Shila Pilav

Shila Pilav

Pilav is one of the hallmark of Eastern cuisine, particularly in Central Asia where in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan it is the main national dish and has even been added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Natives of the aforementioned countries make pilav for every holiday, while it has been mentioned numerous times in Arabic and Persian literature. Indeed, Avicenna wrote about the benefits of pilav in his works around a millennium ago.

Pilav and Georgia

In Georgia, there is a long tradition of preparing pilav, likely to have come through Persian influence over the centuries. In the Explanatory Dictionary of the Georgian Language that “pilav” is a Persian word, meaning a dish of rice or millet seasoned with clarified butter and herbs.

Shila pilav is pilav with mutton, and it seems plausible that Georgian shila pilav is also a remnant of Persian influence in Georgia. Pilav was first brought into Georgian cuisine in the eastern region of Kakheti.

Shila pilav has recently become a customary dish at mourning feasts (supras). The roots of this tradition are unclear. Shila pilav is the final dish served at a kelekhi (death anniversary) supra, and, according to a widely-observed rule, nobody is allowed to leave the table until it has been brought out. There is another rule observed that one spoonful of it must be eaten by each guest. Shila pilav is distributed to the deceased’s neighbors and close friends and family, as a means of connecting with their late friend or relative. 

There are many different variations of shila pilav in a traditional Georgian supra, including mushroom, chicken, and beef shila pilav, but the authentic form contains mutton with minced sheep’s tail.

Some sources attest that, not too long ago, shila pilav was also found at festive supras. Georgian poet Ioseb Grishashvili wrote that, after every holiday in Tbilisi, karachoghelebi (the members of local craftsmen unions in the Russian Empire times) would cook shila pilav in Ortachala Garden and would send it, along with jvrismama bread to prisoners and the poor, then distribute the rest to passers-by, and only then would they begin celebrating.

How to Make Shila Pilav

The main ingredient of pilav is, of course, rice. When sweet pilav is being made, long rice is used, but for shila pilav round rice is preferred. Crucially, the rice in shila pilav should be boiled for a long time to the point that it almost melts. The saying “chaplavda,” meaning “fallen apart” comes from this very process.

Shila pilav is easy to make, and even novices can make it well if they follow the recipe carefully. According to the traditional recipe, you will need:

1 kg mutton;

200 g finely-chopped sheep’s tail;

3 cups of round rice;

4-5 cloves of garlic;

7 cups of water;

3 bay leaves; and

Cumin, black pepper, powder of red chili pepper, and salt to taste.

Over a low flame, cooking shila pilav takes about an hour and a half.


Rinse the lean mutton in cold water and cut it finely. Put the finely-chopped sheep’s tail into a pot and fry it. Once the fat has come off, put the mutton in and continue frying. Add chopped onions and fry it so the onions and the meat do not change color or become brown. By doing so, the pilav will come out white.

As soon as the juice starts to dry, add rinsed rice, pour in boiling water, add the bay leaves, and keep boiling until the meat becomes very soft and the rice starts to fall apart. It is crucial to keep track of the pilav’s structure. If it is too thick, add meat broth to achieve the right thickness. Finally, season with cumin, salt, and black pepper. If you so desire, you can make the taste sharper by adding red chili powder. The pilav should be spicy and fatty, which are the defining characteristics that give the dish its renowned flavor and nutritiousness. 

Shila pilav can also be made with veal in the same way. When fasting, vegetable oil is used instead of butter, and the meat is replaced with mushrooms. Here it is best to use cinnamon mushrooms (also called forest mushrooms), because with other types of mushroom shila pilav would have a different color and the dish would taste very differently.

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