Syedyshev Oleg
Syedyshev Oleg

Humorous Essays Based on students' memories

"All have died
except for those who are alive, and those whom we remember"Confucius

Essay 98. An Ode to Pilav.

I've never thought about this question before, and now something made me think about the following: "What is the difference between an "instructor: and a "teacher" not taking into consideration their gender?" I am afraid to bring upon myself a lot of criticism, however I explained to myself the difference by the emotional intensity I mean under the notion. To me "the teacher" is many levels higher than the "instructor". It happened so that right before the New Year I received an e-mail from Gaforkhon Nuridinov with greetings and best regards from his parents from remote Uzbekistan. I met him when I worked as a psychiatric department head in the system of the III Main Agency of the Healthcare Ministry of the USSR. For those who do not know what it is, I will explain. The Agency served uranium mines, the so called mining-chemical industry complexes, where purification and concentration of uranium was conducted, well and the enterprises which were making the very same "atomic bomb". Generally speaking, it was serving all enterprises of the so called Ministry of Medium Engineering, and speaking Russian - the defense industry complex. The psychiatric service was represented in the III Agency by two mental institutions: one in Kaliningrad, which was near Moscow, and another in Novosibirsk with a psychiatric department in a town of Charkesar at the Fergana valley, where I had an honor to work. No, no, I did not know any state secrets, even though I had a "go-anywhere" pass. So Goforkhon's mother worked as a hospital nurse at my department, and his father Ergash was a drugstore manager in Cherkesar.

So Ergash is my Teacher in making pilav. He is my Teacher in terms of the meaning I've tried to formulate at the very beginning of the essay. For instance, Ergash personally washed the sheep he was going to make a pilav of for his family, and then brushed them. I laughed, but Ergash was wise and ignored my laughter, he explained to me that a sheep's skin should breathe for meat to be tastier. And how could it breathe if there were mats and what not in its hair? I must assure you that Ergash's pilav was the most delicious. So after I received greetings from the Nuridinovs, I consulted with Natalek and decided to put a huge dish of Uzbek pilav on the New Year table. We had brought a splendid dish in Tunisia and were saving it, used it only when I was making pilav for the family. Well, sure enough I could not have any guarantees that a sheep's neck and a ham were of the sheep, which was washed and brushed in summer, but they knew me at the market and guaranteed that the mutton was the freshest one. Yes, it was obvious that it was exactly like that. And I also bought a beef bone, a knee joint, which I asked to cut lengthwise. Now the Uzbeks sell goods from Uzbekistan at Mariupol market, so I found where they were selling spices. I got cumin, barberries for the pilav and in addition a pilav mix. The pilav mix already includes barberries and cumin, however my family like that there is a lot of barberries and cumin. The same Uzbek sold me a couple of kilos of devzera rice from the Fergana valley. This is the best rice to make pilav; it expands three or four times when it is cooked. There, at the market, I also bought carrots and onions, white and blue. Ergash taught me to make pilav on fat of sheep's tail, however he allowed, in case if there were no fat-tailed sheep, to use cottonseed, sesame or corn oil. Sesame oil is very expensive; I did not find cottonseed oil and decided to cook on the corn one, all the more so that my family like it to be cooked on the corn oil, but not on the sesame one. At the market I also found pomegranates, pink and purple, as well as dried apricots and a couple of quince-apples. Yes, I've almost forgotten, I was looking for a big bulb of garlic with big cloves. So all purchases were made, and after that it was a purely technical matter. It was agreed to make the pilav on 31 December, and at night of the 30th I generously sprinkled the meat with cumin and the pilav mix. When I am making pilav, I take big pieces of meat to keep it juicy while it is cooked. All in all the total process of making pilav including preparing of the hearth and firewood takes me for 5 - 6 hours. On 31 December I went to my office, greeted my employees, gave them New Year envelopes and dismissed them; then I hurried home myself to continue preparations for the beginning of the cooking process. I diced the dried apricots in dices of approximately one centimeter size. I carefully cut each of the quince-apples into eight segments. The bulb of garlic was carefully wiped without being peeled; I cut long tendrils without cutting the rootlet: the bulb of garlic must not fall into cloves. I cut the carrots into 2 millimeters thick round segments. Somehow it happened so that our family like carrots to be practically dissolved in zirvak; I will explain later, what "zirvak" is. I chop a lot of onions. I can chop it the way that rings keep their shape being chopped in the finest way possible. I remember, when Vagram Agadzhanyan was visiting me and I was chopping onion, he came up to me and asked to teach him do the same. Trust me, it's a song, it's music, when a massive knife rhythmically taps on a hardboard moving through an onion or a carrot. The secret is in the way you fix your fingers and at what angle you hold a knife in order not to cut your fingers. I chop onion for the pilav and to be used on the side with it. For the pilav I shred blue onions, and for the side dish white ones. I cover the chopped onion with ice cold water mixed with apple vinegar and put it in a refrigerator for two or three hours. Natalek takes it from there. She pours out water from the onions and squeezes juice of a pomegranate with dark red seeds on them, the onion rings gain very impressive color; she adds generous quantity of pink seeds, which are sweeter, and mixes them with onion rings. I put aside about ten small onion rings and soak them in water as well. Then I am sorting the rice out. One has to be very careful when doing this in order to touch rice grains as little as possible. Little rocks and pieces of husk should be taken out of it. I should point out that Uzbek rice, which is bought at a market, always looks more littered, but it is not at all a sign that it is of lower quality. I'd rather say quite the contrary. They are just on formal terms with rice in Uzbekistan and do not subject it to multistage mechanical processing. This is done with the only goal not to ruin capsule of rice grains and keep gluten inside them when boiled. So after I have removed litter out of the rice, I pour practically boiling generously salted water over it and leave it this way to wait for its turn to get into a cauldron. As soon as we've remembered about the cauldron, I will say right away that one cannot make pilav in a pot. If it's just boiled rice - no problem, but never pilav.

