Recipe: Gulnisa’s Polu

Gulnisa’s Polu
Recipe written by Elise Anderson and [redacted] based on the method used by Gulnisa Nazarova of Bloomington, IN
Servings: enough to feed a small army (~12 people); the recipe halves and quarters perfectly
Time: anywhere between 2 and 3 hours total, including prep and cooking

Polu served with labneh and sey salat (a vinegary salad, here made of tomatoes, red onions, Anaheim peppers, salt, and red wine vinegar); photo by Elise Anderson
Polu for a crowd accompanied by hard-boiled eggs; photo by Elise Anderson

Polu, a dish of rice, carrots, and lamb, is one of my favorite Uyghur foods to eat–and the dish I have mastered best from all of the Uyghur food I have attempted to cook thus far. I’ve found polu to be a crowd-pleaser, delicious to even the pickiest of American eaters. It’s a real time commitment to cook, but I promise it’s worth it.

The taste and appearance of polu can vary widely based on who makes it. Many people in East Turkistan and throughout the rest of Central Asia like to add dried fruit into the mix for a salty-sweet flavor. I personally prefer my polu to be super savory, though. What I’m giving you is a recipe for “qara polu,” which literally means “black polu,” with “black” referring to the dark color of the rice in the final dish. This qara polu, full of onion, garlic, and cumin, is something of a Uyghur-Uzbek hybrid.

2–3 large white or yellow onions, sliced (yellow onions make for a deeper “black” color)
3 lbs (1.5 kilos) carrots, peeled and sliced into sticks (see below for technique tip)
1 1/4 c. (300 ml) oil (I prefer lighter oils like canola or vegetable, but choose what you want here!)
2 lbs (~1 kg) lamb (other meats are also fine, but lamb is the best here!)
3 lbs (~1.4 kg) short or medium grain sushi rice (Nishiki and Rice Select brands best)
6 1/3 c. (1.5 L) water, plus water for rinsing rice
2 bulbs garlic
3 tbsp salt
2+ tbsp whole cumin seeds

Prep your vegetables
Note: Prep your onions and carrots before you start cooking anything! The onions are simple: because they will cook away, size and shape do not matter. The carrots take more time and technique. If possible, use large carrots like the kind you find in grocery-store bulk bins or at Asian supermarkets; larger carrots are easier to cut into sticks. Peel the carrots, then place two (or even three) next to one another, and cut on a diagonal across the carrots to make medallions. Now go back and chop across the medallions, cutting into sticks. This is MUCH faster than any other way I know, which is especially important if you are cutting 3 pounds of carrots in one go.

Start cooking
Add oil to pot and heat over medium-high heat. Once oil is heated, cook onions until they begin to caramelize. Add meat and stir vigorously, cooking until onions start to disappear (but do NOT let them burn). Add carrots, lower heat to medium, and cook, stirring, until carrots soften and begin to turn a deep orange.

Meanwhile, rise rice vigorously in cold water and drain AT LEAST three times (more if very starchy), then soak in water for at least 15 minutes. I usually start this process while cooking down the onions and carrots, and let the rice soak for a long time. The goal is to get rid of as much starch as possible.

Remove outer layers of garlic paper and wash off any dirt from the bulbs. Cut around bottom of bulbs to expose garlic, but try not to loosen cloves.

After the carrots have taken on a deep color, add water, salt, and cumin to pot; increase heat and bring to boil. When water reaches boiling, add garlic heads, making sure to submerge them. Cover pot and boil for 10 minutes. After boiling, remove garlic and meat, and set aside.

Drain rice and add to pot, layering rice on top of carrots, but do not mix the rice and carrots! Raise heat to highest setting and let water cook off until the liquid level is slightly below the top of the rice. At this point, use a spatula to gently pull rice away from the sides of the pot and heap toward the middle, creating room for expansion. Remember: do not mix the rice and carrot layers! 

Use chopsticks or another long kitchen tool to make holes in rice leading to the bottom of the pot (these holes allow for steaming and expansion). Place cooked meat and garlic on top of the rice. (At this point, you could also technically add anything. Think chickpeas, raisins, sliced potato, other veggies: anything you want to steam along with the polu!)

Cover pot, reduce heat to medium-low (if cooking on electric) or low (if cooking on a stronger gas flame), and cook for 30 minutes. While the polu is cooking, I usually like to prepare add-ons, including boiled eggs; a vinegary salad of tomatoes, red onion, and Anaheim peppers in red wine vinegar and salt; and full-fat Greek yogurt or labneh.

Remove garlic, peppers, and meat; cut meat into bite size pieces. Stir rice vigorously to distribute carrots evenly throughout. Serve rice on a platter, placing meat and whole garlic heads (which are now roasted and completely delicious!), and any other add-ons you have steamed on top.

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