Chicken pulau with pumpkin is a dish of celebration in the oases of western China. This dish is special to the Uighur people who also share this dish with their close cousins the Uzbeks. Rice is not an everyday foods in that part of China as it is more challenging to grow rice in the desert or uncultivatable land.
In case you are wondering who are the Uighur (Uygurs) people, they are a Turkic people whose language is related to Uzbek, Kirghiz, and Kazakh. According to the Beyond The Great Wall cookbook by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, the Uighur people are the majority of non-Han population in Xinjiang, China. Uighurs have been an important culture in this part of the world since well before the 18th century. When Genghis Kan took control of a large chunk of Central Asia in the 13th century, it was Uighur scribes that he relied upon to develp a system for writing and keeping accounts. Although the Uighur scrips is still the Mongolian alphabet, the Uighur language is now written in a modified Arabic script.
Prior to the 10th century, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Manicheaism, and Animism were all practices in Xinjiang, but int the 10th to 12th centuries, Uighurs converted to Islam, and they are no primarily Sunni Muslims.
Everyday foods in the oases are mainly tea and bread. The breads are leavened flatbreads of various kinds, called nan and baked in tandoor ovens, like those in India. For feasting and special occasions, the main dish is pulau, rice flavored with meat and vegetables and served on a large platter, family-style. The pulau idea seems to have spread out from the sophisticated cuisine of Persia, radiating east along the Silk Road and west into Arab-held lands, and eventually through the Arabs to Spain, where it becomes Paella.
In Uighur hands, pulau is cooked in a q’azan, a wide shallow wok-like pan. As in paella or risotto, the flavor base cooks first, in oil, then water is added to make a broth. The rice is then added and cooks in the broth to absorb all the flavor. I really enjoyed this dish. It’s a one-pot dish, which I like. It is also very comforting and fulfilling at the same time.
- 2½ cups medium-grain Mediterranean-style rice, such as arborio, baldo, or Valencia. I used arborio
- 1 Tbsp salt, or to taste
- About 4 lbs whole chicken legs and/or breasts
- About ½ lb daikon radish
- ¼ cup peanut oil or vegetable oil
- 2 medium onions (3/4 lb), coarsely chopped
- 2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 2 cups water (original recipe calls for 4 cups but I found it too much and the rice is too "moist")
- About 1 lb peeled pumpkin or winter squash, cut into 1½-inch cubes
- ¾ cup black vinegar or cider vinegar, diluted ith ¼ cup water, or to taste
- 2 lemons, cut into wedges
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Rinse the rice well with cold water. Place it in a medium bowl with enough lukewarm water to cover it in by an inch, stir in 1 tsp of the salt, and set aside to soak
- Remove the excess fat from the chicken. Finely chop about 3 Tbsp fat and set aside. Traditionally the skin is left on, for extra flavor and succulence; remove and discard if you wish. Use a cleaver to chop the chicken into approximately 2-inch pieces, leaving the bones in. Rinse and set aside
- Peel the daikon and grate it on a coarse grater, or cut it into match sticks. You will have about 2 cups. Set aside
- Heat the oil in a large wide heavy pot over medium heat. Add the reserved chicken fat and render it (over medium heat, the fat will melt into the oil, leaving some small crispy cracklings). Scoop out the cracklings and save it for toppings if you like. Raise the heat to high and when the oil and fat are nearly smoking, add 1 tsp of the salt. Carefully slide the chicken pieces into the oil and start to brown them (you may need to do this in batches if your pot is not big enough to accommodate all)
- After several minutes, add the onions. Cook until the chicken is browned on all sides, then add the daikon and tomatoes and stir well. Lower the heat slightly and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring if the vegetables are sticking at all. The daikon should have softened and the tomato will be starting to disintegrate
- Add the water and the remaining 1 tsp salt, raise the heat, and bring to a vigorous boil. Lower the heat to medium and boil gently, partly covered, for 10 minutes. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning if necessary
- Drain the soaked rice and sprinkle it into the broth. The liquid should cover the rice by ½ inch, add a little hot water if necessary. Bring to a boil, then cover tightly and lower the heat to medium, and cook for 5 minutes. The water will now be just level with the top of the rice
- Distribute the pumpkin pieces over the rice. Cover tightly once more, lower the heat to very low, and cook for 30 minutes
- Remove the pot from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes before removing the lid
- Serve with black vinegar, lemon and freshly ground black pepper if you like