I purchased an authentic cauldron in Kokand, from local craftsmen, in those days, when I lived in Central Asia. Well, and after that the process of pilav making is moved outdoors. When our house was under construction, we planned to have a yard equipped according to our needs, so there came an idea to have a fireplace in it. First of all it would decorate the yard, second, Natalek suggested right away burning fallen leaves, twigs, to cut it short, everything that can be burned there. And I offered to provide all necessary equipment for us not to have any problems with barbecue and pilav making.

So our fireplace has already been performing these duties with honor for many years. After I set the cauldron, I kindle the firewood under it, and pour a little bit of water into the cauldron; one must not warm an empty cauldron up. The cauldron warms up, becomes hot and water starts boiling away in it, and then boiling really hard. With a special forged ladle, by the way, also bought in Kokand from the local craftsmen, I scoop the water out of the cauldron, and pour about 700-750 ml of corn oil into it and start overheating it. The oil becomes heated, starts crackling first, and after that a kind of grayish mist rises over it; this is a sign for me to put a small peeled onion into the boiling oil. A micro-explosion takes place in the cauldron, the onion starts moving as if alive in the oil with active boiling around it, and the onion itself starts turning black. The onion has fulfilled its task, and I take it out of the cauldron with a skimmer, but do not throw it away; I give it to my dogs, who know the algorithm of making pilav very well, and lie close by waiting for goodies. They eat the onion as well, however never both of them rush at it at the same time, one of them comes up to it, noses it and lies near it and waits for it to cool down, and only then eats it. That time it was a terrier Chaka, and Abas was watching him from distance. However, I am returning to the pilav, as the dogs are not characters of my story.

After the onion is taken out of the cauldron, chopped onion goes into the oil.

It seems that onion takes more than a half of the cauldron, and there is no room to add carrots and meat, and rice. However the cooking proceeds; the onion is being sauteed in oil and becomes soft and decreased in volume. While sauteing the onion I constantly stir it with the skimmer for it not to burn. I am not sure how to define all signs of the onion to be done and the beginning of sauteing of carrots, but I believe that if the onion is not quite done, it will become done together with carrots. So the carrots are in the cauldron. I continue stirring non-stop, the oil is sizzling, appetizing, mouth-watering aroma spreads around the yard. Once, my neighbors told me that I was a sadist, because I tortured them with aroma of a cooking pilav.

