Pilafi, Risotto, Paella… What’s in a name?

What do pilafi, risotto and paella have in common? Rice, of course. They are specific names for traditional European rice dishes, respectively from Greece, Italy and Spain. They share a common element – each combining rice with other ingredients whose flavors are absorbed by the grains – although each differing in their cooking methods.

Compared to other grains (such as wheat and barley), rice is a newcomer to Europe. It was introduced from the East sometime in the 10th century as a result of the Islamic expansion into Europe, first to the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily. Much later, rice migrated north to areas that included the Po Valley where it was documented as a crop in the 15th century.

It is more difficult to date the dishes themselves. Paella is from an old Spanish (Catalan) word for the type of pan used to cook it and is a hybrid created from older forms of Middle Eastern rice dishes that were brought into the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs. However, it was first given the name paella in a local Valencian newspaper in 1840. Risotto, of course, comes from the Italian word for rice (riso) and is associated with the rice producing areas of Northern Italy. Its history is a bit more obscure, but it was first attested as a specific type of rice dish in mid-19th century Italian cookery books.

The Greek word pilafi (English pilaf) is derived from the Turkish word pilav and, not surprisingly, the dish was introduced into Greece by the Ottomans. Although the cultivation of rice is mentioned in ancient Greek texts, it did not become a major crop until the mid-20th century, now cultivated particularly around the watery flats near Thessaloniki. So, it made a lot of sense to me when a friend who studies traditional agriculture in Greece mentioned that bulgar wheat, in the not so distant past, was commonly used in place of rice in recipes (such as pilafi).

Whatever the individual histories of pilafi, risotto and paella, they share a common ancestry, connected to the Middle East, but evolved to become dishes distinctive to each region.


Thracian Cabbage & Rice Pilaf (Lahanorizo)
This is a wonderful vegetarian casserole – so simple and so addictive! Many Greek recipes for Lahanorizo add raisins, spices and nuts, but I was first served it this plain everyday way (except I’ve added the feta here for a bit of creamy saltiness). It is a Thracian speciality, from Northern Greece where rustic winter food uses a lot of cabbage – both fresh and fermented. I have also seen a recipe for a traditional Bulgarian version, differing only with the addition of paprika – not surprising as Bulgaria is a neighboring region and likely the dish shares a common origin with Lahanorizo.

    1-1/2 cups long grain or basmati rice
    1 Tablespoon olive oil
    1 small onion
    14 oz. can of plum tomatoes
    1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
    1/2 head green cabbage
    4 oz. feta cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a pot, cook the rice by adding 3 cups of boiling water and a pinch of salt. Put the lid on (it should be a tight fit) and lower the heat. Let the rice cook for 10-15 minutes undisturbed until the water is absorbed. Turn off heat and let it sit while you make the sauce. Or, if you have a favored way of making rice, proceed to do it your way. All that matters is that the rice is cooked before it is added to the sauce.

Meanwhile, finely chop the onion. Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and cut out the core. I tend to use a pointed green cabbage as it has a more tender texture and a sweeter taste. Shred the cabbage – thinly or thickly, according to your preferences.

To make the sauce, heat the oil in a pan and add the onions. When the onions have become transparent, add the tomatoes, roughly chopping them with a wooden spoon. Add the oregano and season with salt and pepper if necessary. Add the cabbage and put a lid on and turn the heat down to low. When the cabbage begins to wilt, turn off heat and put the rice into the mixture. Stir so that the rice has been fully coated with the tomato sauce.

Oil a shallow casserole and add the rice mixture. Crumble the feta and sprinkle on top, tucking a few pieces into the rice. Put in oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

I might try it with bulgar next time!

Note: I’ve based a lot of my facts on entries in Alan Davidson’s encyclopaedic work, The Oxford Companion to Food. Check it out. It has a wealth of information between its covers.


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