After 18 months in Turkey, I think I can safely say that Turkish hospitality lives up to its (high) expectations. I’ve had the pleasure of encountering it on countless occasions, be it family gatherings, randomly stumbled upon village festivals or a cup of tea while bargaining or chatting with salesmen. I think many Turks are at their happiest when tables and plates are filled to the bream with delicious food.
This year will be the third year I celebrate Christmas in Norway and New Year’s in Turkey. While Turks generally don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas, they do celebrate New Year’s. And, in a nod perhaps to Christmas and Thanksgiving traditions, many have adopted the tradition of serving turkey for the occasion, a bird rarely offered at any other time of year. The rest of what’s on offer, however, is unmistakenly Turkish: Meze. (Lots of meze.) Rakı, the Turkish aniseed spirit which has been the alcoholic drink of choice for nearly two centuries. And, with the turkey, the rice pilaff I think of as the Turkish feast pilaff: İç pilavı.
I love this rice pilaff. Full of warm and comforting flavours, it’s perfect with the sometimes more neutral bird. Not that it should be eaten only with turkey (to Turks, the combination is a new one). It’s the perfect accompaniment to any roasted or fried meat. Or the star of the show at a vegetarian feast.
I’ve tried to figure out what’s given the dish its name. İç is a short word with wide array of meanings, all to do with being inside of something. According to my dictionary, it can be used for anything from interior to internal, offal or inside, depending on the context. I’ve not yet been able to get to the bottom of the origin of the name of the dish but have narrowed it down to two. Some variants include liver as a vital part of the dish, suggesting iç refers to the inclusion of an offal ingredient. However, the pilaff has also been used traditionally as a stuffing, suggesting the place of cooking rather than any ingredients has given the dish its name.
Whatever the meaning, as with all pilaffs, it’s important to be precise when preparing the rice to ensure a fluffy result where grains separate with ease. In my experience, this boils down to a few simple trciks. First, rinse the rice well. I usually do this in my measuring jug in multiple changes of clean water, stirring with my hand in between, before draining. Second, measure the amount of water. I use just a little less than 1.5 times the volume of water to rice grains. Too much water will make the rice sticky and soggy. Third, watch the time as if you were boiling an egg. And equally important: let the rice rest for at least as long as it’s been boiling before taking off the lid.
Of course, different types of rice have different properties and will yield different reults. Turks use a type of short grain rice called baldo, I prefer the long grained basmati, which I find superior in both flavour and texture.
In terms of substitions: If you can’t find currants, use raisins. Pine nuts can be dropped, or you could substitute blanched almonds. For an even more luxurious version, Turks often add chestnuts. Feel free to add if you have to hand. Serves 4-6.
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 50 g butter
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 50 g (2 tbsp) currants (or raisins)
- 30 g pine nuts
- 2 tsp allspice
- 3/4 tsp cinnamon
- 320 g (400 ml) basmati rice
- 550 ml light chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
- salt and pepper
- Fry the onion, currants and pine nuts in olive oil and butter over medium heat, stirring regularly, until the onion has softened but not browned, 10-12 minutes.
- Meanwhile, rinse the rice until the water runs clear (don't move it around too much or it will keep giving off starch and never run clear).
- Add spices and seasoning to the pot. Keep frying for another minute, stirring constantly. Add the rinsed rice. Stir until completely mixed. Add water (or stock) and put the lid on. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and leave to simmer for 12 minutes. Take off the heat and leave for at least 10-15 minutes without taking off the lid, up to half an hour if you can. Check for seasoning and fluff up with a fork just before serving.