Pilaf is a Middle Eastern method of cooking rice so that every grain remains separate. The method, first described in 13th century Arabic cookbooks, instructs the cook to first soak the rice to remove starch, then to boil it until much of the liquid is absorbed, and finally to cover and steam it over low heat until it is tender. Descendants of rice cooked using this method include, among others, Indian biryanis (a term of Persian origin), Spanish paellas and, once Spain reached the new world, American jambalayas and purloos.
A signature dish of southern Louisiana, jambalaya (pronounced juhn-buh-lie-yah) comes in two major forms; Creole (red), colored by tomatoes, and Cajun (brown) which eschews tomatoes and is a deeper color due to aggressively browning aromatic vegetables and meats. Preferences can provoke heated debate known to separate friends and family. Even the origins of the word are debated. Some argue for a French and African birth; jambon (French for ham), a la (French for in the style of), and ya (African for rice). Others fly the Spanish flag, pointing to jambalaya’s resemblance to the iconic Spanish dish paella; jamon (Spanish for ham) and paella. Purloo is a cousin of Louisiana’s jambalaya from the low country of South Carolina. The word purloo (pronounced pur-low) may be a corruption of pilau.
Jambalaya forms descend from different groups of Louisiana settlers. The first Creoles were offspring of French and Spanish settlers in New Orleans who applied refined European cooking techniques to the bounty of the city’s French Quarter Market, where a multitude of vendors hawked local produce, meats and seafood. They created a highly seasoned cuisine that emphasized seafood, especially shrimp, and tomatoes. Cajuns, on the other hand, descended from French Canadian settlers who populated the prairies and swamps of southwestern Louisiana. Faced with poverty, jambalaya was a way to stretch the scarce proteins of pork and poultry, plus anything you might be able to hunt (think alligator or duck) to feed more mouths. German settlers in the bayou contributed traditions of smoking meats and making sausages, which also found their way into jambalaya pots.
Notwithstanding origin theories, there are universal truths to making jambalaya. First, there must be rice. Second, there should be some form of ham. Third, the Louisiana “holy trinity” of seasoning vegetables (onion, green bell pepper and celery) should be present. And make sure that you start with a good stock, preferably one you’ve made yourself. Beyond that, feel free to knock yourself out and include any combination of chicken, shrimp, oysters, crab, or anything else that wanders by.