When I moved to Montreal for my Master’s degree I was introduced to Persian and Afghani restaurants. The flavors were familiar yet different. They were not spicy like traditional Pakistani fare but indeed quite flavorful and had many layers of subtle spice.
Coming back to my Persian Chicken Kebab story, I needed to make some to go alongside it and I was reminded of the Afghani rice I used to eat quite often in Montreal. Recalling its flavors I pondered on how to go about making it. A challenge if you will. I could have easily gone on to Google typed “Afghani Pulao” and instantly a recipe would appear. But, I wanted to use my palette, my sense of taste to decipher the ingredients of this dish.
We often take our sense of taste for granted. What would we be without it? It’s like being blind or deaf, it is the lack of a vital sense. Loving all things food related, I could not even begin to imagine what it would be like not to taste. This brings me to to Grant Achatz, the chef at Alinea in Chicago. He was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer yet persevered through this “death sentence.” He survived but lost his sense of taste, to him dying might have been a better option. Nevertheless, his fearless spirit brought him back into the kitchen and he used his non-existent palette to continue his culinary pursuits and now slowly his sense of taste is returning to him. But imagine, food brings us joy, unites us all and without this vital sense human bonding would not be the same.
Okay, had enough deep conversation yet? *Snicker* Where was I? Oh yes, my self-inflicted challenge! I know how to make a traditional Yakhni Pulao, so I used this as my starting point. From my the remaining bones that I had butchered off of my chicken breasts I made a stock. A simple stock comprised of onion, garlic, carrots, parsley, black peppercorns, cloves, salt, basically whatever you feel like adding to it. The base was going to be simple, onions and garlic but what else could I add for the aroma and flavor present in Afghani pulao? Another pantry raid! Cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves, saffron, cloves, nutmeg, peppercorns, dried red chilies, dried cranberries, pine nuts, almonds–all at my disposal! Overflowing with excitement, I was ready to tackle this dish.
1 cup basmati rice, soaked and washed
2 1/2 cups chicken stock (low sodium, free-range, homemade is best, but a good quality boxed one is fine)
1 medium red onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 tablespoons oil (I used a combination of Canola and Olive Oil)
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2-3 cardamom pods
5-6 black peppercorns
pinch of nutmeg, ground
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chilies
1/2 teapsoon saffron threads
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon orange zest
2-3 carrots, grated
1 tablespoon each, blanched slivered almonds and pine nuts (add extra for garnish, if desired)
1/4 cup dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, golden raisins, apricots, currants–I had dried cranberries on hand)
cilantro leaves, for garnish, optional
1-2 tablespoons butter, optional
Add the oil to a pot. Let it warm on medium heat add the onions allow to sweat. When the onions are almost golden, add the garlic. Next add all the whole spices including the crushed red chilies, salt, and nutmeg but not the saffron. Toss in the dried fruit and nuts. Let the nuts toast and the dried fried reconstitute. After a minute or so add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. When the stock is boiling add the saffron. Let the saffron steep for 30 seconds. Next, pour in the rice. Allow to cook in the stock for about 15 minutes or until just undercooked. At this point add the carrots and orange rind on top. Turn the heat to low. Use a kitchen towel and cover it over the pot tightly. Then put the lid top and let the carrots sweat and the orange rind lets its oils perfume the rice. Let it sit on very low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover and fluff with a fork. You may add butter for some extra richness at this point. Place in serving dish garnish with extra nuts and cilantro leaves.
*I always serve Kachumbar or chopped salad with Pakistani rice dishes. It is simply chopped onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, green chilies, cilantro leaves, a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, salt, a pinch of red chili powder, and a pinch of cumin.