A delicate and fragrant rice dish topped with a mix of candied citrus peel and nuts, narenj palaw is popular in Afghan cuisine. Like kabuli palaw, it was often reserved for special occasions because of the delicacy of the ingredients and the time taken to prepare them.
In Afghanistan, the citrus peel comes from a fruit called narenj, which is a cross between an orange and a lemon, and more widely known as bitter orange. Here, where narenj isn’t available, it can be substituted with the peel from any orange variety. The peel is blanched to extract any bitterness, and then soaked in syrup with the nuts to create a tangy. sweet, and aesthetically beautiful topping for the palaw.
FOR THE PALAW
½ cup (125 ml) sunflower oil
2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
1 lb 2 oz (500 g) diced boneless lamb leg
3 cups (1 lb 5 oz/600 g) sella basmati rice, soaked for 2-3 hours
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
FOR THE TOPPING
3 large navel or other oranges
1¾ cups (11 ½ oz/330 g) white sugar
Heaped 1 tablespoon slivered pistachios
Heaped 1 tablespoon slivered almonds
To prepare the palaw rice, add the oil and onion to a pressure cooker pan over high heat and fry for 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Add the lamb and stir occasionally for 5 minutes, or until the meat is browned and sealed. Add 4¼ cups (1 liter) hot water and a heaped 1 tablespoon salt, place the lid on the pressure cooker, and bring to high pressure. Cook at high pressure for 15 minutes, then carefully release the pressure to remove the lid. Using a slotted spoon, take out the meat (which should be lovely and tender) and set aside. Reserve the stock to flavor the rice.
Bring 10 cups (2.5 liters) water to a boil in a large pot. Meanwhile, drain excess water from the rice, add it to the boiling water with 1 tablespoon salt, and cook for 6-8 minutes, or until the rice is parboiled and the grains look like they have doubled in length.
Drain the rice in a colander and return to the pot. Pour the meat stock over the rice, then add the cumin, cardamom, and 1 tablespoon salt to the mix. Using a large, flat slotted spoon, known to Afghans as a kafgeer, mix gently. With the kafgeer, create a well in the center of the rice and place the lamb in the well. Cover the meat with rice and place the lid on the pot. Cook over high heat until steam escapes from under the lid, then reduce the heat to very low and cook for 20 minutes.
Using a small sharp knife, cut the peel from the oranges in long strips and slice off any white pith. Layer two or three strips of rind on a cutting board and slice them diagonally into thin strips. Repeat until all the peel is cut.
To remove any bitterness in the rind, bring 4¼ cups (1 liter) cold water, ½ teaspoon salt, and the rind to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the rind and blanch by boiling for 2 minutes, then drain in a colander. Rinse under cold running water, drain again, and return the rind to the saucepan with another 4¼ cups (1 liter) of cold water and ½ teaspoon salt. Repeat the blanching process three more times, and set the rind aside.
In a small saucepan, stir the sugar into 1½ cups (375 ml) water until dissolved. Place the saucepan over high heat and cook without stirring for 6-8 minutes, or until the temperature reaches 200° F (100°C) on a candy thermometer and the syrup thickens slightly. Add the orange rind to the syrup and boil for 5 minutes, or until it is translucent and sweet. Add the pistachios and almonds, and stir gently to combine. Store the topping in the syrup until you’re ready to use it.
To serve, gently layer the rice and lamb pieces onto the center of a large platter using a kafgeer, or large flat slotted spoon, creating a heap. Drain the narenj topping, discarding the syrup, and liberally spread over the rice to serve.
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Parwana: Recipes and stories from an Afghan kitchen
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Shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards 2020. See all the shortlisted books here.
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