The Pilaf Tradition in Turkish Cuisine
Nihal Kadıoğlu Çevik
Pilaf, or pilav in Turkish, is one of those foods in Turkish cuisine possessed of a ritual quality. It has an important place in ceremonial meals as well as everyday cooking. Though pilaf is made from a variety of grains, the first to come to mind in Turkey is rice pilaf, which has always had a special status. The other types are bulgur, cracked wheat and kuskus pilaf.
Rice has become the staple for people over a very broad region stretching from the Far East and Southeast Asia to India. In Anatolia, agriculture is based on wheat, which is considered sacred. The pilafs made from bugur, a wheat product, have an important place in the traditional Anatolian diet. The various different types of bulgur used in Turkish cuisine are made from hard, high-gluten wheat. To make it, one part of unhulled wheat is boiled in two parts water until the water is absorbed, then dried in the sun and pounded. This ancient and nutritious product is then made into pilaf or used as a supplementary ingredient in other dishes. Pilaf is also made with another wheat product, firik (cracked wheat), as well as types of pasta such as kuskus and a thin vermicelli known as şehriye.
Old sources inform us that the pilaf cooked in the kitchen of the 13th century philosopher Mevlana contained rice, chickpeas, mutton, chestnuts, carrots, onions, butter, pine nuts, currants, black pepper and allspice, and was made by first frying the dry rice.
In the Ottoman culinary culture pilaf, with its many different varieties, had a ceremonial quality. A meal consisting of soups, meat and vegetable dishes, dolma, fruit and sweets was finished off with pilaf. The same tradition is to be encountered in some regions of modern Turkey. The large platter full of pilaf brought to the table at the end of the meal is called “sözkesen” (interruption) and indicates that meal has finished.
In November 1539, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent recorded in detail all the foods served at the feast for the circumcisions of his sons Bayezid and Cihangir in a “feast register.” Pilafs constituted a major portion of the menu. At the top of the list was plain pilaf, followed by noodle pilaf, saffron pilaf, green pilaf (colored with spinach and chard juice), red pilaf (with grape molasses), şehriye pilaf, pilaf with pomegranate molasses and unlu pilaf, or pilaf with flour.
In his 17th century travelogue, the famous traveler Evliya Çelebi mentions various types of pilavs, including those with saffron, mulberry, pomegranate, wormwood, ambergris, meatballs, pistachios, crushed almonds and raisins.
By the 18th century, we see that seafood pilafs had taken their place among the popular flavors of the palace cuisine.
Just as in the past, pilaf in modern Turkey is prepared by a simple technique. The rice is sorted and washed, then allowed to soak in salted water and drained. It is then fried in oil (especially butter), and cooked with water and salt. At the end of the cooking processes, it must be left to rest for 15-20 minutes off the heat in order to achieve its best consistency. A precondition for good pilaf is the selection of a good variety of rice, because the amount of water it will absorb, it color and its aroma will affect the quality of the final product. The desired flavor is achieved by the quality of the meat and butter, the use of chicken or meat broth, and the sufficient resting after the cooking process. The measure of a good pilaf in Turkish cuisine is that the individual grains be distinct and not stick together. Although it gives the impression of being a simple dish, from the time of the Ottoman palace up until the present day, it has remained one of the greatest test of both professional cooks and housewives. There is a saying that a cook who can make good pilaf will be good at other foods as well.
Made by various techniques, pilaf is enriched by the addition of meat, chicken, sometimes fish, various vegetables and sometimes, nuts such as walnuts and almonds. The most popular rice pilafs are plain, with şehriye, with chicken or meat and/or their broths, and chickpeas; the most common bulgar pilaves are plain, with tomatoes and with green lentils. The various additions to pilaf, in addition to increasing flavor and nutrition, also improve their appearance.
Pilaf may be eaten as a single main dish, accompanied by ayran, yogurt, salad and greens. It is also an indispensable accompaniment to the class of foods known in Turkish as sulu yemek, literally “foods with water,” i.e. those which are simmered in a pot. Meat dishes and kebabs in particular, are always served with a pilaf.
