Georgian Funeral Rice
Shila plavi is a peppery, caraway-scented lamb pilaf that’s so deeply comforting, it’s traditionally cooked for the bereft.
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I don’t attend many funerals in Georgia, which is why it took me so long to taste one of the country’s most comforting—yet shockingly little-known—dishes: shila plavi, a peppery Georgian lamb pilaf similar to risotto that’s traditionally served to the bereft. But a few months ago, while visiting my friend Sopo Gorgadze’s farm and restaurant in Kakheti, I found what would become my favorite version of the dish. Made with arborio instead of the usual long-grain rice, and with so much black pepper and caraway that their quantities look like typos, Sopo’s shila plavi is al dente and extra-aromatic, with chunks of juicy lamb and shards of salty cheese on top.
Nobody knows how shila plavi came to be associated with funerals—even Georgian food historians are stumped. But if Occam’s razor is to be believed, it’s probably because the dish is so deeply soothing that it makes a wonderful balm against hardship and grief. So live a little, and eat Georgian funeral rice.
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 12 oz. boneless lamb leg or loin (see footnote), trimmed and cut into ½-in. chunks
- 2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1½ cups short-grain rice such as Carnaroli or arborio
- 1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. caraway seeds, finely ground
- 1 Tbsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more for garnish
- 1 tsp. dill seeds (optional)
- ¾ cup dry wine (red or white)
- 3¼ cups lamb, beef, or chicken stock, or water, divided
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup coarsely grated pecorino or other hard sheep’s-milk cheese, plus more for garnish
Note: An equal weight of ground lamb, though nontraditional, may be substituted with excellent results.