The history of Pilaf pre-dates written history. To understand the major leaps forward in Pilaf technology and distribution, we must refer to the Etymology (the word history), human history and the anthropological / archeological record.
Scientists estimate that humans were actually using Asian Rice (Oryza Sativa) as a staple by 12,000 B.C. even though the earliest carbon-dated record of ancient Rice has been found in the Yangtze River Valley of China and only dates from around 10,000 B.C. Sometime soon after (archeologically speaking), Indica Rice and Japonica Rice were being farmed in central China.
There is no existing, documented record of any Rice Artifacts (bowls, pots, etc.) until roughly 7,000 B.C. meaning Pilaf is not likely to have been invented before the tools required to make it were in widespread use. Around 3,500 B.C. widespread Rice farming spread south into Southeast Asia and west into Northern India and Nepal. Around 2,000 B.C. to 1400 B.C. Rice cultivation spread to Southern India and then into the Fertile Crescent setting the stage for an ancient creative collision of grain & technique that still resonates for us today.
It is likely that Pilaf was invented in India some time after the importation of Rice to the Indus River valley. It is believed that the earliest forms of our modern word “Pilaf” are the Indo Aryan words “Pula,” (meaning a dish of rice & meat) and / or “Pulāka” (from the Sanskrit meaning a lump of boiled rice).
The actual word “Pilaf” is commonly claimed to be a product of Ancient Persia, which bordered ancient India and probably imported rice farming around 1000 B.C. to 500 B.C., The first surviving use of the word Pilaf is the ancient Persian word “Pilāv” which describes a dish where Grains are Boiled in Broth. Rice Pilaf is the version they preferred.
The Persian scholar Abu Ali Sina documented Pilaf in his 10th Century works on medical science (including the preparation of some meals). He is considered by many (especially the Tajiks) as the “Father” of Pilaf and consequently Persia is considered the birthplace of the Pilaf which is still a foundation of Persian cooking today. Ancient Persian Pilāv was a very popular dish, seasoned with anything from bits of Lamb or Venison, to Pistachios, Herbs, whole Spices (such as Saffron) or dried fruits like Raisins, Dates or Figs. Pilāv was also a favorite Stuffing. To this day, stuffing a whole lamb or Eggplant with Rice Pilaf is still a Persian specialty.
The Medeans / Turks had / have a word “Pilav” for the same types of dishes, which is not surprising since the Turks were conquered by the Persians of Cyrus the Great around 500 BC. The Egyptians, conquered around 300 B.C. were another of the first cultures to use Persia’s Rice Pilaf techniques.
The Greeks (Ionians initially) who were conquered by the Persians, and who in turn conquered them under Alexander, adopted the Pilaf dish and adapted the word as “Pilafi.” Recipes for fragrant Pilaffi were recorded in the earliest Greek cook book Gastrology, by the poet Archestratus in 350 BC. In fact, Alexander the Great was served a Rice Pilaf when he captured the city of Maracanda (the modern city Samarkand, Uzbekistan) in 329 BC. Modern Greek cookbooks have recipes for Pilaffi (we’re not sure when the second “f” entered into the equation) combined with everything from Mussels to Chicken to mounds of fresh sheep or goat Yogurt. Greek Dolma, the rolls of stuffed grape leaves, can also be filled with Pilaf scented with Lemon, Dill or Mint.
The Roman Empire came to know of Rice but considered it a medicine for upset stomachs and never adapted it widely. Wheat was a staple for Rome and they preferred their Bread.
The next great expansion of Rice and the Pilaf occurred with the Muslim Caliphate that expanded to the east and west with religious zeal and took Rice along with them. They planted rice wherever it would grow and “Pilaw” was so tasty that countries subject to the Caliphate would quickly assimilated the simple recipe as their own
Ironically, the expansion of the Caliphate to the east also brought back to India new variants of Pilaf such as Sultan’s Rice which was called “Pullao” and was deemed fit for royal tables. Indian Pullao evolved to become the multi-layered “Biryani” which is one of the most complex and subtle examples of the Rice Pilaf.
To the west, Europe, both Eastern Europe and Western Europe, were introduced to Rice and the term Pilaf over the following centuries via the Arabs and the Turks during their conquests and conflicts. For example, as the Moslem armies conquered southern Spain, Rice was planted and Pilaf followed.
A quick side note, the conventional wisdom is that “Paella,” though it sounds similar to “Pilaf” is not a Pilaf derivative but a separate and distinct Spanish method of cooking and handling Rice that takes its name from the 2 handled, shallow iron or copper Paellera (from the Latin Patella) to cook Paella. Smart Kitchen’s Paella Exercise and Paella Resources go into more detail on Paella but here we will return to the story of Pilaf.
