Return to rice: Afghan kabuli pulao

Before we begin, a word of warning. Do not attempt this dish unless you have the following:
1. A spare few hours
2. The inclination to do a lot of dishes (or, even better, a dishwasher)
3. Considerable patience

As mentioned in our last entry, we’ve been travelling around Spain for the past few weeks, meaning that aside from some paella in Valencia (and some variations on the theme in Córdoba and Madrid), we’ve eaten very little rice, the Spanish preferring to gain their carbs through bread (oh, so much bread) and potatoes. Similarly, we don’t think we’ve eaten lamb since we made beshbarmak nearly two months ago. Reaching Afghanistan on our culinary adventure, therefore, happened at the perfect time.

Afghanistan’s national dish is kabuli pulao, although it seems that the concept of spelling is a loose one where this dish is concerned: for the first word, we’ve also seen qabuli, kubali or kabili; for the second, palaw, palau, pilau, palao and pilaf. However, even Miranda is not enough of a spelling pedant to let this get in the way of what promised to be a gently spiced, fragrant dish. The main ingredient is equally variable, with chicken, beef and lamb all being possibilities, but we opted for lamb for the reason mentioned above.

Finding a recipe for this one took a bit of reading because, as you can imagine, there are a lot of different ones out there. We liked the recipe from Rehana Du Jour due to the fact that it seemed to be both authentic and foolproof, but it used a pressure cooker, which we don’t have – so to cook the meat, we took inspiration from the SBS recipe. (Incidentally, both of these recipes use the spelling ‘kabuli pulao.’) The recipe below is therefore an amalgamation of the two.

Kabuli pulao

700g diced lamb (we used neck fillet)
1 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 litres water
1/6 cup flaked almonds
1/6 cup pistachios
Cooking oil
1/2 cup shredded carrots (not grated – they need to be more like matchsticks)
2 1/2 tsp sugar
The seeds from 5 green cardamom pods, crushed with a mortar and pestle
1/6 cup raisins
1 tsp garam masala powder
1 black cardamom pod
3 green cardamom pods
1-inch cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
2 cups rice (we used basmati, but see note below)

1. Heat 50ml (ish) of the oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat and cook the onion for 6-8 minutes or until golden. Add the lamb, garlic and salt to taste and cook until the lamb is well-browned on all sides (about 8-10 minutes).
This is also probably the time to add the black cardamom, whole green cardamom, cinnamon and cumin seeds. Because we were combining two recipes, we didn’t spot this until later and added it to the simmering lamb, but we assume the spices would release more flavours if added here.
2. Add the water, reduce heat to low and cook for about 1 1/2 hours (skimming occasionally if needed), or until lamb is tender.
3. Toast the almonds and pistachios in a dry pan until they are lightly browned and set aside.
4. Heat about a teaspoon of oil in a small pan over medium-high heat and cook the carrots for 3-4 minutes. Add 1 tsp sugar and cook for a few more minutes until the carrots caramelise, then add the raisins and a pinch of the ground cardamom and cook for an additional minute. Set aside.
5. Wash rice thoroughly (again, see note below about rice) and boil in a large pot of salted water until 75% cooked (about 7-10 minutes).
6. When the meat is done, remove from the broth and set aside. Reserve 1 cup of the broth.
7. In a saucepan over medium heat, caramelise 1 1/2 tsp sugar until it is a light nutty colour, then add the rest of the ground cardamom and the garam masala. Stir in the cup of reserved broth and set aside.
8. Place the rice in a pot with a tight fitting lid and pour the broth you have just made over the top. Sprinkle with a little more ground cardamom and garam masala.
9. Place the meat over the rice in a single layer (if possible in your pot – we had to cram it in a bit!). Add the reserved carrots and raisins over the meat.
10. Heat 1 tsp oil until it is smoking hot and pour over the whole operation.
11. Make some holes in the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon to allow steam to escape.
12. Cover the pot tightly with a tea towel and lid. Cook on medium-high for 5 minutes, then medium for 5 minutes, then low for 5 minutes, then let it sit off the heat for an additional 5 minutes.
13. If you want to serve it ‘properly’, you will then separate all the elements again and arrange in the same order on a platter, finishing by garnishing with the toasted pistachios and almonds. If you’re hungry like we were and just want to eat it, just spoon it into serving bowls and garnish it there.
Serves 4

690a Lamb for kabuli pulao compressed

691a Caramelised carrots and raisins compressed

692a Rice in pot compressed

693a Meat in pot compressed

694a Carrots in pot compressed

695a Steaming pot compressed

696a Kabuli pulao compressed

697a Kabuli pulao compressed

So, a note on the rice: the key element of this dish. Most recipes call for Sella (or Sela…) rice, which is a version of basmati that has been processed differently, i.e. it has been parboiled. It has a long grain and a more golden colour than standard basmati. It should also be soaked for 4 hours before using it in this recipe. We didn’t have any Sella rice, and weren’t going anywhere near a shop that might sell it, so made the ill-thought-out decision to use normal basmati and just rinse it instead of soaking it. Sadly, this resulted in a bit of a sticky, stodgy mess, rather than the lovely, fluffy grains we were aiming for. The rice also burned onto our pan, which probably happened because it was a soggy lump rather than gently steaming separated grains. We would therefore definitely recommend using the correct rice and actually following the instructions to soak it if you are planning on making this recipe.

We actually would recommend making it, too, even though we didn’t have the most successful experience with it, and even though it will take over an entire afternoon. The lamb was beautifully tender, the sweetness of the carrot/raisin mixture wasn’t too overpowering, and the spices shone through gently. The toasted nuts on top also created a lovely crunchy texture – though be warned, this will only happen if you don’t snack on all of them while you’re making the rest of the dish! It might be an idea to toast these at the end of the process rather than the beginning…

This dish certainly threw us back into the cooking deep end after our weeks out of the kitchen. We wonder what Uzbekistan will bring!

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