Its that time of the year when all our ‘meaty’ cravings are satisfied. Eid ul Adha is just around corner and the long series of family gettogethers and yummy feasts are bound to happen. Eid dinners are incomplete without Pulao but how many simple Pulaos one can have. Our testbeds needs variety. One such recent addition to authentic cuisine is Peshawari food and their Kabuli Pulao has won over millions of hearts or I must say affected millions of hearts. The tender meat is presented on a bed of rice along with nuts and what not. But Kabuli Pulao has a long history, lets get into it.
To those familiar with, or particularly fond of Pashtun cooking, the Kabuli Pulao is seen as something of a special treat. Once a plate of Kabuli Pulao arrives on a table, diners are often taken aback by the rich aroma and vibrant colors. It is not only aesthetically pleasing, but a delicious combination of sweet and savory, soft and crunchy. It is a unique, wholesome and very flavorful version of its parent dish, the humble Pulao or Pilaf in some parts of the world.
The Pulao has been known for centuries across a diverse collection of cultures. This rice dish usually involves cooking rice in a stock/broth, adding spiced or other ingredients like meat or vegetables. In the 4th Century BC, Alexander the Great was so impressed with the Bactrian (now modern-day Afghanistan and North Pakistan) and Sogdian (modern-day Iran) Pulao, that he brought the dish back to Macedonia. However, the father of the Pulao, as it looks today, is credited to the Persian Scholar Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Ibn-e-Sina extensively wrote about the advantages of cooking and eating Pulao before the dish was exported to Europe, Latin America, East Asia and South Asia.
As the dish spread to all parts of the world, new variants of the dish came into being. In Spain, the Paella combines rice with casseroles of fish and spices, while in the Caribbean the Pelau is made using a wide assortment of local components like green peas, coconut milk and even crab. Central Asian countries have mastered techniques of simmering the rice in stew and cooking it over a fire, to create unique versions of the Pulao like Osh. These recipes traveled to what is now the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China and became Polu, a dish very similar to Kabuli Pulao.
Kabuli Pulao has become a popular off-shoot of the traditional stock Pulao, which is best cooked with red meat and traditional Basmati rice. Along with the traditional meat and rice, Kabuli Pulao has extra embellishments of sliced carrots, almonds and raisins that are fried in a uniquely sweet sauce. The dish is cooked in large, shallow and thick dishes, with the meat either carefully placed on top or buried in the middle.
Researchers believe that carrots, grapes and dried fruits have been indigenous to the Pashtun belt for over 5000 years. Therefore, it is likely that tribal chiefs had incorporated these ingredients into their traditional dish of meat and rice, to add more sophistication. When Mughal emperor Babur, a connoisseur of Pulao and kebabs, conquered what is now the Indian Subcontinent, he famously complained about the region’s lack of good meat and fruit. To him, meat, dry fruits and flavored rice were the pinnacle of superior food, meant for royalty.
As the people in the Afghan, KP belt became wealthier and food became cheaper, the dish was no longer only meant for the elite. It became an important part of households and community, particularly during times of celebration. Many children grow up with fond memories of eating Pulao with family and friends, whereas many young brides prove their mettle by cooking this dish for their in-laws. It is the centerpiece of every gathering, and any other dish is only present to supplement the Pulao’s flavor.
The four key components of Kabuli Pulao remain the meat, the rice, the broth and the embellishments. While the recipe is straightforward, it takes a considerable amount of skill and patience to combine the correct portions of ingredients, and to slowly let the flavor seep into the original components.
Firstly, the meat has to be cooked and braised to tender perfection before being added to the rice. It is cooked in its stew to make a broth which would be added in later. Meanwhile, the rice has to be sufficiently boiled and seasoned before everything comes together. An important marker for well-cooked rice is that the grains retain their elongated shape and are not stuck together. The ingredients are combined with the toppings, and left to sit for some time, allowing the steam of the broth to penetrate all corners of the pot before the dish is served.
As the dish has spread to multiple parts of Pakistan, each city or region prepares Kabuli Pulao according to their tastes and available ingredients. However, the best place to try authentic Kabuli Pulao is still the streets of Peshawar, particularly in Namak Mandi, Qissa Khwani Bazaar and the famous Afghan Kabuli Pulao Restaurant. For those who are fond of rich, meaty dishes packed with a different flavor, Kabuli Pulao is a great introduction to the historic and diverse dishes of the western provinces of Pakistan.