What’s “Erster Purlo” Anyways?

by Ari Weinzweig

Speaking of Americana, here’s a dish I’ve been making it home that’s at the top of my cooking list of late. It’s easy, it’s great and it’s pretty quick to concoct. You know from the name that the dish has oysters in it. “Pilau” though you may not recognize right off, though when I tell you the other main ingredient in the recipe is rice, you’ll pretty quickly realize that pilau is likely an early American version of “pilaf.”

Pilau is the most characteristic dish of the Carolina rice kitchen, where its name is pronounced either PUHR-LOE or pi-LOE” (which in Julio’s New Orleans speak would make this “erster purlo”). No one is quite sure how these rice dishes were brought to South Carolina but there’s no question that they’re there and have been there for centuries. South Carolina is rice country—everyone I’ve talked to who grew up there says with great gravity about their foodways something along the lines of, “You have to understand, we eat rice at every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. If there’s no rice on the table, it’s not a meal.”

In Karen Hess’ reissue of “The Carolina Rice Kitchen” there are dozens of different pilaus and main course rice dishes of comparable preparations. Her theory is that Persian Jews brought pilau to Provence in the south of France. And amongst the Huguenots who fled France and ended up in colonial Carolina were quite a few converso (secret) Jews who carried these rice dishes with them. The Carolina pilaus retained Persian techniques but got a bit simpler in their technique.

The archetypal pilau, best I can ascertain is probably one with chicken, bacon and rice. Red rice, which is probably one of my favorite dishes (recipe available on request), is made with tomato and bacon. I was inspired to make this particular dish while flipping through the Lee Brothers new book (they’re coming to the Roadhouse to do a book release dinner on Tue. March 6). We’ve been selling huge amounts of oysters and we have the new crop Carolina Gold rice in right now so it was sort of an obvious dish to jump on. Below is my adaptation of the dish that the Lee Bros have in their book but most every coastal Carolina rice cook probably has some version of it as well. Adapt at will!

To make oyster pilau, fry up some good bacon. I’ve been using the Arkansas peppered bacon but any of ours will be excellent. When the bacon is crisp remove it from the pan, chop it coarsely and set aside. Toss in a bunch of shucked oysters – say a half a pint at least. Stir so they cook on the outside but don’t overcook. Remove the oysters with a slotted spoon and set those aside too. Add a bit of olive oil, then toss in some chopped onion and celery and a bit of sea salt and cook slowly ‘til the vegetables are soft. Add a half pint of rinsed Carolina Gold Rice and stir. Let the rice “toast” lightly in the oil for a few minutes, stirring fairly regularly so it doesn’t stick. Add any oyster liquor you have from the oysters. Add a pint of chicken broth. Stir well, cover, and reduce the heat to low and let cook for 12-13 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice steam for another 12-13 minutes. Uncover the rice, add the oysters and chopped bacon. Stir gently (use a wooden fork or spoon ideally so as not to smash the rice grains), check the salt and serve.

It really is a great tasting dish. The smokiness of the bacon and the richness of the oysters goes great with the amazingly flavorful Carolina Gold Rice. (Remember the rice is particularly flavorful too right now because it’s new crop!). Be sure to grind on lots of Telicherry black pepper.