “pilaf” in Chinese it means “rice eaten with hands.” Of course today, many people now use cutlery.

Rice Pilaf

Pilaf can be made with many different varieties of rice. In India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, they use Basmati rice, which is a long, thin grain and does not become soft and sticky after cooking, making the grains nice and distinct.

Also, Basmati’s glycemic index is relatively low which is why it is often classified as a healthy food. Correspondingly, in east Asia, larger grains of rice are consumed; experts say this is one of the main causes of diabetes.

Although Basmati rice looks nice, is wholesome and faintly aromatic, in my opinion, it has one big drawback, and that is the fact that it doesn’t have a very nice flavor. I have tested a dozen kilos of Basmati rice of many different brands and origins all of which are depressingly dry and unappetizing. Perhaps this is the reason why people in Xinjiang and nearby regions make pilaf with rice having a shorter grain.

Now getting back to Xinjiang pilaf, other main ingredients included in this dish are onions, carrots, beef and lamb. Today I will introduce you to the lamb pilaf.

These are the ingredients you will need:

300g lamb shoulder

It is best to use the fatty parts, such as the legs, shoulders; leaner parts such as the loin are not suitable for making this dish.

100g white/yellow onion (it is best not to use purple onions, as they do not really go with the dish)

160g carrots

100g vegetable oil

Grape seed oil is used here; you can use any other vegetable oil, as long as the smoke point is relatively high.

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, smashed (these have a stronger flavor than the ground seeds)

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 ¼ teaspoon salt

300g rice, preferably short grain, as the flavor is better.

Some rice should not be soaked in advance as the rice can fall apart. To avoid this, you can shorten the cooking time, however the rice will not taste the same.

40g raisins

 

Now it’s time to discuss cooking utensils. Pilaf is usually the highlight of weddings, festivals or large family gatherings. When it is made outdoors in a large iron pan over a raging fire, it is delicious! You would not have the room for this in your home kitchen, but fortunately you would not be cooking dozens of pilafs at a time. The best pot to use on a domestic stove would be deep a cast iron pot with a lid 20cm in diameter, a non-stick pot, or any pot where the bottom is nice and thick, as it holds the heat better and allows for more even cooking.

The method is as follows:

Step 1

Using your knife, cut the lamb into small pieces 1.5-2 cm square. Slice the lean meat and the fat separately.

Rice Pilaf step1

 

Cut the onion lengthways into slices.

Rice Pilaf step2

Wash the carrots, don’t worry about peeling them (after cooking, the skin will easily peel off anyway). Cut into roughly 1/2 cm thick slices.

Rice Pilaf step3

Step 2

Take a deep saucepan with a lid of 20 cm in diameter and turn on the stove to preheat for a couple of minutes. Pour the vegetable oil into the pot and continue to heat for one minute. Pilaf traditionally requires a lot of oil, firstly to brown the lamb quickly, and secondly to help separate the grains and make them translucent.

Rice Pilaf step4

Put the lamb fat into the pot and cook for three minutes to render the fat. Press the fat gently while it cooks, to release any liquid fat. Discard any leftover fat.

Rice Pilaf step5

Add the lamb to the pot.

Rice Pilaf step6

Flip the lamb often with a spatula to allow it to cook evenly. Wait until the outside of most the pieces of meat are a yellow-brown and then remove them from the pan. If you wait until all the pieces are browned, the rest will overcook, becoming too dry. This process is often used to cook goat meat as it is often used in Chinese cooking. In central Asia, the people are forbidden by Islamic teaching to use this method of cooking.

The smell of lamb cooking at a high temperature is much better than that of cooking meat with wine, or onion and ginger. The smell is created when the meat juices on the surface of the meat come in contact with the air. Lamb skewers therefore have no smell. If you do not think the meat is cooked enough, smell it, if it still smells, continue cooking a little longer.

Rice Pilaf step7

When the meat is cooked to your satisfaction, remove it from the pan and put to the side. Place the onion in the pan and cook until golden. It is important to monitor the heat when cooking onion because if it is too low, you will not get much flavor from the onion. If it is too high, the onion will turn bitter.

Rice Pilaf step8

Add the chopped carrots and continue cooking for five minutes, stirring at intervals with a spatula.

Rice Pilaf step9

Pour the fried diced lamb back into the pan and add the crushed cumin, sweet paprika and black pepper.

Rice Pilaf step10

Stir and continue cooking for one minute.

Rice Pilaf step11

Pour the cold water into the pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn down to a simmer and cover with the lid. Cook for 30 minutes. Use this time to measure out and wash the rice. The rice must be washed until the rice water turns clear. The starch must be removed or else the rice will become impure. You can use a sieve to wash the rice. When it is ready, let it dry while you boil a pot of water.

Rice Pilaf step12

Step 3

When 30 minutes have passed, open the lid and add the salt. Stir and then level the lamb and carrot in the pan with a spatula.

Rice Pilaf step13

Pour the washed rice into the pot and level it with the spatula.

Rice Pilaf step14

Pour 300g of boiling water over a spoon into the pot, to avoid a dip forming in the rice.

