Toasted Rice Pilaf

A couple years ago my sister-in-law brought me the most incredibly fragrant bag of spices from Syria. I sent her off with a wish list, and she totally scored for me! The only thing missing is the mysterious deep blue spice I’ve see only in pictures, but which I am now convinced is laundry detergent. After listening to the news this week, it occurred to me that it will probably be a while until they go again…so I thought I would revisit my stash.
spice 3
First, I got several blends of Za’tar, a Middle Eastern spice blend popular in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordon, Syria, and North Africa. It is commonly mixed with olive oil and used as a dip for bread or as a marinade. Each spice merchant has his own blend, but they generally contain sesame seed, thyme, sumac, dill, anise, and oregano. The recipe this week uses this blend.

I also got Sumac, a tiny berry from a shrub (rhus coriaria) that grows throughout Sicily, Southern Italy, and Iran. Its berries are prized for their sour, astringent taste. Sun-dried and shriveled, they are ground into a purple powder and used to flavor meat for grilling, stews, rice, and sauces. It’s an important ingredient in the za’atar blend. Use it as a rub on lamb for kebabs.

Also in my goody bag was a handful of Malheb, a spice made from the pits of a very tart black cherry (prumus mahaleb) that are ground into flour. The flavor is a bit fruity, with some characteristics of marzipan (a characteristic not surprising, as cherries are cousins to the almond). Mahleb is well known in the cuisines of Greece, Lebanon and Armenia. The flour is used to thicken meat and vegetable stews, lentils, and is incorporated into breads. I like it in sweets too.

This recipe is simple and designed to highlight exotic spices. But even without them, it’s a special dish. The toasting of the rice before the liquid is added provides a deep, rich, nutty flavor.


1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sweet red pepper, diced fine
2 TB. Za’tar spice blend
2 cups basmati rice
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup sliced almonds
4 cups water
1/4 cup chopped parsley


  1.  In a large, wide-bottomed sauté pan or soup pot, heat vegetable oil. Add onion, garlic, and sweet red pepper, and sauté until translucent.
  2. Add spice and rice, and stir to coat with oil. Toast on high heat until rice begins to turn golden brown and spices become fragrant.
  3. Add raisins, almonds, and water, and bring to a boil. At the boil, turn heat down to a bare simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes or until water is absorbed and rice is tender.
  4. Serve topped with chopped parsley.
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