The magazine is registered by the Federal Service for Supervision of Compliance with Legislation Governing Mass Communications and Protection of Cultural Heritage, certificate of registration ÏÈ ¹ ÔÑ77-21265 of 08.06.2005  
2024  N3-4(229-230)
The geography and historical living conditions in different regions of the world have greatly influenced the formation of not only domestic traditions and culture but also national cuisine of local populations. The Turkmen cuisine is no exception. It is noted for the seeming simplicity, caloric value of food, use of easily accessible products and, at first glance, simple, but very effective methods of cooking.
The hospitality of the Turkmens is known far beyond the country. Those who has ever visited Turkmenistan have for sure tasted the main dish of any feast – pilaf. Scientists still argue about how the people that led a nomadic lifestyle for a long time came up with pilaf, which became their main and favorite meal that is so respected that people traditionally have it hands and treat it as something alive.
There are a great many versions of the origin of pilaf, and some historians believe that the basics of pilaf cooking became known to people back in the 3rd–2nd centuries. BC, with the advent of the grain rice crop. One way or another, this meal has a very rich history.
According to one version, the recipe for pilaf was born during Alexander the Great’s campaign in India. The commander fell ill and asked his cook to give him regular rice with meat but with more pepper, spices, dried fruits and vegetables. The dish turned out to be extremely successful and restored the Macedonian’s appetite and health.
Someone correlates the invention of pilaf with the great Tamerlane, whose priest solved the problem of feeding soldiers by offering the ruler a recipe for a hearty dish, which was cooked using lamb meat, rice, young carrots and onions in a cauldron with fat. The predecessor of pilaf became the favorite meal of Tamerlane’s army. The birth of pilaf is also associated with the times of Genghis Khan and his military campaigns, when the conqueror, preparing for the conquest of the West, thought about food supply for his troops. Modern scientists have no doubt that the first pilaf recipes were vegetarian, and only later did they begin to add meat to it. Pilaf is also described in the tales of the Arabian Nights, where the food plays a major role on the festive table.
According to many experts, the first mention of pilaf and its cooking belongs to the Arab traveler and geographer Yakut al Hamawi. During his travel to ancient Khorezm, he made the following entry: “Someone (from the local residents) takes one ratl (about 500 g) or some rice and adds pieces of meat to it. All this is put into one large cauldron, nine cups of water are poured in, and a fire is lit under it to get it boiled, and ukiye (ounce) of oil is placed in it. Then, they begin to scoop out of this cauldron, and everything is scooped out into one or two containers.” One will agree that it is very similar to a modern recipe for making pilaf.
Today, pilaf is known in all regions of Asia and the Caucasus. Historically, there have been two types of pilafs, “separable” and “non-separable”, as they are called by modern culinary masters. In the first case, rice is cooked separately from meat and vegetables, and joins them only after they are ready, often right before serving. The Turkmen pilaf belongs to the second type, when all the ingredients are sequentially laid and cooked in one container, a cauldron as a rule.
It is not difficult to explain the popularity of pilaf because it has national characteristics in every region of the world, and a skillful cook will not simply reproduce the classic recipe but adapt it to local varieties of rice or other cereals, spices and meat. Surprisingly, in Transcaucasia, rice in pilaf can be replaced with pasta. Variants of “sweet” pilaf exist in different regions.
Pilaf did not reach Western Europe immediately, but only close to the end of the 17th century, and it was not immediately recognized. For example, French chefs, listening to travelers returning from Arab countries, overcooked rice and turned it into regular porridge. Europeans learned to cook fluffy rice with meat, similar to modern pilaf, only two centuries later.
Since ancient times, the Turkmens cooked pilaf for the most solemn and important events – weddings, birthdays, farewells before a long journey. This tradition is still alive today. Not a single Turkmen toy (party or feast) can do without pilaf, and there are many ways to cook it. The tradition of receiving and treating guests to the best dishes, most often pilaf, is instilled in the Turkmens from a very early age, and recipes for pilaf are passed down from generation to generation. Some admirers of pilaf believe in its healing properties, because several centuries ago ancient Tebibs (healers) used pilaf to cure various diseases, and they also fed pilaf to travelers who needed to recuperate from a long journey.
The Turkmens believe that lamb is the best meat for a genuine pilaf, but the Turkmen pilaf is no less tasty with beef, chicken and sea fish (sturgeon, beluga and even Caspian roach) which is popular in the western coastal region of Turkmenistan – Balkan province. The key is to follow the time-tested recipes.
