Every grain counts: rice in Turkish cuisine
A historic recipe known the world over, Turkish rice pilaf remains a versatile and cherished dish both at home and abroad.

By Aylin Öney Tan

It is widely known that French cuisine has been influential worldwide, but the French might have borrowed a few ideas from the world. In the 16th century, France wanted to establish better relations with the Ottoman Empire. Arranging a journey to Ottoman lands for distinguished people, the French ambassador to Istanbul invited Pierre Belon du Mans, a physician, naturalist, and traveler who took invaluable notes on botany and Ottoman life, going into detail how rice should be cooked to make a proper pilaf and noting, “They never stir while boiling rice; if you stir rice while it is cooking, as the French do, you destroy it.” More than three centuries later, included in “Le Guide Culinaire,” the legendary cookbook written by the father of fine French cuisine Auguste Escoffier, is Pilaf à la Turque, a Turkish style pilaf. 

Turkish rice pilaf captured the attention of almost all travelers to the Ottoman Empire and is nearly always mentioned when referring to an Ottoman feast. There is an obvious explanation for this, with rice omnipresent on all tables, especially in the palace, with no meal being complete without a rice pilaf glistening with butter. In nearly all corners of the Ottoman Empire, for subjects and travelers alike, a simple meal of meat and rice pilaf signified not only hospitality, but also unity within the Ottoman system. As techniques for making rice pilaf spread, that culinary heritage lived on in countries having an Ottoman past.

Hamsili pilav

The Turkish word pilav, known as pilaf in many languages, simply refers to rice or other grain cooked with water, stock, or broth mixed with butter, fat, or oil and prepared either plain or with spices, nuts, meat or vegetables. Making a basic rice pilaf is considered a passing test for apprentice cooks and brides-to-be. Every single grain must fall apart separately, with the path to pilaf perfection coming from knowing your grain. Performance of different rice varieties vary enormously, and Turkish agriculturalists have developed certain hybrid varieties, such as Osmancık, to meet the desired qualities for Turkish-style rice pilaf. During Ottoman times, the best rice came from various parts of the empire, with the preferred rice for the kitchens of Topkapı Palace coming from modern day Bulgaria and Egypt. Today, one of the best varieties is sarı kılçık, which is grown in Kastamonu and Çorum provinces. 

An elevated take on a traditional dish

Today, plain rice pilaf with butter is often seen as a complementary dish to the main course. However, in the Ottoman period rice pilaf was often served very sophisticated, laced golden with saffron and studded by ruby red barberries as the final course, ensuring diners were full and acting as a palate cleanser before dessert. Often served covered with a blanket of sweetened saffron rice pudding called zerde, the pilaf transformed into the ultimate feast dish, known as zerdeli pilav. For the most festive feasts, a thin layer of this saffron-laced golden pudding would cover the buttery rice, lending its heavenly perfume and Midas touch to the royal pilaf.

Another simple way the Ottomans elevated plain rice pilaf was to add chickpeas, dressed as if covered by a handful of gold coins. Often, real gold was incorporated to surprise and impress guests. In fact, each Friday Mahmud Paşa, Mehmed the Conqueror’s famous grand vizier, hosted an exciting lunch, thrilling his privileged guests at the climax of the meal by serving a tray full of rice and chickpea pilaf made with real gold! Ironically, today’s chickpea-studded pilaf is a common street food popular at food carts in Turkey, typically served with shredded chicken and often feeding late-night wanderers. 

Elaborating on the traditional rice pilaf recipe is not limited to Turkey. Pilaf is often served as a main course in its own right when made with meat, poultry, fish or game. Regional varieties are endless. On the coast of the Black Sea, people are proud of their hamsili pilav, which is pilaf molded in deep dish trays with a silver lining of butterflied anchovies or sardines, baked or pan roasted, turned over and served as a masterpiece. Similarly, in many regions this fancy lining is made with glistening fried slices of eggplant and known as patlıcanlı pilav, with golden flesh and purple peel streaks revealing not only a sight to be seen, but a taste to be savored. In Gaziantep, rice pilaf is regarded as a featured dish and eaten separately, with recipes such as kapamalı pilav, literally “covered pilaf,” featuring the rice swathed in a layer of meat or nuts. Other favorites, like both Uzbek and Bukhara pilaf, are among the most elaborate, standout pilafs, incorporating onions, carrots, nuts, raisins, and cubed lamb meat among their ingredients.

Endless variety

Rice pilaf still holds a place as one of Turkey’s most versatile plates. The kuru fasulye pilav duo of beans and rice is often considered as one of Turkey’s national dishes. Rice pilaf also serves as a nice complement to a night at the mezze table, where continuous toasts of rakı are inevitable. On such nights, seafood enriched rice pilafs with mussels, octopus, or the aptly named meyhane pilavı, made with, peppers, onions and fried cubes of eggplants, typically eaten cold or lukewarm, are classic fare. There are also seasonal must-have rice pilaf dishes, with spring welcoming fresh peas and artichokes for bezelyeli pilav and enginarlı pilav respectively, and the summer delight found in domatesli pilav, made with sun-dried tomatoes. 

Needless to say, rice pilaf remains one of the most cherished and indispensable tastes of the Turkish table. A dish enjoyed by both rich and poor, it enjoys a rich history both at home and abroad.

Sebzeli pilav

How to cook Turkish style rice

Sauté cleaned rice grains with three tablespoons butter until the grains are translucent. Add three cups water, one half teaspoon salt, and cook covered over a low heat until the water is fully absorbed. Remove from heat, lift the lid, and cover with a clean cotton cloth. Leave to rest for 15-20 minutes.