Rice fit for a lord

Nader Khan seeks out Kabuli Polow in Peshawar

Rice fit for a lord
Cooked in a large rice pot mixed with dry fruit, raisins and red meat, the special ‘Kabuli’ Polow (Afghan Rice) is one of the most important types of Central Asian and Afghan food that is widely loved in Peshawar and other parts of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. For a while now, this dish has been attracting large number of customers to Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar and Saddar areas.

The name of the dish is derived from the Turkish Pilaf, which later became ‘Polow’ in the Persian language. The dish was loved by the former Turkic rulers who ruled vast swathes of Central Asia. In more modern times, the term changed to Kabuli Polow, which is now considered Afghanistan’s national dish. The dish requires a variety of Basmati rice and, often, a special pot. It has retained its traditional popularity in the Central Asian republics of today, not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was also known to have been favoured by Mughal ruler Babur. It is said that even on his arrival in India, he was served such a Polow.

The meat component of the dish may consist of lamb, chicken, or beef. Once the rice and meat have been cooked in the large pot known as a ‘Deg’ in Pashto, it may be topped with fried sliced carrots, raisins, orange zest, and chopped nuts like pistachios or almonds. The meat is presented in a variety of ways: it may be on top, covered by the rice or completely buried in the rice mixture.

The owner of an old establishment serving the Polow, Haji Nader Khan, tells me that this is the oldest rice dish of the Pakhtun belt. He speaks with pride of the distances that people cover in order to reach his restaurant. He adds that it is quite normal for orders to reach some 100 kg of the Kabuli Polow on wedding ceremonies. And, he points out, his is not the only business to do such a roaring trade in Polow.

Serving the rice in Peshawar

On a daily basis, he can ‘save’ some Rs. 2-3,000 off each 15-kg pot of rice that his establishment preprares – and he receives hundreds of patrons each day. To his delight, an average daily sale at his restaurant is around Rs. 10,000 – of which anywhere from one-third to almost half is his daily profit.

He offers Kabuli Pulow in both the chicken and beef versions, but admits that his clientele prefers the beef whenever possible.

I ask him for an outline of the cooking process. The first step, as is often the case, involves caramelising some onion in a hot pan in oil – followed by the addition of chunks of lamb, beef or chicken. Once the meat component is lightly seared, into the pot go salt, seasonings – like cumin, saffron and cardamom – and enough water to submerge the meat. “It should boil until the meat is soaked through with flavour and tenderness!” he emphasises.

I am told that various blends of seasonings are possible, leading to any number of flavourful spices being employed. Aside from the seasonings mentioned earlier, common additions can include cloves and ‘masala’ – a local blend of ginger, garlic, onion and chilies.

Kabuli polow

He says that as soon as the meat is cooked to the chef’s satisfaction, it is removed from the stock to avoid being overcooked. Then, the basmati rice and lentils go into the pot, as they take about the same amount of time to cook. None of the rice should stick out of the broth – which will be completely absorbed by the rice and beans after the pot is covered and left over medium-low heat.

The dish is topped off with nuts, raisins, orange peel and many other items. Some people also like adding a sugar flavour to the Polow, especially on wedding ceremonies, which is known as ‘Zarda’. However the Polow with sugar added is, of course, less common as compared to ordinary Kabuli Polow.

“I frequently used to visit Qissa Khwani and Shoba Bazaar as Kabuli Polow is one of my favourite dishes. Mostly I preferred it over a number of other possible meals!” a student at Peshawar University, Salman, tells this scribe.

He adds: “Another popular place to get this dish is ‘Shinwari Polow’ situated on University Road, where you are just as likely to encounter a throng of clients.”
Once the meat component is lightly seared, into the pot go salt, seasonings - like cumin, saffron and cardamom - and enough water to submerge the meat

Gul Afzal is locally known as a popular cook for this type of rice. He says that it sometimes becomes difficult to accommodate customers for wedding ceremonies, given the effort that goes in – people love his hand-cooked Polow. He says that he charges Rs 400 per rice pot (Deg) that he cooks at wedding ceremonies and other events.

“We cannot make it to every function – and sometimes people get quite annoyed about that!” he observes.

Several times the PTI-led provincial government and local authorities have pledged to establish a ‘Food Street’ for such traditional foods of Peshawar. But so far, they have been unable to establish anything like that. Cooks and clients have their own particular spots where one may dine as Emperor Babur once would have!