The classic Turkmen pilaf has two main components: rice and a mixture of meat, onions, carrots, spices and sometimes dried fruits. The taste of pilaf always depends on how well the ingredients are mixed. Fat of sheep’s tail is often used, especially in Akhal province. In Lebap and Dashoguz provinces, the spice of cumin is usually added to pilaf. Pilaf made in these regions is often sour-sweet because of use of dried apricots, raisins and quince. Another feature of this pilaf is the use of sesame vegetable oil instead of cottonseed oil.
The real Turkmen pilaf should be crumbly. To do this, the cook must know the qualities of rice. After all, there are a great many varieties of this cereal. In Turkmenistan, female pilaf experts say this: “One needs to know if rice likes or does not like water.” In other words, one needs to know how much water to use when cooking pilaf to make sure that rice does not turn into porridge. Knowing the qualities of rice is the key to successful cooking of delicious pilaf. The Turkmens even have a special term – “abjosh”, which means the procedure for using “unfamiliar” rice when cooking. Rice is soaked in hot salted water for half an hour and then washed in cold water. As a result, it turns out strong, grain to grain, and will not be boiled to pulp.
Here is one of the most popular classic recipes. One usually takes lamb that is not too fatty, cuts it into small pieces, fries it in a cauldron with a small amount of vegetable oil, adds chopped onions to the fried golden-brown meat and continues frying. Then, carrots, cut into thin strips should be added to the meat and onions. When almost all the moisture has evaporated from the cauldron, the onions and carrots are ready. Then, slightly oversalted hot water is poured into the cauldron, and the whole mass is cooked for five to ten minutes. After this, one adds rice – carefully and evenly so that it covers the entire surface of the meat. In general, the Turkmen pilaf is characterized by layers of ingredients during the cooking process. After this, the fire is increased, and when the water is completely absorbed by the rice, one carefully turns the top layer of rice – only once, and then leaves the mass in the cauldron simmering over low heat with the lid tightly closed. When the rice is ready, one needs to remove the cauldron from the heat, and the pilaf simmers under the lid for some more time.
And then the cordial host leads the sacred rite of the festive Turkmen feast, using a large, slotted spoon to spread rice onto a huge dish, with carrots and juicy hot meat on top of it. The Turkmen pilaf should be eaten immediately, piping hot, otherwise the meal may “get tired,” as the local housewives say, that is, become sticky after being in the cauldron for some “extra” time.
The minimum amount of spices is a distinctive feature of the Turkmen pilaf. Particularly appetizing is pilaf cooked like many centuries ago, in a cast-iron cauldron over an open fire.
The Turkmen pilaf has become the gastronomic business card of the country. It is widely popularized by the government and residents of Turkmenistan, thereby attracting more and more attention from tourists and professionals working in the field of culinary and studying its history. In fact, pilaf was served to the guests of the exhibition “Cultural Treasures of Turkmenistan” organized last year in Brussels on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkmenistan, the European Union and Belgium. The Turkmen pilaf is the main dish at the folklore and gastronomic festivals held by the Turkmen diaspora in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. And it is not surprising that, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by a Russian online resource, pilaf is among the top three Turkmen meals most beloved by Russians, along with shurpa and pies (kutab) with spinach.
Speaking of the healing properties of pilaf, one should recall the famous medieval scientist and doctor, Abu Ali ibn Sina, known to many as Avicenna, who prescribed pilaf as a medicine that restores strength. There is a legend about the padishah’s son in love, who, due to strong romantic feelings, completely stopped eating and slowly faded away. Avicenna, who advised the grief-stricken father to feed the heir pilaf, put the guy “on his feet,” and the story, as in any fairy tale, ended with an inevitable wedding. It is needless to mention that pilaf was the main dish on the table at this feast.
And what does modern science say about this? Rice, the main component of pilaf, is rich in substances beneficial to the body – starch, protein, fats, fiber. For this reason, rice meals are easily digested by the body and do not cause heaviness in the stomach. According to nutritionists, the digestibility coefficient of pilaf, depending on the ingredients, reaches 98 percent. Nowadays, Turkmen traditional medicine also recommends many rice meals as dietary ones. In a meal prepared according to a classic recipe, rice contains iodine, calcium, phosphorus, iron and zinc. All these microelements are vital for humans. And in general, eating pilaf gives positive emotions for everyone and increases vitality, which ultimately has a beneficial effect on the entire body.
And finally. Among the many holidays and memorable dates in the world, there is Pilaf Day, which is celebrated on February 22.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005