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)
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.