Lamb and chicken is often filled with a “filling pilaf,” before cooking whole. The pilaf that fills these special-occasion dishes varies from region to region, but is generally a rice pilaf with the addition of such ingredients as small pieces of liver, pine nuts, dried currants, mint, dill, parsley, cinnamon, allspice and black pepper.
A list of the main types of rice pilafs made in modern Turkey would include:
Plain, lapa (rice porridge), pea, fresh tomato, artichoke, eggplant, broad bean, cabbage with olive oil, carrot, chestnut, chick pea, lentil, örgülü, şehriye, perdeli (baked in yufka), with meat-chicken broth, meat, with ribs, tas kebab, wedding pilaf, Acem, Uzbek, meatball, alipaşa, duvaklı, stuffing pilaf with liver, chicken, gendime, mussel, egg…
For bulgur pilafs:
Plain, olive oil, fresh tomato, tomato paste, vegetable, meyhane, potato, chickpea, lentil, şehriye, with meat-chicken broth, meat, eggs…
The rice varieties grown in the west Black Sea regions of Tosya, Boyabat, Bafra and Kargı, as well as the delicious pilafs made from them, are famous in Turkey. However one can find magnificent pilafs made in some areas where rice is not cultivated. One of these, İskilip dolması, the name of which is also a type of pilaf, is noteworthy because of its unique technique and equipment used. İskilip dolması is cooked in a specially sewn bag in a large copper kettle, and then mixed with butter, onion and spices and steamed. A must for special days, İskilip dolması is also served in a special way. The kettle has been sealed with dough for the steaming, and if the diners do not pay a tip to the cook, he will not open the pot.
Another special-occasion food, perde pılavı, is made in the region of Siirt. It is cooked in a special “fez” shaped pot. A dough made of egg, milk, flour and oil, is rolled into a yufka and spread over the inside of this pot. The pilaf, which has been partially cooked already with partridge or chicken meat and flavored with almonds and spices, is put into this pan and covered with this same dough. It is then cooked over coals. When it is done, it is inverted onto a plate, and is as beautiful as it is delicious. In Diyarbakır, this same dish is called duvaklı pilav.
The famous hamsi pilaf of the Black Sea region, the pilafs made with olive oil in the Aegean region and the bulgur and white meat pilafs of the Mediterranean coast are all notable examples of their local culinary cultures.
Pilaf has a special place at weddings. It is first among the wedding dishes, cooked with meat broth and served topped with pieces of meat.
In Turkey, the coming of spring and the reawakening of nature is celebrated during the Hıdrellez festival. At such seasonal festivals like Hıdrellez and Nevruz, the serving of pilaf with meat is a widespread tradition.
The “rain prayers” performed in some regions of Turkey allow the most possible people to eat pilaf with meat. In another ritual known as “saya gezme” and “yağmur gelini,” groups of youngsters go from house to house and sing mani, quatrains. Each house contributes some butter, bulgur or other ingredients, and with the food they gather, they make pilaf and eat together. Held with the hope of abundance and fertility, this ritual is always marked by the preparation of pilaf. The youngsters also collect crocus; the yellow flowers, which announce the arrival of spring, add flavor with their flowers, leaves and corms.
Pilaf is a Turkish culinary tradition that cuts across urban and rural lines. Though it appears to have become less strong in the cities, the tradition continues, with a world of different flavors from region to region.
Burhan Oğuz, Türkiye Halkının Kültür Kökenleri- Teknikleri, Müesseseleri, İnanç ve Adetleri 1- Giriş, Beslenme Teknikleri, İstanbul 1976
Suna Baykan, Nevin Tekgül: “Evlerimizde Pişirilen Pilav Çeşitleri Üzerine bir Araştırma” Türk Mutfak Kültürü Üzerine Araştırmalar. s: 1-11 Türk Halk Kültürünü Araştırma ve Tanıtma Vakfı Yayınları No:3 Ankara 1993.
Stefanos Yerasimos: Sultan Sofraları- 15. ve 16. Yüzyılda Osmanlı Saray Mutfağı. Yapı Kredi Yayınları İstanbul 2002