Rice Pilaf step15

Turn the stove on and wait for the areas around the sides and middle of the pot to start bubbling. Then transfer the pot to the smallest heat plate on the stovetop and cook on low heat for 20 minutes. Open the lid and using a spatula, heap the rice into the middle of the pot.

Rice Pilaf step16

 

Make nine holes in the rice with a fork handle, one in the middle and eight around the edge. This will enable the moisture to evaporate smoothly to the top, allowing the rice grains to absorb it. This process will cause the pot’s temperature to drop, so you can increase the heat on the stovetop.

Rice Pilaf step17

Place a moistened gauze or piece of baking paper around the edge of the pan and cover it. Turn the heat to low and continue heating for another 20 minutes before turning off the cooktop.

Rice Pilaf step18

Step 4

Finally, take the raisins and scatter them over the surface of the rice. Cover the pan with the lid and simmer for five minutes. Take the lid off and fold the rice over a few times with a spatula, so that the rice, lamb, vegetables and raisins, etc. are evenly dispersed around the pot. Use caution when turning the ingredients, and fold from the edge to along the side. This is to avoid breaking the rice. Cover the pot again and simmer for five minutes.

Rice Pilaf step19

After frying the lamb to eliminate the smell, thirty minutes of stewing and forty minutes of steaming, the whole dish becomes tender and rich, melting in the mouth. Pilaf tends to feel a little greasy eaten on its own, however when accompanied by a special cold dish, which in Xinjiang is called “Pi La Hong” it is perfect. It is very simple to make this cold dish. Cut slivers of tomatoes, green peppers and onions, add your favourite seasonings and mix.

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Rice Pilaf Recipe

Ingredients

  • 300g lamb shoulder
  • 100g white/yellow onion
  • 160g carrot
  • 100g vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, smashed
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 300g rice, preferably short grain
  • 40g raisins

Instructions

  1. Cut the fat off the lamb put to the side, then cut the lamb into cubes. Slice the onion lengthways and wash and slice the carrots.

  2. Preheat the stove and pour the oil into a deep saucepan. Heat the oil for one minute. Place the lamb into the pot and cook for three minutes to render the fat. Press the fat gently while it cooks, to release any liquid fat. Discard any leftover fat. Add the lamb to the pot, turning it often until most of the piece are browned. Remove from the pan. Cook the onion in the pan until golden. Add the carrots and continue cooking for five minutes, stirring at intervals. Put the lamb back into the pan and add the cumin, paprika and pepper. Stir and continue cooking for one minute. Pour the cold water into the pot and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn down to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes. Measure out and wash the rice.

  3. After 30 minutes, open the lid and add the salt. Stir and then level the lamb and vegetables. Pour the rice into the pot and level it. Pour 300g of boiling water over a spoon into the pot, to avoid a dip forming in the rice. Turn the stove on and wait for it to start bubbling. Then transfer the pot to the smallest heat plate on the stovetop and cook on low for 20 minutes. Open the lid and using a spatula, heap the rice into the middle of the pot. Make nine holes in the rice with a fork handle. You may need to increase the heat on the stovetop. Place a moistened gauze or piece of baking paper around the edge of the pan and cover it. Turn the heat to low and continue heating for another 20 minutes.

  4. Scatter the raisins over the rice. Cover the pan and simmer for five minutes. Take the lid off and fold the rice over a few times to disperse the ingredients evenly around the pot. Cover the pot and simmer for five minutes.

SUMMARY:

Xinjiang Rice Pilaf

Ingredients:

300g lamb shoulder

100g white/yellow onion

160g carrot

100g vegetable oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, smashed

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 ¼ teaspoon salt

300g rice, preferably short grain

40g raisins

 

Method:

1) Cut the fat off the lamb put to the side, then cut the lamb into cubes. Slice the onion lengthways and wash and slice the carrots.

2) Preheat the stove and pour the oil into a deep saucepan. Heat the oil for one minute. Place the lamb into the pot and cook for three minutes to render the fat. Press the fat gently while it cooks, to release any liquid fat. Discard any leftover fat. Add the lamb to the pot, turning it often until most of the piece are browned. Remove from the pan. Cook the onion in the pan until golden. Add the carrots and continue cooking for five minutes, stirring at intervals. Put the lamb back into the pan and add the cumin, paprika and pepper. Stir and continue cooking for one minute. Pour the cold water into the pot and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn down to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes. Measure out and wash the rice.

3) After 30 minutes, open the lid and add the salt. Stir and then level the lamb and vegetables. Pour the rice into the pot and level it. Pour 300g of boiling water over a spoon into the pot, to avoid a dip forming in the rice. Turn the stove on and wait for it to start bubbling. Then transfer the pot to the smallest heat plate on the stovetop and cook on low for 20 minutes. Open the lid and using a spatula, heap the rice into the middle of the pot. Make nine holes in the rice with a fork handle. You may need to increase the heat on the stovetop. Place a moistened gauze or piece of baking paper around the edge of the pan and cover it. Turn the heat to low and continue heating for another 20 minutes.

4) Scatter the raisins over the rice. Cover the pan and simmer for five minutes. Take the lid off and fold the rice over a few times to disperse the ingredients evenly around the pot. Cover the pot and simmer for five minutes.

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