Ham Pilau

By Jessica – April 4th, 2006

The culinary world is awash with one-pot spiced rice dishes: from Indian pilau, to Persian pilaw, to Turkish pilav, to good old “rice pilaf”, to the etymologically unrelated but spiritually similar paella and countless others. What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that the southeastern United States has its own traditional version of pilau—which, though often still spelled “pilau”, is frequently pronounced “pur-lo” or “pur-loo”.

At its most basic, pilau is meat, seafood or vegetables cooked together with rice. Like most dishes that have been around for hundreds of years, there are as many different versions of pilau as there are cooks who make it. My version comes from my grandmother on my father’s side (or possibly even my great-grandmother), who was a native of St. Augustine, Florida and a very good cook indeed. St. Augustine’s cuisine is Southern with a Spanish/Caribbean twist: fried shrimp and hush puppies, conch fritters, fresh fish, spicy Minorcan clam chowder, okra and tomatoes, avocados and corn, fiery datil peppers, and sinfully delicious sweets like peach, pecan and Key lime pie.

Cooked pilauLike many pilau recipes, my grandmother’s pilau has the “Holy Trinity” of celery, onion and bell pepper, as well as the all-important bay leaves. But what makes my grandmother’s pilau stand out is the addition of a liberal amount of allspice and whole cloves. Also, where some versions of pilau are moist, hers is meant to be dry and is best served with a good dollop of mango chutney on top. The spices and the chutney give my grandmother’s pilau a distinctly exotic flair, which is nicely complemented by a spicy Spanish red wine or a frosty beer.

This recipe will really serve three people (or possibly even four, if you have a starter and some sides)—but Jeremy and I have been known to eat it all ourselves in one sitting…

Chopped vegetables

Heat the oil in a heavy pot (ideally, a casserole or Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and peppers and sauté about 10 minutes, until the vegetables have started to soften. Add the cubed ham and sauté another 2-3 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir everything together. Cover the pot and bring the ingredients to a boil rapidly over high heat, then turn the heat to low and cook covered until the rice is tender (about 30 minutes). That’s it!

Chopped hamThe ham adds a nice smoky flavor to the pilau, but you could also make the dish with shrimp, chicken, or just vegetables. If you leave out the ham, you’ll probably need to add a bit more salt to taste. Pilau holds very well, which makes it a party/picnic/potluck favorite. You can make it ahead of time, freeze it if you need to, and reheat it in the oven or a microwave.

Pilau is very easy to make, but I do have a few tips for sure-fire success. First of all, whatever you do, don’t stir the rice as it’s cooking. You can fluff it with a fork, but if you stir it, it will turn mushy—and you want separate, firm grains of rice, not risotto. Ideally, you shouldn’t even take the lid off to take a peek until at least 20 minutes have gone by. There is very little liquid in this recipe, so the rice essentially steams in the pot. But the rice will only cook if the lid is on and the steam has built up inside the pot. So sit back and relax, have a nice glass of wine, and resist the urge to poke at the rice.

You should also resist the urge to add more liquid. You will look at the single small can of tomatoes and you will look at all the rice and you will think that there’s no way on earth the rice will ever cook (I’ve made this recipe a lot, and I still have trouble believing it). But it does cook—it really, really does. If you start adding more liquid, you won’t get the firm, dry texture you’re looking for. Have faith in the steam!

If, at the end of 30 minutes or so, you find your rice is still very hard, then you can add a few tablespoons of water and cover the pot again to create more steam. But you’ll get better results if you stick to the single can of tomatoes and keep the pot covered for as long as it takes the rice to cook. If you feel you actually have too much liquid, you can dry out the pilau by keeping the pot over a low heat and cracking the lid to let the steam escape. And if you really want a moister dish, then add more liquid when you add the tomatoes—but then you won’t have any excuse to smother your pilau in yummy mango chutney.

Ham pilau and chutney

And finally, some rice will stick to the bottom of the pot. It’s inevitable. If you’ve cooked the pilau over a very low heat, you may wind up with golden crusty bits that you can eat. Unfortunately, I usually wind up with carbonized black bits that don’t taste very nice at all. This is no big deal; just avoid scraping the very bottom of the pot when you serve the pilau—which may be hard, since it tastes so good you’ll want to eat every last bit!

Update July 2015

After making pilau many more times since posting this recipe 9(!) years ago, I’ve become a lot less dogmatic about not adding extra water. It is possible to make pilau with just the single can of tomatoes, but it’s more stressful and fiddly than it needs to be. I made what was possibly my best pot of pilau ever the other night, and I attribute this success to two small changes:

1) I added some extra water along with the tomatoes—about half to three fourths of a tomato can’s worth.

2) I used a parchment lid in addition to the pot lid. I make pilau in a pretty big pot, so there tends to be a lot of space inside the pot between the top of my rice and the lid. I wondered if too much moisture was evaporating in that space, and I figured a piece of cooking parchment placed on top of the rice might keep some of that moisture in. Maybe it made a difference, maybe it didn’t—but this in combination with the extra water meant that my pilau turned out perfectly tender and almost nothing stuck to the bottom of the pot. Win!


I want to have some now! Your desrciption of the dish makes my mouth water and I can’t wait to get a batch made up. Yummm!

P.S. The family version of chicken pilau (perlow)is from Frankie Walker or her cook - at least according to family legend (source is your Aunt). Da’s cook (St Augustine resident)and/or Mary, the woman who took care of me and cooked while we were at West Point and in St Augustine, is purported to be the original recipe person (for us). So you are right on target with the history of our dish. Vati.

# Posted by John Spengler on

I can’t wait to prepare this for my 30th bday on the 3rd of march. I will let you know the results. The guest will be mostly swedish. mmmm

# Posted by Virgy on

Is water not included in the recipe? Actually I got a little angry, I wanted to try it out today. and guess what? the side was not available until after an hour later, yes an hour after doing it my own way.

# Posted by Virgy on

No, there’s no water, as I commented in the recipe, just a tin of tomatoes. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does.

I wasn’t aware that the site was down today. I’m sorry about that - I hope your pilau turned out okay anyway.

# Posted by Jessica on

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