The carrots change their color; first they grows yellow and later acquire golden tint. So there comes the time for meat to be added into the cauldron. I should say that from the very beginning of the cooking and to this moment fire under the cauldron has to be strong. So the meat is in the cauldron, in the sizzling oil. It is necessary to turn pieces of meat to make them grow white, i.e. make protein turn. Meat will be tastier this way. Well, as soon as the meat goes through the thermal processing, water is added into the cauldron. I use cold water. After that it's time to salt the pilav. The pilav is salted twice during the cooking. So the first time is right when water is poured. The broth is called "zirvak" in the Uzbek language. Yes, and I add a couple of tea spoons of the pilav mix of spices. When zirvak starts boiling I reduce the heat under the cauldron to minimum to make it simmer. So I keep the cauldron on the simmer until practically all water evaporates. When water starts vaporizing from the zirvak I already practically lose my sense of smell because of the rich aroma of the cooking pilav, however I can tell that the smells are getting more concentrated by my dogs' behavior. They are on their guard and try to lie as close as possible to the fire. They know that soon they will be given a big bone each from the zirvak. So many thanks to the dogs, they reminded me that I've forgotten to tell you, that when zirvak starts boiling, I put the beef knee joint cut lengthways, which I bought in good time. In forty-forty five minutes I take both halves of the bone out of the zirvak; they've done their part and given beef bone fat to the zirvak. The dogs are happy, after they have waited for the bones to cool down, they take them and leave to opposite corners of the yard. The zirvak looks like there are ten-fifteen minutes left for it to boil on the simmer, so I start rinsing rice, in which, if you remember, I poured boiling salted water long ago. Again, there is the rule "hands off the rice". I am rinsing it with running tap water, carefully pour turbid water out and slightly shake the bowl with rice. So, excess water has evaporated from the zirvak. The onion and carrots turned into homogenous paste. I carefully put the rice on the top of everything that is already in the cauldron. With the skimmer I smooth out to get rid of any lumps of rice. I pour water again two aflat fingers up the rice and add salt once again. I've already written that pilav is salted twice. So this is the time for it to be salted for the second time. And I immediately make the fire intensive. For that I have a lot of kindlings I have prepared beforehand. While pilav is cooking the intensity of fire under a cauldron should be changed four times. At the very beginning the fire is intensive, when the cauldron is heated and oil is burned. Onion and carrots are fried on the intensive fire too, as well as frying of meat. And when zirvak is boiling, the fire is reduced down to simmer as soon as it starts boiling, to make it boil slowly, mildly and gradually. The time for the third change of the fire intensity is when water is poured over rice. Water is boiling hard. It is necessary to gradually remove rice with a skimmer from the cauldron's sides into the center.

