Carolina Pilau is something of an enigma. You may know this simple dish as chicken and rice, variations of which are found the world over, but in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, it is a defining element of the region’s cuisine. Pronounced variously PEE-lo, pih-LO, PER-lo and per-LO, and sometimes even spelled phonetically to match, pilau is more technique than recipe—rice cooked in aromatic liquid with enough fat to keep the grains distinct and separate.
How this dish, believed to have descended from the pilafs of ancient Persia, came to the Lowcountry is a matter of debate. Some speculate that it was by way of French Huguenots, who may have learned about it from Jews in Provence, but pilaus are also deeply rooted in the cuisine of rice-growing slaves from Africa’s West Coast.
Old recipes for pilau were austere, not because seasonings were spare, but because recipes were then little more than outlines that left flavorings to the cook. For example, though rarely mentioned historically, today tomatoes and onions are traditional pilau ingredients. When hot pepper is used whole, as it is here, it lends subtle flavor without releasing its hot oily acids. For more direct flavor and kick, simply chop or slice it.
Lowcountry cooks always wash rice to remove the surface starch for distinct, separate grains. Put raw rice in a large bowl of water and rub it gently between your hands until the water is milky. Drain into a wire sieve and repeat until the water is clear.
By Damon Lee Fowler, a food writer in Savannah, Ga.