As the Arabs and later the Turks marched across Eastern Europe (and parts of Russia) on their way to Vienna, they brought along Pilaf which was called “Rys Sumiany” locally, and is still part of the cuisine of Hungary and Poland today. Rys Sumiany was made by Sautéing Rice as one would make a Roux and then serving it alongside Spit-Roasted Meats. Frequently, Wheat (most often Bulghur Wheat) was substituted in the Pilaf technique for Rice by the Eastern Europeans and Russians. Bulghar Wheat Pilafs are the second most popular types today.
On the heels of the Caliphate’s annexation of southern Spain, Persian Jewish commercial emigrants settled near the Camargue region of southwestern Provençe, bordered by tributaries of the Rhône River, where they saw land ripe for Rice cultivation. They planted Rice, traded it, and consumed it (with fragrant spices like Nutmeg, Cumin, Saffron, Garlic, etc.), as Rice Pilaf and that imported dish ultimately became domesticated and known to the French of Provençe as “Riz Safron” (Saffron Rice in French). Rice Pilaf with Toasted Almonds is a traditional Provençale specialty today. Because of the French affinity for bread, Rice Pilaf did not expand much further north at the time.
When the initial European colonization and expansion began, Rice and Pilaf were taken to the New World and to the farther reaches of Asia. Over time Europeans did much of the further work of spreading Pilaf around the world they were colonizing.
Rice thrived in the Spanish occupied Philippines and became an export crop that was consumed in Spanish Mexico (first imported in 1522) under the name Java Rice. Mexican’s adapted Pilaf and created a dish “Sopa Seca” (Dry Soup) which is scorched and fried rice that is then cooked with Onions and Tomatoes.
In Spanish South America, the coastal lowlands of Columbia were deemed perfect for growing Rice. Arroz con Coco is a South American spin on Pilaf using Raisins, Titoté and Coconut Oil (Rendered from fresh Coconut Milk). Arroz con Coco is made for special occasions and is often served with Turkey, Ham or locally sourced Grilled Fish like Swordfish or Tilapia. Fried slices of Plantain typically round out the offering.
Even the English, who were a Wheat Staple Culture because of their climate and preferences, realized the value of Rice in feeding local labor populations in some of their North American (southern) and Caribbean holdings. Jamaica and Barbados with their African slave populations to farm the grains found Rice a successful crop.
Rice was named a “Desired” crop for several of the early British colonies and was tried in Virginia in 1609. The first go did not work well because the fields were not flooded. Experiments in North Carolina in 1620 with upland rice also failed to yield good harvests, but ultimately experimentation, persistence and listening to their African slaves won out. By 1647, Sir William Berkeley was said to have sown half a bushel of rice seed in Virginia and harvested 15 bushels.
The success of Carolina Gold Ric ewas not pre-ordained and reportedly began as a fluke with early plantings (around 1685-1694) of African Madagascar Rice salvaged from a shipwreck of a schooner coming home from Africa. However it began, by 1690, Rice cultivation was well established in the Carolinas where the beautiful long grain rice flourished, was some of the best in the world and produced wealth for the planters. Rice cultivation spread to Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
With an abundant Rice crop African, American, Caribbean, Creole, Cajun and South Carolina cooks all customized their own Pilafs as “Perloos” or “Pulaos.” Some versions have stuck. In fact, an early edition of The Joy of Cooking contains a recipe for Miss Emily’s Perloo and Saveur Magazine #117 has a Recipe for Shrimp & Oyster Perloo which is thematic and good. The links go off Smart Kitchen to Amazon and Saveur.com respectively. We also kicked up our own version. It is described at Smart Kitchen’s Shrimp & Oyster Perloo.
In some areas, like Barbados, Rice and Beans were cooked together, probably because the poorer residents of the new world only had a single pot to cook in. Dishes such as Hoppin’ John (Black Eyed Peas and rice), Jambalaya, Dirty Rice and Carolina Red Rice, were all results of this culinary mash-up offering filling and affordable peasant food to the region. All of these dishes can be Finished with a bit of Butter or Heavy Cream.
The singular holdouts to adopting Rice and Rice Pilaf were the bulk of the northern French, who preferred their fabulous breads, and did not really take to Rice until the 19th Century after the French Revolution. In fact, Larousse Gastronomique, the bible of French cooking has a separate heading for Pilaf and describes it as “The method of preparing rice origination in the East.” Riz Pilaf, (the French name for it) often uses the addition of a Bouquet Garni, after Sautéing the grains for flavor. Favorite French versions include arranging the pilaf around cooked Chicken Livers or Foi Gras or dotting it with slivers of Truffle.
Essentially the history of Pilaf is that each new area adopted the dish and added its own spin. Today, many cultures have many words, “Plov,” “Palov,” “Polow,” “Palāu,” “Pulao,” “Polo,” “Pelau,” for Pilaf. Others have related dishes, such as India’s Biryani, and Spain’s Paella which some argue (we think incorrectly) is a name derivative from the word Pilaf. The fun of the dish is seeing life and culture in the variations, and of course enjoying the meal.