It is not recommended to stir everything inside the cauldron. At least my teacher did not advise me to do that; and I, as an obedient and diligent student, do exactly so. One should just press the heap, which is formed as a result of moving of the rice, not hard and intensively, but gently, and under the skimmer rice will move from the center to the sides. This is the way stirring is performed. The water is boiling hard and evaporating. The rice is being stirred. Do not be lazy, at this moment the process must not be interrupted, because the rice can be burnt to the sides of the cauldron. Now there is no water above the rice, but you should continue the process. In order to determine that water is completely evaporated, you should slightly tap with a skimmer on the rice. If the sound is squelchy, continue, and if the sound becomes muffled, then this stage of the cooking is coming to its end. I should say that the "expertise" with tapping is very delicate and requires some skill, though it is quickly developed, after you undercook rice once or it gets burnt, or you untimely stop evaporating water. Though on 31 December I did everything on the right time; as I've been making pilav for twenty years already, I've got the hand of doing it. So I tap with the skimmer on the rice, the sound is muffled, which means the rice is cooked through at this point, rice grains have become noticeably larger. The final stage starts, the very important one. I reduce the heat under the cauldron for the last, forth time. For the last time I move the rice with the skimmer from the cauldron's sides to its center to form a heap without stirring the contents of the cauldron. I bury the whole bulb of garlic I've prepared beforehand in the top of the heap and the quince segments around it. Once again sprinkle everything with cumin and barberries, and put preliminary cut dried apricots on the top of everything; later it will be mixed with rice. After that with a special wooden stick, which is half a centimeter thick, not more, and long enough to reach the cauldron's bottom I pierce the rice and everything inside the cauldron to its very bottom five-six-seven times. It is very important; this way we form the canals, along which steam will raise from the bottom to the lid, where it will condense into hot water and drop back on the rice and so on. Well, and there is a special topic about the reviving hydrologic cycle. And now I am covering rice with the first lid. I use a special bowl for this; it is something in between of a dinner plate and a soup plate. It took us time to select it to fit the cauldron, it is good, because it fits the circle of the cauldron two centimeters deep from the brim. The space between the lid and the cauldron I cover with a linen kitchen towel, which Natalek gives me for this purpose, and put one more lid on the top. At this point there should be no fire at all under the cauldron only coals; or the contents could slightly burn. It is the final half an hour of the process. I spend it having tea. In summer I, of course, drink green tea, and in winter - strong black. I do not go too far from the hearth, in order not to miss the moment when the coals under the cauldron will suddenly start burning, and this always happens, when you leave the hearth unattended. Though while I am having my tea and contemplating about the eternal and beautiful, about family, time unnoticeably flies. I have a special basket ready, it is made of wire and has a flat bottom with a ring of a sufficient diameter and height; it is necessary to put the cauldron on it in such a way that it does not overturn, as the cauldron has a shape of a hemisphere. These are minor details, which have to be taken care of beforehand, in order not to rush around solving these problems when you get hit with hard times. Generally speaking, only for God's sake, do not take this as lecturing, as these are sincere pieces of advice; there are no trifles in making pilav!
The pilav is ready, and there are two ways to follow: the first one - to simply put it on a dish and have it. However I make pilav not very often lately, so I want it to be a special occasion. The New Year is a holiday by itself, though I am doing my best to make every my pilav making a holiday in my family. And everything should be beautiful on a holiday. So let's do everything in a nice way. I am bringing the cauldron into the house. It's amazing, but no matter what my family were occupied with and in what nooks of the house they were, as soon as the lids are taken off from the cauldron, they come almost running to the kitchen. They always tell me that at that moment it starts smelling so nicely around the house, that it is impossible for them to control themselves. At that point I've already lost a possibility to enjoy the aroma; while I am cooking my sense of smell deadens. So after the cauldron has been open, Natalek and Cathy run flying to the cauldron with spoons ready in their hands to try the pilav; I do not allow them to do this; they are persuading me, throwing a scare into me, threatening and blackmailing me. They are so sincerely asking me to let them try just a little bit that I give up. I will tell you honestly, I am very pleased to here: "wonderful...", "finger-licking good..." and such kind of things. When I have enough of the glorification, I send them out of the kitchen and start the magic.

First I carefully take the bulb of garlic and segments of the quince out of the pilav and after that - pieces of mutton. I cut the meat into one centimeter thick dices and take all bones out of it. I mix the rice with the dried apricots, which were on its top under the lid, and set certain amount of the rice aside on a medium size dish. The matter is that Natalek has not eaten meat for fifteen years already, that is why for her pilav is without meat, but believe me, it will not become less delicious because of that. I put the meat into the cauldron and stir once again. I would like to stress that stirring should be gentle, calm, with slight shaking of the skimmer. It is done to make grains of the rice separate from each other; the pilav becomes more friable, its volume increases. And the one who has made the pilav sees that the rice grains have become longer and thicker, they have significantly grown in size. I also carefully transfer the pilav to the big Tunisian serving dish forming a hill in its center. On its top I put the bulb of garlic. I'll digress from the topic a bit; after being in the hot rice during the cooking, the garlic gives all its volatile production into the rice, so its bitter taste goes away, it becomes very soft, tender and tasty, though being kept in its husk, it does not lose its shape. The quince, which is usually very hard when raw, also becomes soft, very aromatic and incredibly tasty.

So I place the quince along the dish sides, and to finish it I take the onion rings I set aside before I gave the onion to Natalek to make a salad. So I take the onion rings and place them around the rice hill and place the pomegranate seeds inside the rings. A very impressive design comes out. I do exactly the same in the dish without meet. I bet that reading of all of this have made mouths of most of you water. No wonder, as you've been reading not a regular recipe, but an Ode to Pilav! Enjoy your meal and be happy!

14 January, 2012.

© Copyright: Oleg Syedyshev, 2012
Publishing licence #213101900996

Translated by Viktoria Potykinato content