Ami’s Palao – Caramelised / Spiced Pilaf in the Pakistani Manner

I don’t have friendships which have lasted thirty-some odd years.

I don’t have friends from kindergarten that I grew up and stayed up late at night with around the bonfire during summer camp, singeing marshmallows till they were gooey enough to be sandwiched between graham crackers with some chocolate tucked in. I don’t have a collection of yearbooks on my bookshelf which I can share with friends and laugh over that nerdy Grade Two portrait, the one in which my hair is parted in the middle and swept up on both sides with a candy-pink barrette, (thanks, Ami).

But none of this matters, for the strong friendships I formed as a child of a wandering development economist cannot be valued by time.

Most of my friends were gypsies, like me, pottering about the world with their parents, from Lagos to DC to Islamabad to Nairobi to Manila to Yerevan, carting their Enid Blyton and Judy Blume collections and stuffed animals along with them (mind you, when we left Lagos, my parents gave away my beloved ‘Famous Five‘ collection to the SOS, which I’ve never forgiven them for). As I grew older, all the moving around just meant that amongst friends, we had to make more of an effort with that phone call, letter or postcard. My poor father, it turns out I mostly favoured costly phone calls over letters. And over the years we continued to meet in not-so-exotic-lands like DC, NY and London for our reunions.

Then one day I landed in Rome, where I thought I was finally going to hang my hat (only to leave, years later- but that’s another blog post). It was through work that I met Maria, a liquorice-haired, Bohemian Costa Rican beauty and Brandy, a jade green-eyed, soft-spoken, pretty girl from Vancouver.

Along with the rest of our gang, the three of us would start our weekends with a newspaper-thin crust pizza at Monte Carlo where the server never brings a bill but scribbles down the total on your makeshift paper tablecloth. Invariably, I’d argue with the server about this and invariably, Brandina, Maria and the rest of the gang would laugh and roll their eyes, “Ah, Shayma, there she goes again…” Then we’d take a walk through the Piazza Navona towards the raucous Campo de’ Fiori, as tourists in our own adopted city. We would go to Vineria Reggio to sip on some really bad sangria. In the land of €8 for a glass of Amarone, you ask, why the bad sangria? Can’t really say why, it’s just one of those quirky things that three close friends do.

I remember sitting at L’Insalata Ricca handing Brandina a silver bracelet, a farewell gift for her from our branch at work. While our boss did a cin cin, Maria and I wept quietly into our artichoke and rocket salad. Maria was a foreign service brat, and had lived all over the world, just like me. But we always cried when it was time to say goodbye.

Just before Brandina left, I prepared my mother’s rice pilaf for her and Maria at my home, made with sweet caramelised onions as a base, and intense, earthy spices like black peppercorns, cloves, black cardamom and a whole cinnamon stick. We ate this alongside cumin-spiced potatoes and a spicy chicken curry.

And then we took the camera and placed it on the kitchen counter, taking silly photos of the three of us with the self-timer.

Maria, Brandina and I haven’t been friends for thirty-some odd years, we cant reminisce about that Second Grade yearbook photo. But we haven’t forgotten the bad sangria, the walks through Campo de’ Fiori and the coffees and the lifelong relationship we formed on the rooftop cafeteria at the UN overlooking the pine trees lining the Terme di Caracalla.

Serves 4
The cloves are for fragrance and should normally not be consumed. Please note that there is no health risk associated with consuming them, but the taste is rather strong. The same goes for the peppercorns.

Ingredients:
400g / 2 cups Basmati rice, soaked in a large bowl filled with cold water for a minimum of 2 hours and a maximum of 24 hours
3 tbsp neutral oil such as corn or sunflower
75 g / ½ cup onion (this is about ½ of a medium onion), sliced vertically and as thinly as possible.
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tsp whole cloves
1 whole black cardamom (optional, as it may be difficult to find unless you go to a Pakistani / Indian grocery store)
1 large cinnamon stick
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional- or you can add ½ tsp if you want it less spicy)
750ml / 3cups boiling water

Preparation:
*Place a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat and add oil.
*Add sliced onions to this and sauté for 15-20 minutes till the white of the onion is no longer visible and the onions have turned a dark golden-brown colour. Be careful not to let the onions turn black-if they begin to do so, just remove the pot from the burner and lower the flame.
*Start boiling your water in a separate vessel at this point.
*Add peppercorns, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon stick to onions. Drain rice and add to the pot.
*Turn the heat to high and pour in boiling water. As soon as it starts to bubble, cover with a tea cloth and lid and turn the heat to low.
*Allow rice to cook for 15 minutes, do not open the lid before the total time has elapsed.
*Remove rice from the burner and allow it to rest for another 15 minutes without opening the lid.
*Serve with a meat-based curry or with borani kachalu/kudu.

