RECIPE: Eggplant Pilaf w/ Saffron Rice
Eaten throughout the Middle East and into Asia, pilaf is a dish of rice and either meat, fish or vegetables, cooked together in stock or water. It’s exact origins are unclear with variations of the word existing in Turkish (pilav), Hindi (pulao), and Greek (pilafi) but much consensus agrees that the dish itself comes from Ancient Persia (known today as ‘polo’ in Farsi).
That pilaf is eaten so broadly across the centre of the globe is likely attributable, firstly, to Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great whose Archaemenid empire (pictured below) stretched from modern day Greece into India and secondly, to Alexander III of Macedon who later conquered this empire.
It is in a written history of Alexander that one of the first references to pilaf can be found, noting that it was served to him at Bactria during the celebration for capturing Marakanda (modern Samarkand, Uzbekistan) around 330 BC. The actual cooking technique of pilaf, however, is more likely to have come from India, whose rice growing history reaches significantly further back than when we know the Persians began cultivating the crop in about 1000-500BC.
With such prolific historical and geographical roots, it is no wonder that the pilaf now has so many colourful and delicious variations. From the saffron paella of Spain to the cardamom palaw of Kabul, the addition of different spices sets out where a pilaf is from, and it is said that you can tell much about a person’s roots from how they prepare the dish.
For now, though, the pilaf is a perfect leftovers dish. It will handle lamb, beef, chicken, fish, and vegetables, and with subtle combinations of herbs and spices, it will transform boring mid-week meals into scrumptious suppers.
1 cup rice
1 tbsp ghee (clarified butter – substitute with regular butter if you can’t get it)
3 whole cardamom pods
3 cups of liquid:
Chicken stock and
Pinch of saffron infused in boiling water
2 small eggplants
salt and pepper
oil for frying
(Optional) Chopped almonds for garnish lamb eggplant pilaf
Begin by roughly chopping the onions and slicing the tomatoes and eggplants into 1cm thick rounds and setting aside.
Boil the kettle and pour half a cup of boiling water onto a pinch of saffron and allow it to infuse until the liquid is rich and golden. In a small saucepan pour 2.5 cups of chicken stock and heat gently.
Next, take a large heavy based frying pan and heat the ghee over a medium heat until melted. Add in the chopped onions and rice and stir constantly for about 2-4 minutes. Once the rice is nicely coated in the ghee and has taken on an earthy, toasty smell, turn the heat down as low as it will go, and pour over the hot chicken stock and infused saffron water (including saffron strands). Season with salt and add the cardamom pods before placing on a lid. Cook for 20 minutes or until rice is fluffy and has absorbed all the liquid.
To cook the eggplants, heat a heavy based frying pan over a high heat and add in a decent glug of oil. Place the eggplant rounds flat in the pan and fry each side until golden (about 3 minutes on each side).
Place the spinach leaves in a small saucepan, pour over boiling water and allow the leaves to wilt before straining and setting aside.
Finally, compile the layers on top of the fluffy saffron rice. Season each layer as you go. First the slices of tomato, followed by the spinach and lastly top with the golden rounds of eggplant. Place in a hot oven for 10 minutes to warm everything through.
Serve with minty yoghurt with a clove of crushed garlic stirred through. lamb eggplant pilaf
Layers of mixed peppers
Replace the eggplant with roasted cauliflower florets
Minted yoghurt with a clove of crushed garlic stirred through is a natural choice for this dish. It’e reminiscent of dhough/dhoog – a savoury yoghurt drink traditional to many Middle Eastern countries.