I have a traveller’s food tale for you today. Please come with me on a virtual journey to seventeenth century Persia. Our guide is John Fryer, the author of A New Account of East-India and Persia, in Eight Letters: Being Nine Years Travels Begun 1672 and Finished 1681: Containing Observations Made of the Moral, Natural and Artifical Estate of Those Countries (published in 1698.)
In the chapter entitled The Present State of Persia, Fryer discusses the local food. He makes a brief mention of ‘pullow’ quite early in the piece:
The most admired Dainty, werewith they stuff themselves, is Pullow, whereof they will fill themselves up to the throat and receive no hurt, it being so well prepared for the Stomach.
A few pages later he goes into considerably more detail about the dishes and manner of dining :
And therefore is it necessary, that to the excellency of the Air, and disposition of the Body, a requisite Diet, as well for Meat as Drink, should correspond with both; and indeed Nature seems to have provided them with both, for those they desire are these:
Cabob isRostmeat on Skewers, cut in little round pieces no bigger than a Sixpence, and Ginger and Garlick put between each. Thus sparingly do they feed on Flesh alone, ordered after this manner; and if at any time they intend a Meal thereon, they have it well Boiled, Baked, Fried, or Stewed, or made into Pullow; which is a general Mess, as frequent with them as a good substantial piece of Beef is with us, and reckoned their standing Dish; which is made either of Flesh, Fish, or Fowl, as the Indian Moors do; but the best is made of the fattest Meat, for which the pondrous Tails of Suet (which their Sheep bear) is most coveted, in regard it saves Butter.
To make Pullow, the Meat is first Boiled to Rags, and the Broth or Liquor being strained, it is left to drain, while they Boil the Rice in the fame; which being tender, and the aqueous parts evaporating, the Juice and Gravy incorporates with the Rice, which is Boiled almost dry; then they put in the Meat again with Spice, and at last as much Butter as is necessary, so that it becomes not too Greesy or Offensive, either to the Sight of Taste; and it is then Boiled enough when it is fit to be made into Gobbets, not flabby, but each Corn of Rice is swelled and filled, not burst into Pulp; and then with Mango or other Achar, they will devour whole Handsuls (for Spoons are not in use, unless to drink Sherbet with, they mixing their Pottage with dry Rice, find cramming themselves with their fingers ) and never Surfeit; always taking this for a Rule, never to Drink till they are satisfied, it causing them otherwise to swell too soon; and then they will Eat as much at a Meal, as an Horse or Mule can of Barly.
Baked Meat they call Dumpoke, which is dressed with sweet Herbs and Butter, with whose Gravy they swallow Rice dry Boiled.
Their Stews are also made of Cooling Fruits, as Cucumbers, Gourds, which they mingle Rice with.
But the bulk of their Diet consists of the Fruits of the Teeming Earth, sowre Milk, with soft Cheese, Grapes and Wheaten Bread.
They have a kind of Cooling Musilage of Seeds, like PsyIlium; in the Maritime ports they use Dates instead of Bread, or Bread made Pancake Fashion of Rice.
They have a Dish they call Cookoo Challow, which is dry Rice and a Fritter of Eggs, Herbs, and Fishes,
They seldom Eat fresh Butter, and as seldom Beefs Flesh; the Poor near the Sea live only on Fish and Dates; the Rich live plentifully every where.
No Country is more taken with Sweetmeats, not even the Lusitanians; whereof Sugar is a good Commodity from India, for Persia produces none of its own; they are not such Confectioners, notwithstanding, as might be expected from so constant a desire and practice; the chief reason I can impute it to is Custom, which in every thing they are very tenacious of.
They mightily covet cool things to the Palat, wherefore they mix Snow, or dissolve Ice in their Water, Wine, or Sherbets.
Out of Taylets of Willows they make a compound Cool-Water, very sweet smelling and refreshing.
Sherbets are made of almost all Tart pleasing Fruits as the Juice of Pomegranets, Lemmons, Citrons, Oranges, Prunella's, which are to be bought in the Markets. Thus by Diet, as well as Air, they procure not only a firmness of Constitution, but properness and Tallness of Body, for none excel them either for Beauty or Stature.
But before we part with this Subject, since they are not so starch'd and precisely bent as the more rigorous Mahometans, we may be acquainted with their constant course of Eating, and lie down with them at Meals, and receive a good Welcome.
Their Breakfast is begun with Melons, Cucumbers, Gourds, Grapes, or other Fruits, as Peaches, Apricots, Cherries, or the like, with soft Cheese or Butter Milk; which is about Ten in the Morning, from which time they abstain from all manner of Food ( I mean when they observe their set Meals till near Sun set) when they feed heartily on Flesh, or any other hot Meats, and enlarge sometimes till Midnight.
They observe the same usage for going to Stool as the other Easterns, washing away the Filth with the Left hand, for no other cause than that they feed themselves with the Right.
So, with reports such as Fryer’s being read in Britain, how quickly was pullow (pilau or pilaf) adopted there? The Oxford English Dictionary should have some clues. The OED definition is:
1. A dish, partly of Middle Eastern, partly and ultimately of South Asian origin, consisting of rice (or, in certain areas, wheat) cooked in stock with spices, usually mixed with meat and various other ingredients. The contents and method of preparing the dish vary widely according to region.
The first supporting reference is from an earlier traveller’s account – that of William Biddulph The travels of certaine Englishmen into Africa, Asia, Troy …, published in 1609:
The most common [Turkish] dish is Pilaw..made of Rise, and small morsels of Mutton boyled therein.
There are several more mentions before Fryer made his comments about the dish, but it was to be the early eighteenth century before recipes started to appear in English cookery books. The earliest English version I have found so far is in The Accomplished Housekeeper, and Universal Cook (1717), by T. Williams:
A Pillaw of Veal.
Half roast either a neck or breast of veal; then cut it into six pieces, and season it with pepper, salt, and nutmeg. Put to a pound of rice a quart of broth, some mace, and a little salt. Do it over a stove or very slow fire till it is thick; but butter the bottom of the pan or dish you do it in. Beat up the yolk of six eggs, and stir them into it. Then take a little round deep dish, butter it, lay some of the rice at the bottom, then lay the veal on a round heap, and cover it all over with rice. Wash it over with the yolks of eggs, and bake it an hour and a half. Then open the top, and pour in a pint of rich good gravy. Send it to table, garnished with a Seville orange quatered.
Previous recipes for pilau which have appeared on this blog are: