Pilaf with Apricots, Dates and Saffron Shirin Plov Recipe

Shirin plov2s

Describing the taste of shirin plov, an exquisite rice dish originating from Azerbaidjan’s capital Baku, is not unlike talking about a fine perfume. It has a bright top fruity note of apricots and raisins, a warm heart of rosewater and saffron, while the milky-popcorn notes of basmati rice and butter provide a sensual and lingering backdrop. It is a memorable combination that gives one a full taste of Azerbaidjan—the country on the Caspian Sea coast, whose history is a tapestry of influences. Indeed, shirin plov is not simply a delicious dish—its interesting manner of preparation and elaborate flavorings with Persian accents provide a glimpse into the rich mélange that is Azeri culture.

Soviet cookbooks on the Azeri cuisine liked to include a serious sounding figure of forty when discussing the types of pilaf. Then they proceeded to list them all. In the retrospect, only the Soviet government could come up with such an absurdly rigid definition, especially when discussing something as mutable and multifaceted as cuisine.

Thankfully, the reality is much more complex and interesting. Shirin plov alone can be found in a variety of versions depending on one’s family traditions and seasons. In the fall, chestnuts can be added; in the winter, the warm aroma of dried black plums accentuates the spices beautifully; in the summer, the tartness of apricots provides a welcome counterpoint to the sweetness of raisins and rice. The version I share below is what I learned in Baku from my Azeri family. It is a superb main dish to serve alongside grilled meat dishes. Generally, to be honest, I prefer shirin plov on its own in order to savor properly all of its rich aromas.

Shirin Plov (Azeri Plov with Apricots, Dates and Saffron)

Ingredients:
Serves 4-6

2 cups long-grained rice like basmati
½ cup peeled and cooked chestnuts (optional)
¼ cup dried alu bukhara (tart Persian plum)* or dried cherries
½ cup raisins (I used green Iranian variety)
½ cup dried apricots
½ cup pitted dates
5-6 tablespoon unsalted butter, regular or clarified
¼ teaspoon saffron crushed and soaked in 3 teaspoons of rosewater

Wash rice well (as Azeri say, wash it in seven waters, i.e. make sure that the water finally runs clear) and soak it with a pinch of salt for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, place a large pot with salted water to boil. Heat a skillet with about 2 tablespoons of butter. Toss fruit in the butter, add 1 teaspoon of sugar and a few spoons of water. The fruit should absorb the flavor of butter and swell, but not turn into a porridge. The liquid will be transformed into the fragrant golden syrup. Set aside.

When the water comes to boil, drain the rice and add it to the pot. Stir and let it boil for 4-8 minutes (start testing at the 4th minute). Rice is ready when the grains are transparent, not too soft, but not chalky and crunchy.  I admit that this takes experience to figure out, but err on the side of underdone, since rice will go through another cooking step anyway. Drain rice and rinse it under cold water.

Azeri rice dishes are finished by gentle steaming in a heavy pot. The bottom of the rice gets slightly scorched, but this crunchy part, gazmakh as it is called in Azeri, is something we as children used to fight about at the dinner table. Many cooks layer the bottom of the pot with additional ingredients in order to create a delicious gazmakh: thinly rolled out wheat dough, thin potato slices or any flatbread.

My favorite gazmakh for shirin plov is made as follows: mix ½ cup of cooked rice, a spoonful of melted butter, 2 T of yogurt, 1 egg and salt. Spread over the bottom of the pot and then proceed to layer rice and dried fruit, finishing with the rice layer. Sprinkle with 3 T of melted butter and saffron-scented rosewater.

Wrap the lid with the towel and cover the pot tightly. Place it over a high-medium flame for about 5-7 minutes and then reduce it to minimum. Leave the rice to steam for about 30 minutes. During this time, the rice will become fluffy, light and indescribably fragrant.

*Alu bukhara (golden Persian plum, cherry plum) is a species of plum native to central and eastern Europe, southwest and central Asia. It has a wonderful floral tartness, foiled by the characteristic creamy apricot note and is used throughout the region for savory preparations, jams, sherbets and candies. If using alu bukhara, soak it for 30 minutes to an hour in cold water. I generally do not remove the stones, because alu bukhara does not have much flesh. It is available at Kalustyans, Middle Eastern stores and online at Sadaf, an Iranian purveyor of various Persian and Middle Eastern foodstuffs.

Photo © Bois de Jasmin.

