So many cultures have a version of savoury rice porridge: Cantonese and Korean juk, Japanese ochazuke, Filipino arroz caldo, Italian risotto. This is Georgia’s contribution to the cannon – shila plavi, a Georgian interpretation of Persian pilaf. As a child in Tbilisi, shila plavi was not my friend – but we’re getting to know each other again.
Traditionally, shila plavi was served as a bereavement dish. The creamy, spiced rice with lamb or wild mushrooms was part of the ritual supra (Georgian for ‘tablecloth’ or ‘spread’) for those in mourning, and each guest had to eat at least one spoonful to see off the soul of the deceased.
Perhaps this explains why the dish was also on high rotation at my kindergarten during perestroika. Georgia – and the Soviet Union at large – faced a period of civil unrest, sometimes leading to violent protest, and the country fell into mourning of a different kind.
My earliest memories of the dish are of being required to eat ‘just one spoonful’ at the behest of my kindergarten lunch ladies and teachers, smoke curling through the open windows from the street, ever-present as the Soviet soldiers standing around the school’s courtyard at ease but armed.
I’ll never know if it was the smoke, or the rifles at their hips, or the chewy lamb gristle that did it, but I physically couldn’t keep these school lunches down. Eventually, there came a time when, while the other kids shovelled their shila plavi from melamine bowls, my mother would arrive at the kindergarten to walk me down Rustaveli Avenue to her workplace where she would serve me rissoles on rye bread, with red adjika – a spicy tomato and capsicum paste.
I certainly wouldn’t take my recipe here as gospel. It’s a third-culture take that’s perfect for midweek, but will likely prompt a colourful exchange in my family WhatsApp group (in the Zaslavsky clan, we call shila plavi “schlyap lyap”). But I did take the adjika leftovers over to my parents’ place, and they were surprised by the authenticity of its flavours.
Surprised, because adjika usually takes hours if not days to make, while this one’s ready in minutes. Typically, dried chillies are chargrilled first to intensify the flavours, then blitzed into a paste and left to funk up for a few days. This recipe uses sun-dried tomatoes and jarred roasted peppers to do the heavy lifting, in almost no time at all.
But that’s the advantage of making this dish on the other side of the world. I can borrow from the wisdom of many cuisines I’ve come to know and love.
Shila plavi with adjika – recipe
So when it comes to this globe-trotting shila plavi, I’ve upped the springtime veg like you might in a risotto primavera; for faster cooking, I’ve used broken jasmine rice like you’ll find in Vietnamese cơm tấm.(If you can’t find broken rice, I’ve included some instructions for making your own). From some congee recipes, I’ve also soaked the rice before cooking, and the result is an extra fluffy, creamy shila plavi.
As for the veg, broad beans are beautiful at the moment, and the smaller ones don’t need a second podding. If you can’t find them fresh, grab some from the freezer aisle – these will need a second podding once more after boiling. (Squeeze from the edge that hasn’t burst and the bright green flesh will pop right out.) I’ve also suggested asparagus but you could use any greens you have in your fridge or freezer. Whatever veg you use, just blanch or boil until they’ve just changed colour, as they’ll continue to cook once stirred through the hot rice.
In the adjika, you may be surprised to see holy basil (tulsi) and fenugreek but they are actually mainstays of Georgian cuisine. Georgia is at the cross-roads of Europe and Asia, and was a key stop on the Silk Road, which is why the cuisine incorporates the spices of South Asia and the Middle East, with the fresh herbs of South east Asia. If you can’t find holy basil, Thai basil still gives the menthol-like notes that are a feature of the spice paste. If you can’t find either Italian basil might do, but note the flavour can be too overpowering for the adjika. Try to find a bunch with softer leaves and a milder aroma.
Don’t fret if your coriander comes without the roots – though they do create an earthy base for the paste. But that ‘earthiness’ should not be taken literally, mind you. Coriander roots are notoriously gritty, so make sure to wash them judiciously.
Serves 4 to 6
220g broken jasmine rice or unbroken jasmine rice (1 cup)
1 small brown onion, roughly chopped
3-4 garlic cloves
1-2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
1 stick celery, roughly chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 litre water
500ml vegetable stock
4 coriander stalks, roots washed well and roughly chopped, stems reserved for adjika (see below) and leaves reserved for garnish
3-4 holy basil or Thai basil stalks, leaves picked and reserved for adjika (see below) and garnish
500g broad beans, podded
2 bunches asparagus, woody ends snapped off, and chopped into 3cm lengths
For the adjika
4 cloves garlic
35g sun-dried tomatoes (¼ cup), drained
175g jarred red roasted peppers (¾ cup, drained weight), liquid reserved for loosening ¼ tsp mild chilli flakes
15g coriander stems, leaves reserved for garnish (from above ingredients list)
15g parsley stalks and leaves
15g holy basil or Thai basil leaves (from above ingredients list)
30ml neutral-flavoured oil (I like sunflower oil here)
1 tsp ground fenugreek
1 tsp ground coriander
If using unbroken jasmine rice, blitz the rice in a food processor for one to two minutes until the grains are ‘broken’, but not yet finely ground.
Transfer the broken rice to a bowl. Slosh a little water around the processor bowl and pour this over the rice and add enough water to cover. (If using bought broken rice, place in a bowl and cover with water). Leave the rice to soak for 15 mins while you get on to the rest of the prep.
Add the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and herb stems and roots to the food processor and blitz to a fine paste to make a speedy mirepoix.
Heat a wide, heavy-based pan over a medium-high heat and add the olive oil and the blitzed veg paste, and sweat for eight to 10 minutes until the onion aroma has cooked out and the veg has started to change from orange to sunny yellow. Drain the rice and add to the sweating veg, stirring about for a couple of minutes until the rice has toasted slightly and the veg at the edges of the pan start to caramelise.
Add the water and the stock and bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 15 to 18 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the mixture from catching, until the rice is tender and has a loose porridge-y texture.
While the rice is simmering, bring a medium pot of well-salted water to the boil. Boil the podded broad beans for four minutes, then remove and allow to cool. Return the water to the boil, and boil the asparagus for two minutes. Drain and set aside.
To make the adjika, in a food processor blitz the ingredients to a fine paste (reserve some coriander and basil leaves for garnish). Add salt and pepper to taste. If you prefer a looser mix, splash in a little of the roasted pepper liquid.
To serve, stir some of broad beans and asparagus through the shila plavi, and divide between serving bowls. Garnish with remaining broad beans, asparagus, coriander and basil leaves, and blop on some adjika.