Rice Pilaff is the king (or the queen:) of all foods in Azerbaijan. It is not prepared on a daily basis, but there is hardly any celebration, ceremony that would not have pilaff on the menu.

Ask Azerbaijanis what their most important dish and, undoubtedly, they'll tell you "plov", the king of Azerbaijani cuisine. In Southern Azerbaijan (in Iran), rice is served on a daily basis. In the Azerbaijani Republic, however, plov (often referred to as "ash") is presented as the grand finale to special meals, such as at weddings, birthday parties, special dinners, family gatherings and even funerals. In the Republic, pilaf is not just an accompaniment to other dishes. The pilaf is served on a large platter and topped with melted butter. Rice mixed with saffron provides a bright golden decorative garnish on top. In the Republic of Azerbaijan, it's very popular to serve pilaf with meat, prunes, raisins and chestnuts.

Azerbaijani cuisine boasts countless versions of it, with every region having its own special recipe. There are more than 100 different kinds of plov. Some of the most popular kinds include: chicken plov, shuyud plov (chopped dill), kishmish plov (raisins), sudlu ash (milk), giyma plov (finely chopped meat, potatoes and yellow split peas), sabzi plov (greens) and fisinjan (pomegranate syrup, walnuts and chicken).

Making the perfect plov requires care and experience - like a fine science. There are many variables: timing, temperature, the proportion of rice to water, the size and thickness of the pot and the quality of the rice. The type of rice used is usually the long-grain basmati-style rice, which they are starting to grow again in the Lankaran region, in the south of Azerbaijan. To keep the rice from burning, some cooks place a thin layer of lavash bread or potatoes in the bottom of the pan. This becomes gazmag ("tadig" in Farsi), the crunchy delicacy that many consider to be the best part of the plov.

Typically, long grain rice is steamed with saffron on top and a layer of golden crust called Gazmag (in Azeri: qazmaq) on the bottom. Traditionally, a crust is prepared from eggs, flours, butter and yogurt. Or, if you are pressed with time, simply lay peeled sliced potatoes or flat bread - lavash on the bottom, then scoop the rice on top and steam it.

Usually this type of Pilaff is served with additions, known as ashgara (ashqara) or khurush, prepared separately from the rice. Meat, dried fruits, fresh herbs, fish, vegetables and aromatic spices are cooked in many different ways to make the addition, which, when ready, is piled on top of the cooked saffron rice on individual serving plates.

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