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32 Comments

  • Lavanya: Sounds lovely, Victoria!! and the gazmakh is making my mouth water..:)

    I would love to study history using food as a ‘tracer’…The similarities and differences between various cuisines are soo interesting..:) May 27, 2009 at 7:59pm Reply

  • catherine willis: thank you, thank you;I was looking for such a recipe and shall make it on Saturday.Thank you for your blog also, that I follow. May 28, 2009 at 1:19am Reply

  • Kathryn: Scent and taste are intertwined in such fascinating ways, nowhere more so than in the countries along The Great Silk Road. After a wonderful day of shopping for Uzbek groceries with our mutual friends Yelena and Igor, I have almost all the ingredients needed to make this. Thank you so much for the recipe! May 28, 2009 at 11:40am Reply

  • Gautami: HMmmmm!!
    A similar rice pulao with dry fruits, nuts, rose water, saffron, milk is also popular in Kashmir region of India. North Indian cuisine is generally influenced by Persian cuisine.
    As you go furthur south in India they sometimes substitute Rose water with Kewra water too, especially in Biryanis with lamb or chicken. May 28, 2009 at 2:33pm Reply

  • sweetlife: Oh, V., I am so tired and hungry right now that I feel like I’m feasting on your words! It is lovely to be able to imagine the flavors in the same way that I would imagine a perfume. May 28, 2009 at 10:30pm Reply

  • waftbycarol: Congratulations on the FIFI !! June 1, 2009 at 12:18pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Lavanya, it sounds like such a fascinating project! I recently read a book on the history of Middle Eastern cuisine, and it is exactly what the study has accomplished. Fascinating! June 2, 2009 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Catherine, do let me know how it turns out when you make it! June 2, 2009 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Kathryn, oh, lucky you to have such a fantastic guide to the glorious Uzbek food. 🙂 Igor is a mine of information on the region in general. June 2, 2009 at 2:14pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Gautami, I love Indian pilafs in all of their forms. Your mention of kewra water is very interesting, as recently I have been enjoying steaming rice with a fresh kewra leaf. I might try it in a lamb stew next. June 2, 2009 at 2:30pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: A, I agree, cuisine and perfumery are linked very strongly. After all, even our ability to discern tastes and flavors is influenced by our olfactive sensitivity. June 2, 2009 at 2:31pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Dale, I do not engage in any direct ads for the time being. Thank you for inquiring however. June 2, 2009 at 2:32pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Waftbycarol, thank you! June 2, 2009 at 2:32pm Reply

  • Lavanya: Victoria- That sounds like an interesting book..What was the name?..My dad was reading a book called the History of Food and I made him give it to me after he was done reading it..I still need to get to it though..:) June 2, 2009 at 4:49pm Reply

  • columbine: your recipe sounded delicious so i tried it. i had never cooked basmati this way (boiling it), i now understand why in eastern mediterranean dishes, the rice has this distinctive aspect.
    i was not totally pleased with the end result. i stopped the rice after 6 min but it was already overcooked i think. after steaming, the egg mixture has made a semi burnt thin omelet without the nice rice crust you get when you steam chinese rice. of course the rice was too mushy although there was a hint of the fluffiness and lightness that you mention. tastewise, the rose water was overpowering and it lacked salt.
    on the plus side, the dried fruits tasted delicious cooked that way and i liked the idea of rose flavour.
    i will make this dish again because it really does sound delicious but i will fine tune cooking times, pan size, rose water amounts, salt etc. to get it right.
    i agree with everyone, cooking, eating, and perfume are all scent oriented pleasures June 3, 2009 at 10:47am Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Lavanya, it is called Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes (California Studies in Food and Culture) by Lilia Zaouali. I highly recommend it! Almost tempted to review it, because there are many fragrant references in it. June 3, 2009 at 11:08am Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Columbine, glad that you tried it! It took me a few tries to get it just right too. Rose water can be adjusted, depending on how light or strong yours is, but I have to apologize, because I put T, whereas I meant 3 teaspoons. I just fixed it.
    If your rice is of newer harvest, then it will cook much faster. Also, not all basmati rice is made equal–some varieties are very soft and they cook quickly. The best way to judge is to break a grain and see that the white center is almost gone and the entire grain is transparent. Since rice like many starchy products takes a lot of salt, be liberal with it when you prepare water for boiling.
    Gazmakh–did you use a heavy-bottomed pot? Also, when you turn the heat down, turn it as far down as possible, or use a heat diffuser.

