A few weeks ago I ate Plov under a tarpaulin in driving rain in an Uzbek desert, and the conversation turned to Plov. Again. I heard that Alexander the Great demanded Plov as a victory feast after each battle. No wonder he conquered the known world. And indeed, I was told then something extraordinary: Alexander the Great invented Plov. Inspired, I insisted that vodka be poured, and constructed a great and detailed toast.
Mumble, mumble....international co-operation....friendship....and well, Alexander the Great may have been the world's supreme military tactician, but now I understand that his martial ability and strategic prowess were but naught, mere trifles, compared to his skill as a cook, for he invented plov, etc. etc. the greatest benefit to mankind, etc. etc.After my grandiloquent speech, and after the vodka was downed, came a worried, quiet aside from my left. "Um, Helen...Alexander the Great didn't actually invent it. His chef did."
I learned to cook this by watching our expedition driver. Here he is making Plov in the Yazimat Steppe, and here I am, looking a little oafish, watching him. Pluvialis, initiate into ancient secrets!
I've made it twice since, back at home, and it's turned out rather well, despite my being a woman. Apparently men alone can cook truly great Plov. The most difficult thing about it is the rice. Underdone or overdone, the dish fails. But if it's done right, this is The Greatest Dish in The World. Not the most complex, or the most extravagant. But the kind of dish you can march a hundred miles and conquer civilisations on.
Each region in Uzbekistan makes its own species of plov; this is, I believe, a Fergana style plov, although I was told that a whole, uncooked green chili is often added to make Fergana plov a little spicier than the usual. In Bukhara one typically (again, I was told) adds sultanas. Other things can be added for special occasions: saffron, for example, or quince.
You need, for about six people:
- 500g lamb. Flank is good. I used leg steaks, and they were good too. If you can find some bone-in bits, they make it taste even better.
- 500g peeled, topped and tailed carrots.
- ?600g rice. Short grain white rice is best. Quantity approximate.
- Onions. We used long, thin onions, rather like giant shallots, in Uzbekistan, but here I used ordinary brown onions, say two the size of your fist. It worked fine.
- Whole cumin seeds, about a tablespoonful.
- Oil. In Uzbekistan, it's cotton oil. We can't get that here. I tried it with rapeseed oil, and groundnut oil. Rapeseed oil smelt a little grim when being heated, but it worked better. You need an oil suitable for deep frying. One that heats very hot without burning. Olive oil won't cut it for this dish.
Cut the lamb into cubes about an inch and a half square.
Cut the carrots into thin, thin strips the length of the carrot. These should be as thin as you can make them. What you want is a plate heaped full of what look like carrot straws, no thicker than half a centimeter in diameter.
Cut the onions into thin rings.
Pour far too much oil into the base of a very heavy pan (I use an enamel french casserole; in Uzbekistan a giant iron Plov pot). When I say too much, I mean far too much. I reckon two and a half good ladlefuls. Then heat it until it is very, very, very, very hot.
Drop the onions in. Stir with a metal implement. They should fizzle and colour very quickly: you're deep-frying them. Fry them until they're brown, but not crispy.
Add the meat. Fry until properly brown. Depending on your oil's temperature regulation, you may have to rescue the onions and put them to one side to prevent total carbonisation, or you may have to do the meat in batches.
When all the meat and onions are brown (which will look like this):
turn the heat down a little and lay all the carrots on top of the bubbling mixture. Just lay them on top, like firewood. Smoosh the cumin seeds in your hand and sprinkle them on top. What you want to happen (and it magically does) is for the carrots to cook there. Not totally, but a little bit. Say seven or eight minutes. You are allowed to poke at them a bit with your flat metal spatula thing, but try not to move them too much: you don't want them to break. I have experimented with putting a lid on the pan to speed this up, but it seems to work both ways.
After they've started softening considerably, add some water to the pan. You want it so that bits of meat and carrots are just poking through the surface. Simmer rather fast for about ten minutes until the carrots are done.
Meanwhile, you wash the rice again and again. You want to get as much starch out as possible. The last rinse but one, use very hot water and soak for five minutes. Then wash again in cold water. I found this par-cooking of the rice helped ensure it wasn't underdone at the table.
Right, here goes. Take spoonfuls of the rice and lay them on top of your mixture. You want a layer of rice. Don't mix it up. Smooth it down.
Take a jug of cold water, and pour it into the pan over the back of a spoon, or a saucer, or your hand. The reason for these objects is this: you mustn't make holes in the rice with the force of the water. Slowly the water will rise and cover the rice with a fantastically oily, orangey (carrots!) broth. The waterlevel above the rice should be as deep as the end joint of your little finger.
Make sure the temperature is a little lower, then leave to simmer. Occasionally, slide a large, flattish spoon or fish-slice along the top layer of rice and turn it over (in sections, of course) so that it cooks evenly. You may feel happier—I did— cooking the rice with the lid on the pot. When you judge the rice is almost done, remove the pot from the heat, and using a flattish, large spatula, pull the rice away from the sides of the pot. Then, using the spoon/spatula handle, poke holes in the pyramid of plov, right down to the bottom. This is to help the plov steam. Double a tea-towel or similar piece of cloth, lay it over the top of the pot, and then replace the lid. Let steam for ten minutes, or so.
Tip it into a huge flat dish, and place in the middle of the table, between your salivating guests.
Everyone gets a spoon and helps themselves from the pile.
Eat with a salad of sliced tomatoes, onion, and salt. With vodka.