If any dish can be said to be the foundation of a cuisine, it is pulao for the Mughal repertoire. It has a fascinating history and can dominate the dinner table as a colorful centerpiece.

The fragrant pulao originated in Persia and spread throughout the world with a subtle change in the consonants of its label—in Persia it was called pilaf, in India pulao, Turkey pilaw, Russia plov, Trinidad and Tobago pelau, and in Uzbekistan and Albania pilaf. In Spain, with the addition of seafood and an emphasis on saffron it became paella. In Italy, butter transformed it into risotto.

One of the earliest literary references to pilaf can be found in the histories of Alexander the Great when describing Bactrian hospitality. It was known to have been served to Alexander the Great upon his capture of the Sogdian capital of Marakanda (modern Samarkand, Uzbekistan) in 329 B.C. Alexander’s army brought it back to Macedonia and spread it throughout Eastern Europe. It is believed that the proper preparation of pilaf was first documented by the tenth century Persian scholar, Abu Ali Ibn Sina (popularly known as Avicenna), in his medical science book. He had elaborated on several types of pilaf and today in Tajikistan, Ibn Sina is considered the “father of modern pilaf.”

Between the eighth and tenth century, the pilaf was a nomadic shepherds dish, prepared over campfires. The dish usually consists of barley or wheat as the main ingredient, since rice was a luxury at that time and only nobles imported it from India.

Emperor Humuyun (1530-1556) brought with him a strong preference for Persian culture and a large number of Persian cooks. Needless to say the Mughal dynasty introduced the pilaf to Indians. However, Indian cooks often incorporated their local dishes into the courtly culinary collection, and many innovative ideas were welcomed and accepted. By the time of Akbar, pilaf or pulao became standard fare in the palace kitchens with numerous variations to the ingredients, such as fruit, or turmeric and saffron, or onion and garlic, or with raisins and almonds. The varieties of pilaf in the subcontinent are chronicled in British traveler Sir Thomas Herbert’s writings (1668).

Royal cooks judged the quality of a pulao  by the rice, which was supposed to swell up completely, without becoming sticky and forming into lumps. A good pulao was also highly aromatic, filling the room with the delicate scent of its spices. The cooks soaked the rice in salted water for many hours to ensure that, when it was cooked, the grains were gleaming white. At Indian restaurants, pulao rice often appears at the table in different shades of color like pink, yellow, and orange. However, today with growing health concerns, the addition of vegetables have replaced the use of food colors in many households.

The pièce de résistance of Persian cuisine is pilaf, a version crowned with nuts, fruits and currants. In Persian pilaf, the rice is cooked on a very low flame until the water is absorbed and the rice crusts at the bottom of the pot. This crusted rice is called tahdig and is considered a delicacy.

Pulao is one of the most diverse dishes today with variations and innovations by Persians, Arabs, Turks, Armenians and Indians. Yes, there is no definite recipe for it, as every region and country has its own version to surprise us. That is one of the reasons for the popularity of the dish throughout Middle East, Asia and beyond.

Malar Gandhi is a freelance writer who specializes in Culinary Anthropology and Gourmet Indian Cooking. She also blogs about Indian Food atwww.kitchentantra.com

Coconut Milk Infused
Bell Pepper Pulao

1 cup long grain rice
3-4 different colored bell peppers,
1 cup coconut milk
1 large onion, sliced
1 teaspoon ginger-garlic paste
salt to taste
5-7 mint leaves chopped
1 small cinnamon stick
2 cloves
1 bay leaf
2-4 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)

Heat ghee in a wide crock pot. Add the whole spices, let it sizzle for a minute.
Add onions and ginger-garlic paste, fry a few minutes till the raw odor is no longer perceptible.

Add rice. Fry the rice for few minutes, till it gets well coated with oil. Add mint, salt, coconut milk and a cup of water to it.

Cover and cook over low-medium heat for 10 minutes. Once the rice is three-fourths done (about 8 minutes), add bell peppers and continue cooking over low heat for another 4-5 minutes.

When the rice turns fluffy, remove from heat. Serve warm as a main course.

Corn Pulao

1 cup long grain rice
¾ cup corn kernels
2 green chillies, slit in the middle
1 large onion, sliced
1 teaspoon of ginger-garlic paste
1 star anise
2-3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf, crushed
1 black cardamom
2-4 teaspoons of ghee(clarified


Heat ghee in a wide crock pot. Add the whole spices and let this sizzle for a minute.  Add the chilies and wait till they splutter.

Add onions and ginger-garlic paste, fry a few minutes till the raw odor is no longer perceptible.

Add rice. Fry the rice for few minutes, till it gets well coated with oil.
Add corn kernels, salt and two cups of water. Cover and cook over low to medium heat for 12-15 minutes.

Once the rice is done, remove from heat. Let pilaf rest for 2 minutes before serving.
Serve warm as a main course.