    If it might help, I could post step by step pictures the next time I make it. In the meantime, feel free to ask any questions! June 3, 2009 at 11:19am Reply

  • columbine: thanks for your input. i have excellent heavy-based pans, but for the quantities i used, i fear my pan was too big (mixture spread too thinly). plus i have a bad heat (electric under ceramic, go gas or no induction). i’ll let you know when i get it right! and thanks for sharing your recipe with its history and cultural flavour… June 3, 2009 at 12:41pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Columbine, I lived for 4 years in an apt with an electric stove, which made me appreciate gas heat all over again. However, you are right, the rice should be piled up in a pyramid shape rather than spread out thinly.
    Good luck with this delicious quest! 🙂 June 3, 2009 at 1:42pm Reply

  • Lavanya: Thanks V- Just placed a hold on the book..Are there a few vegetarian recipes in there? (Though it would be an interesting read regardless..:)) June 3, 2009 at 7:40pm Reply

  • Bee: I tried the recipe too, with similar results as Columbine. My next try was more successfull (but without a gazmakh):
    Heat butter, add fruit (I cheated and used dried gooseberries instead of the alu bukhara, and did not have any dates handy). I then added 2 cups of water, salted it to my taste, brought it to boiling point, added the rose-water + saffron (actually the original – wrong – amount) and then 1 cup of basmati(washing it is an optional with good quality rice), mixed everthing, covered the pan, reduced heating to a minimum, for 20 minutes…mixed everything only once in-between, and was quite happy with the result (but next time I’ll add some crushed coriander seeds, maybe some cardamome too). It’s maybe not authentic but exotic enough to surprise most guests! June 4, 2009 at 7:24am Reply

  • Clara_Mina: I finally tried this recipe and I loved it, except I did not use any rosewater cause I had none 🙁 My fiance is Iranian, so his mother made similar rice dishes before and I had a chance to observe her making it. I boiled my rice for only 4 minutes, which was enough. I also tried your idea of potato layer, which was out of this world delicious. My fiance liked it very much and his family was impressed by my skills. So, please share more Persian, Azeri, etc. recipes! My married future might depend on them. 🙂 June 4, 2009 at 8:42am Reply

  • Clara_Mina: Bee, I loved your idea of adding cardamom! Yum!
    As my future MIL says, ta-dig (what Victoria is calling gazmakh in Azeri) is the most difficult part to get right when you first make Persian pilafs. I am still learning. 🙂 Hers is either crispy like a cracker, or else fluffy-soft like an omelet. Mine are more like pancakes but V’s potato variety turned out pretty yummy. June 4, 2009 at 9:00am Reply

  • Sara: Alas I had no pot that was large enough and heavy enough for boiling rice like this …I made the dish following your quantities, but sort of like Bee–sauteed fruits, added 2c rice and 2.5c water. It was one of the most delicious rice pilafs! My husband was suspicious of rice with fruits as a side dish, but he ate 2 servings and then polished off the rest last night. Thanks a lot for these recipes and your blog in general! June 4, 2009 at 10:53am Reply

  • Gautami: Dear Victoria,

    Where can I find Kewra leaves here in US? I usually use Kewra extract which is okay, but I would really like leaves. Thanks June 9, 2009 at 2:14pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Gautami,
    You can find them at the Thai or Vietnamese stores. The Vietnamese store I frequent has them fresh as well as frozen. Both are quite lovely, although of course, fresh is better. June 9, 2009 at 2:35pm Reply

  • Bois de Jasmin: Lavanya, hmm, I am not sure about recipes off the top of my head, but I think so. I will check for you. June 9, 2009 at 2:36pm Reply

  • a: I am from Pakistan (our dishes are mostly originally Persian) and I love this dish! You make it sound even better with your description June 13, 2009 at 11:30am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: A, thank you! One of my good friends is from Pakistan, and I adore her food. I always ask her to teach me more. July 1, 2009 at 11:29am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Holly, just be sure to use a mixture of sweet and sour fruits in order to achieve a nice balance. It is up to you what fruit to choose. July 1, 2009 at 11:29am Reply

  • Subir L.: Sounds like a terrific dish! I think that 8 minutes might be too much for the average basmati avail. in stores (I bet, you are using some very nice Indian basmati, based on the length of grains in your photo!)

    Bee, as someone who works in rice-grain import I cannot help commenting on your “washing it is an optional with good quality rice.” You definitely want to wash all of your basmati, because 1) it is quite dusty, even the highest quality rice you can buy. You should see the process by which rice gets to the store from the field. 🙂 2) You wash rice to get any excess starch off. It gives your finished dish a nice light texture. This also makes the color of the finished rice whiter. July 7, 2009 at 1:10pm Reply

  • Reema: I made this pilaf last night and I wanted to thank you. Everyone loved, including my daughter who’s super picky about food. My crust didn’t come out crispy so that’s something to improve, but the taste was fab. The aroma when I was cooking was FANTASTIC. Please share more recipes! June 15, 2012 at 10:44am Reply

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