An indispensable ingredient of Asian cuisine in particular, rice heads the list of the world’s oldest nutrients. We meet this foodstuff, which is prepared in different ways in different cuisines producing a variety of new flavors, as ‘risotto’ in an Italian, ‘paella’ in a Spanish restaurant.

One of the oldest staples in the world, rice is a grain as valuable wheat. It is the basic food of half the world’s population today. The fruit of the rice plant, which is grown in tropical and sub-tropical climates, rice has the distinction of being the only grain grown in water. In spite of that, it is raised in 112 countries in the world with 95% of world production and consumption taking place in the Asian countries. Although many dates have been mooted for the appearance of rice on the world’s tables, its history is said to date back to 7000 B.C.

Pilaff, Pride of The Table
Various studies on the emergence or invention of the processing of rice, whose harvest in water is rather difficult, put forward different views on the subject. Filling as well as nutritious, rice is also one of the rare foodstuffs that does not contain the allergenic substance gluten.
As the basic source of nutrition in the Asian countries, rice spread in time, sometimes by chance, sometimes by design, to Southern Europe, the Balkans and the Americas. The Turks, who first lived close to Northern China before migrating down to India, consequently became closely acquainted with the rice culture of these two different regions. It is possible to see different ways of cooking and eating rice in the cuisines of the states existing in this region today. In Asia, which is more conducive to the growing of rice, has an almost sacred place in daily life. Serving a rich dish to guests is de rigueur in almost all the Asian countries. Even the names of some world famous Far Eastern firms today are said to have been inspired by rice paddies.

Indispensable in Western Cuisines as Well
Rice was introduced to the Middle East by the Persian Empire in 1000 B.C. The Romans meanwhile first learned about rice thanks to Alexander the Great’s campaign to India. In the 8th century rice was taken to Spain by the Arabs. It was brought to Italy and the Balkans by the Ottomans between the 13th and 16th centuries. As it traveled westwards however its use in the kitchen narrowed. Nevertheless, the Spanish in Europe invented a dish like ‘paella’, made with rice and regarded as the pride of Spanish cuisine, while the Italians produced their ‘risotto’, also made with rice and a classic of world cuisine after pizza and spaghetti. Indeed risotto is considered to be the most refined technique in all of Italian cooking. Naturally rice arrived in Anatolia in advance of the Turks. But rice and rice products only made their real presence known in Anatolia following the arrival of the Turks.
The Seljuks in particular, who came to Anatolia via Iran, brought with them to the region their experience and knowledge of rice in the cuisines of China, India and Persia. In the Ottoman Empire, rice took its place as the main dish on banquet tables from the feasts of the Mevlevi’s to those of the sultans.

The Proof of The Cook...
The words for rice in Turkish, ‘pirinç’ and ‘pilav’, came into the language from Persian. In place of ‘pirinç’, the Ottomans used the word ‘dane’, a word derived from the Hindi word ‘dhanya’ meaning ‘food of humans’. For years, for example, the term ‘dane-i saru’ (yellow food) was used by the Ottomans to refer to saffron-flavored rice. Since rice was regarded as a source of bodily strength by the Ottomans, there are a number of unwritten principles governing the cooking and eating of pilaff. At Topkapı Palace in particular, preparing pilaff in gigantic cauldrons measuring 1 meter in diameter and 1.2 meters deep, required consummate skill. Consequently, the proof of the cooks to be hired by the palace lay in their pilaff-cooking skills.

The importance of rice pilaff to the Ottomans is apparent from the ingredients that were used.  Besides the lamb that was used in all rice pilaffs, the use of cinnamon and gum mastic, both of which were hard to come by, is also noteworthy. In the new dining customs introduced during the 19th century period of reforms known as the Tanzimat, pilaff ceased to be the main dish and began instead to be consumed accompanied by ‘hoşaf’ (stewed fruit compote) following dessert. This custom too has been abandoned today when pilaff is served and consumed as a regular accompaniment to the main dish. Despite rapidly changing eating habits in the world, rice and its products are maintaining their traditional role in Turkish cuisine.The last word? May the spoon of anyone who shuns rice be broken!

We are grateful to Nilhan Aras and Mehmet Reis for their assistance.


Anchovy Pilaff Ingredients:
2 kg fresh anchovies, deboned
1/2 bunch green onions
200 gr butter
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cups rice
3 tbsp pine nuts
2 1/2 tbsp currants
4 cups water

Brown the pine nuts in the butter and add the currants. Finely chop the onions and saute slightly in the oil, then add the rice and continue sautéing for 5 minutes. Add the other ingredients and mix well, then add the 4 cups of water and let steep. When the rice is tender, cool slightly. Grease a deep oven-proof dish and arrange a layer of anchovies on the bottom. Spread the cooked pilaff over the anchovies and add another layer of anchovies on top. Drizzle with olive oil and bake in the oven. When the anchovies are browned, the pilaff is ready to serve.

Pilaff With Herbs and Gum Mastic Ingredients:
500 gr Basmati rice
150 gr butter
1/4 tsp salt
750 gr water or meat stock
1/4 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1/4 bunch dill, finely chopped
1.4 bunch fresh mint, finely chopped
4 green onions
1/4 bunch radicchio 
1/2 tsp ground ginger
4 cardamom pods, crushed
2 drops of gum mastic

Wash and drain the rice. Melt the butter in a skillet, add the rice and saute for 3-4 minutes. Add the finely chopped herbs and green onion and mix well for 4 minutes. Add the salt, ginger, gum mastic and cardamom. Then add the water or meat stock and mix again. Lower the heat and let steep over low heat for 5-6 minutes. Finally, stir with a spoon. Serve piping hot.

Asrar Milk Pudding Ingredients:
1 liter of milk
1/2 cup rice

For the Zerde (Ingredients):
1/2 cup rice
3/4 cup sugar, divided into
three parts
3 cups of water

Bring the milk to a boil and add the washed rice. Cook for approximately one hour over low heat, stirring occasionally. When the mixture begins to thicken and the rice to swell, remove from the heat. Pour into individual serving dishes. Let cool.

Preparation of Zerde:
Bring the water to a boil and add one-third of the sugar and the well-washed rice. Cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and continuing until the rice begins to swell and soften. Then add the remaining sugar. When thickened, pour over the previously prepared and cooled milk pudding in dishes. Courtesy of Filiz Hösükoğlu

Aside Ingredients:
250 gr rice
5 tbsp butter
250 gr lamb meat, cubed
100 gr okra
1 tbsp salt
1/4 tsp ground red pepper
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
1 onion, finely diced
4 cups water or meat stock
1 tbsp flour

Melt the 4 tbsp of butter in a pot and sauté the chopped onion until it begins to color. Add the cubes of lamb, mix slightly, and then add the water or meat stock. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. When the meat is tender, add the okra, salt, black pepper and red pepper and mix. Let cook for 20 minutes. Bring the four cups of water to boil in a pot, add the salt and continue boiling. Add the rice and cook until very soft. Lower to medium heat and add one tbsp of butter and then the flour, slowly, blending well. When thoroughly cooked, remove to a serving platter. Make a well in the center and pour in the meat and okra mixture. Serve piping hot.