platteredpalau

Afghan Cuisine — Qabali Palau, Kabul-Style Pilaf with Chicken

When we first had the idea for The World Cup of Food, we quickly decided that Afghan cuisine was one that neither of us has had any experience at all with yet we knew we needed to try it.  Perhaps it is the mysterious allure of a region that has had so much turmoil for so many decades.  Perhaps it is the mysterious allure of Kabul Afghan Cuisine in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, a highly regarded and longstanding establishment with the famous National Geographic “Afghan Girl” photograph painted as a mural on one of its exterior walls that has long captivated our imaginations.  Whatever it was, we are finally ready to dive in to Afghan food.

Afghanistan quick facts:

  • Capital: Kabul
  • Population: 31,108,077 (2013 estimate)
  • Notable Afghanis: Soraya Tarzi, Sharbat Gula (the “Afghan Girl“)

Afghan cuisine is mostly based on the country’s main grain crops, like wheat, corn, barley, and rice.  Yogurt, nuts, dried fruits, and Halal meats (especially lamb) make up the rest of the local diet.  Many of what can be considered Afghan foods originated in the capital Kabul, including the national dish Qabali palau (“Kabul pilaf,” recipe follows).  Meals are typically eaten on a communal rug called a dastarkhan, which is laid out with a clean tablecloth, a copper basin of water for hand washing, and the various platters of food that make up the meal.

Rice dishes are considered the “kings” of the Afghan table, and are fit to be served in fine dining restaurants, wealthy homes, and at elaborate gatherings like weddings.  Two popular preparations, chalow and palau (chalow is a simple rice dish, palau contains meat, stock, stew, and/or herbs), are made from very long-grained rice such as the basmati variety, which is parboiled, drained, then baked, covered, in a heavy pot in the oven or over a fire.   The finished product has a very tender, fluffy texture with the grains of rice separate from one another instead of stuck together in a mass.  Afghans also eat sticky rice, which they call bata, as a side dish to a stew or casserole.

Qabali palau (alternatively Kabuli and either palao, pulaw, or pilav) can be made with either chicken or lamb and cooked in stock or water, or a combination of the two, and gets a rich brown color from a base of slowly caramelized onions.  It is served topped with julienned carrots and often with raisins and nuts as well.  The final presentation of the dish is nearly universal; never before in our research for a dish on The World Cup of Food have we seen so much uniformity.  The meat is topped with the rice (and always fully covered) on a large platter, then the carrot/raisin/nut mixture is spread on top.

Qabali palau

adapted from Humaira Ghilzai’s Afghan Culture Unveiled, Joshua Foust’s post on Registan.net — Central Asia News, and the February 2008 Saveur

SERVES MANY, MANY PEOPLE

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 4 chicken legs
  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 2 medium yellow onions, minced
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 cup chicken stock, divided
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and julienned (cut into matchsticks)
  • 1/3 cup slivered, blanched almonds
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1 Tbs sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tsp garam masala spice mix
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander seed
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves

First the rice needed to be soaked in water. From the sources we read, this step helps to give the fluffy, delicate texture that we want in the rice.  The exact amount of water was unimportant, so long as it was enough to cover the rice by a wide margin:

soakingrice

The pot of soaking rice was left alone in the refrigerator for about two hours.

A little bit closer to dinnertime, we began to build the sauce for our rice.  First, about two tablespoons of oil were heated over a burner set to medium-low heat, and once the oil was hot the minced onions were added:

browningonions

After about twenty minutes of gentle cooking, stirring frequently, the onions were a rich brown color and we were ready to add the chicken.  Working in batches of half the total chicken in order to avoid crowding to pan, the chicken was placed skin side down right on top of the onions and the heat was increased to medium:

chickeninpot
We cut the oil in our recipe considerably (from as much as 1/2 cup), so the chicken skin was left on to render a little supplemental fat to the dish that would otherwise go missing.

Five minutes later, the chicken skin was crisped and browned a bit and ready to turn over:

chickenflipped

After another five minutes the first batch was ready to be removed and we repeated the process with the second batch:

chickenremoved

Once all the chicken was browned, we put 1/2 cup of the chicken stock into the pot with the, by this time, very brown onions, stirring constantly until the mixture was brought to a simmer to incorporate all the bits of flavor stuck to the bottom of the pot:

stockdeglazing

Next, after removing the skins, the chicken was returned to the pot in a single layer (which, for this step, it is okay to crowd the pan):

chickenreturnedtopot

The pot was covered with a lid, the heat turned down to medium-low, and left to cook for ten minutes.  After that time, the lid was opened and the chicken was turned over:

chickenturned

The lid was replaced and the chicken was left to cook for another eight to ten minutes.

While the chicken was cooking, we started getting the carrot, raisin, and almond topping ready.  First, the carrots and a half-cup of water were brought to a simmer in one of our trusty cast iron skillets:

carrotsinpan

After about five minutes, the carrots were softened, but not to the point that they had become mushy in texture:

carrotssoftened

The liquid was drained and the remaining two tablespoons of oil were added to the pan, along with the raisins and almonds:

toppingreheating

The burner was turned up to medium-high and the mixture was sauteed, stirring almost constantly, until the almond slivers began to brown and the raisins became plump, about three minutes or so.  After this time, the pan was removed from the burner, covered with a lid, and set aside for later.

As soon as the carrots were done, the rice was drained from its soaking liquid:

ricedrained

…and added to a pot of about ten cups of fresh, boiling water and a couple teaspoons of salt:

riceboiling

The rice was boiled for about ten minutes until it was partially cooked, but still a little crunchy in texture:

riceboiled
The rice would finish cooking in the oven with the sauce and chicken.

While the rice was boiling, the sauce was finished.  The liquid left in the Dutch oven after cooking the chicken was augmented with the last half-cup of chicken stock, then all the spices were added:

spicesadded
The biggest variation in the recipes we found was in the spices used. Nearly all used at least cumin and cardamom. We created an amalgam from a few different sources for our spice mixture.  If for whatever reason a cook wanted to leave out one or two of the spices, the end product would not suffer too much.

The rice was drained and added to the sauce:

riceadded

…and stirred to coat the rice completely:

riceincorporated
The brown color of the rice, given by the deeply caramelized onions, is one of the hallmarks of this dish.

The chicken pieces, along with any liquid given off while they rested, were placed on top of the rice:

chickenontopofrice

The lid was put on the Dutch oven and it went into a preheated 425 degree oven for fifteen minutes, after which time the temperature of the oven was reduced to 250 degrees and the rice was baked another twenty minutes:

chickendone

When the chicken was alost ready, the carrot mixture was reheated over medium heat just until everything was hot again:

toppingreheating

To serve, first the chicken was placed in the center of a large serving bowl, then topped and completely covered with the rice.  Finally the rice was blanketed with the carrots, raisins, and almonds:

platteredpalau

This seemed like a lot of trouble for rice, but the end result was worth it.  The rice was tender and fluffy without feeling overcooked at all.  The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the texture added by the carrots, raisins, and almonds provided a pleasant contrast.  We say this a lot, but we can say with complete sincerity that Qabali palau has been one of our favorite recipes to prepare on The World Cup of Food.  We wouldn’t completely disregard Burma’s chances just yet, but Burmese cuisine will have to be pretty spectacular to top this.

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