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Comments

  1. Bahareh says:

    Super tasty…love the sweet and spicy combination.I had it with some yogurt and cilantro and it tasted awesome!

  2. Thanks for the recipe Shayma! Just what I was hoping for. You’re the one I’m learning desi cooking from as my Mom is far too vague on the instructions. I too have lived in different countries whilst growing up and I don’t have friends to remember 2nd grade with either. The friend I have kept longest is one I met in 6th grade in Karachi and I have held on to her as I went to Switzerland, England and then the States. For me the few good friends I made along the way are held on to tightly, maybe because they are my only links to the past.

  3. Thanks for this Shayma – bizarrely it’s in our family memory bank too. At home in Edinburgh our son Charlie (now a global nomad himself) had a Pakistani friend whose mother cooked up a storm… Dean and I used to fight over who would pick Charlie up from play dates because Faraz’s Mum would never let you out without a huge pile of delicious food. She always sent us off with goody bags too usually including a tub of this rice to which my daughter became particularly addicted. Px

  4. such a beautiful post – i love your memories of good friends and Italy . . .
    makes me sigh a big sigh!

    x

  5. Wonderful rice dish and post; I sense the longing for the stability that was never in the picture in your peripatetic lifestyle; but hey, you are all the more richer for it. These friendships are special too.

  6. @Bahareh Thank you, I am glad the rice made it home safely in the ziploc- I love it with yoghurt, too. x s

    @Sharbet Thank you for your kind comments- all the Pakistani dishes I make I have learnt from my mother and Khala (maternal aunt), so I can’t take any credit for this. All my friends are from my teens and later- those I met in Elementary School in Washington DC were difficult to keep up with back then (no internet, sms, etc), but who knows if we would have remained friends anyway, as our lives are and were so different.

    @Pam That is such a lovely story- please do blog about it and share your recipe. x s

    @Joumana Thank you so much. Not so much longing for stability as fascination and curiosity- especially when I see friends putting up Facebook photos of their childhood bedroom (intact- with books and dolls on the shelves) and best friend from when they were in pre-school. That’s their life, and their story- so different than mine. The life I have lead, I am utterly grateful for- after all, it’s lovely to have close friends in beautiful lands to visit every now and then. And thank god for Skype, Facebook and email. x s

  7. This post brought tears to my eyes. First I was captivated by your wonderful photos of RICE. Rice is difficult to photograph! Then, I began to read your story and immediately thought of my kids. This will be their experience by the time they go off to college. They don’t have many of the traditional school memories of growing up in one location. I am a wanderlust so I have enjoyed our travels and moves. But, the loneliness that often comes from not having lifelong friends to grow up with is always fascination for me. You seem very happy with your experiences. My kids say they are very happy we made the decisions we did. Thank you writing about this. Again, the photos of the RICE are beautiful!

  8. There are just some people you feel like you’ve known your whole life. What a gorgeous pilaf – I’ve never used black cardamom before but I should try it out.

  9. Genelle Morris says:

    I love reading your blog because I have such wonderful imagery from your words, plus you have fantastic recipes! And the previous poster is right; so difficult to photograph rice!

    I think though that I do have a fourth grade picture of you that you gave me from the yearbook… I know I stored all the pics and trinkets from childhood in a box and it’s an interesting project to put them all together. Some things stored here or there, things in boxes in Nigeria, some here State-side, all parts of a childhood mosaic …

    It’s quite different from the life my children lead but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It’s nice that we have things like Facebook to connect with virtually, and opportunities to get together when we can.

    I can’t wait to try this recipe. My kids have loved the other recipes we have tried from your blog :)

  10. the story that goes with all of ur recipes make it even more special.
    thanks

  11. I’m planning to base my whole meal round this dish at the weekend – this is such an exciting recipe. I’ve also run out of chicken stock, so glad that this is flavourful enough with just water.

    Thanks again, can’t wait to try,
    Helena

  12. A lovely post!

  13. Oh Shayma, reading your post brought tears to my eyes – I remember that meal so well. It was one of the most delicious meals I have ever had…made all the more delicious because it was shared with two beautiful souls.

  14. What a beautiful story. I was lucky enough to work with Brandy for the past five and a bit years in Vancouver. We both left around the same time so your story, although about a diffrent place and time, hit home a bit. It was a beautiful tribute. (and the recipe looks good too.)

  15. Timothy says:

    Whatever happened to Brandina… she sounds beautiful! do you have an email address I can reach her at? I think we met once in Rome and then again in Hong Kong… and I may have asked her marry me… oh wait I did!

