Are Perloo, Perlaw, and Purlieu the Same Thing?

However you spell it, this rice-based dish makes for a comforting meal.

Shrimp Perloo
Photo: Linda Pugliese; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Often times, a Southern dish, even a wildly popular classic, is more of a common concept than a strict recipe. That includes what we call it, or at least how to spell and pronounce what we call it.

Take perloo, for example. Or is it perlu, perlew, or purlieu, or perhaps pilaf, pilau, or pilaw? Call it what you will, the one-pot savory rice creation that, for the purposes of this story, we'll call perloo is a keeper.

What Is Perloo?

Many of us associate perloo with the Lowcountry cuisine found around Charleston and Savannah. Like many of the dishes created there, and the cooks with the expertise to have created them, perloo has West African roots.

We find dishes similar to perloo in other parts of the South as well, such as Louisiana jambalaya. There are similar dishes in other parts of the world, too, such as Spanish paella, South Asian pulao, Turkish pilav, Greek pilafi, and Indian biryani.

Wherever rice grows in great supply, or can be purchased inexpensively, there are sure to be resourceful rice-based recipes. Using rice to make meat, seafood, spices, and other more expensive ingredients go farther is a smart and popular way to feed a group of hungry people.

Within Southern communities where perloo is classic comfort food, there are nearly as many ways to prepare it as there are to spell it, although they all are one-pot meals that usually include meat, wild game, or seafood.

Cooks use flavorful stock or broth instead of water when making perloo, with the goal of the rice absorbing the liquid as it cooks so that the perloo doesn't turn out soggy or soupy. To that end, perloo recipes call for some type of long-grain rice so that the cooked grains remain separate and fluffy, as opposed to creamy risotto or clumping sushi rice.

Some variations of perloo are prized for the crust the rice forms on the bottom of the pot as it cooks, adding a bit of crisp texture to each serving, similar to what we seek in perfect paella or Persian tahdig.

We know that some of the original Charleston recipes for perloo yielded a dish that could be inverted out of the cooking pot for serving, revealing a dome of crisp, well-browned rice on top. Expert cooks prepared those perloos in three-legged cast-iron pots set over open flames. At serving time, they somehow inverted the hot, heavy pot to release the perloo onto a large platter in the center of the serving table. This type of perloo warranted a long-handled rice spoon that eaters used to serve themselves without having to move the heavy platter. Rice spoons had a deep bowl that scooped up some of the crisp crust and tender interior. That technique and presentation, although impressive, would be unrecognizable to cooks elsewhere in the South, who made perloo in ways that were never that fancy or fussy.

As with many classic Southern recipes, we've simplified and streamlined perloo over the decades. Technique still matters to ensure our perloo has the right texture when served, but it's not a difficult dish to make well. One-pot rice dishes are remarkably adaptable. Southern cooks create perloos that suit their tastes and ingredients, and along with local variations in the dish come variations in how to spell and pronounce the name of our creation. By any name, perloos are crowd pleasers, and we will never stop appreciating them.

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