    Shayma, you tell a beautiful story. And yes you do have some fantastic friends.

  16. Loved the story. Good, close friends are a blessing of Allah no doubt. Reading your story made me quite emotional as I remenicised about my own clique of close friends. Your written expression has that nostalgia inducing effect. ;-)
    God bless you always.

  17. Love all the memoirs associated with each of your entries.Look forward to reading the next post each time.As for the recipes,a lot of our cooking is very similar and im from Goa,a small state in India .This pilaf for instance is something my mom makes too.The masala omelette was also exactly how I make it at home.Everything here is so beautifully expressed!

  18. Azarakhsh says:

    Finger-licking yummy! As soon as I saw the picture, the first thing that popped to mind was my grandmother, patiently waiting on onions to caramelise. This dish is almost exactly what she used to make, with the addition of toasted slivered almonds (and sometimes golden raisins). Thanks for sharing! It’s beautiful to see Central Asian cuisine earn a solid, positive reputation so far from home :) .

  19. lady jane grey says:

    I’m going to try it this coming weekend! My only problem : I only know (and have) green cardamom – could you please describe the difference with the black one ?
    Many thanks i.a., Shayma !

  20. Shayma, Your story is so interesting. It is poetic and I loved reading it. I cannot wait to try the recipe either. I have lots of friends from 2nd grade, below and above that I keep in touch with. I still live on the same street I grew up on. I have lived here my entire life (except 4 years in college). My family has lived here for four generations and their ancestors just down the street. Our worlds are amazingly different…thanks so much for an insight into yours! Kevin

  21. Shayma – A beautifully written piece, and as always a delicious looking dish. The aroma of the caramelized onions and basmati jumped out of your gorgeous photos and off my screen, they are assaulting me now. – S

  22. such a lovely post! i love anything basmati too! :)

  23. gourmand says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, and beautiful writing. The photos are absolutely three dimensional. You have a flair for making us weep…perhaps good to relish the sumptuous rice.

  24. Yuditta says:

    Forgive a person without much experience in your kind of cooking for asking: are the spices supposed to be eaten or discarded after cooking? I love rice and found your recipe so intriguing that I made it two days after discovering this site. I enjoyed the pilaoo very much, but I felt the lining of my stomach sort of burning for a quarter of an hour afterwards, which made me wonder about consumption of the cloves and peppercorns.

  25. You are now officially my faveourite blogger…thank you sooo much for these fantastic recipes..I love this rice and have been looking for it for such along time..love to you.

  26. Your writing is so beautifully vivid that I can close my eyes and visualize every bit it. I never had bad sangria in Rome, but I have (and met) my childhood/nursery friends after 22 years this summer in India:) and of them still my closest friend.

    This is how my ma and grandma would make the pulao, and with some spicy chicken curry. The aroma of the browned onion is unbeatable and I always made them keep a little bit of fried onions aside to sprinkle them over the rice on my plate.

    Congrats on the Top 50. So well deserved!

  27. This recipe yielded the perfect rice: separate grains, and not at all mushy. Although I’ve been making plain boiled Basmati rice for a while now, I was always intimidated by making pulao. Thanks for this awesome recipe! It will become a staple in my cooking, insha Allah.
    Allah hafiz

  28. Made this for tea tonight with one of your chicken recipes and it was delicious, thank you! :-)

  29. Hi Shayma,

    I wanted to tell you that ever since I have com across your blog I have started to enjoy cooking (which I did not before). The instructions are clear cut and beautifully explained, the photographs are exquisite, and the memories you have with each piece of cooking is delightful. That said, I made this rice dish having hesitated to cook any sort of rice before and it turned out wonderful. Both my mother and husband said “this is not good, it is excellent!” which thrilled me.

    Thank you for making cooking enjoyable for me!
    Could you post some more recipes for vegetables and potatoes please?
    Thank you :)

  30. I accidentally landed on your blog n truly truly love it. The dishes are awesome. N it’s wonderful to know how well known you and your blog are. Keep it up. It’s such an inspiration for bloggers like us

  31. Beautifully written.And your blog is inspiring!

  32. What’s up, of course this article is in fact nice and I have learned lot of things from it on the
    topic of blogging. thanks.

Trackbacks

  1. […] my father and Uncle Yusuf enjoyed as children, with family and relatives, filling their plates with clove-spiced pilafs and ten different meat stews, each one more fragrant and delicious than the next. And I want my son […]

  2. […] many a time be five more people sitting at our dining table, enjoying my mother’s signature aromatic rice dish, made with musky cloves, black cardamom and black pepper berries. Our guests would ladle […]

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