Pilau has been a big part of my life for the last dozen years or so. Where I live, it is the go-to dish for many situations: weddings, funerals, a fancy dinner, or just a casual lunch. It’s served by wealthy people and poor people alike. There are for or five key ingredients, and (very rarely) a few other things that can be added.

From the description above, an optimist might infer that pilau is a great democratic leveler, but of course the opposite is true. There’s not a lot of variation in the ingredients and their proportions, but there’s tremendous variation in quality. I’m not an expert, but I think it basically comes down to the quality of the rice, the quality of the meat, and the quality of the oil. It’s easiest for a westerner to pay attention to the quality of the meat; it took me several years to appreciate quality rice; and I’m now beginning to think that the oil is in fact the key to the whole thing.

Here you must imagine a foreigner eating pilau several times a month for seven or eight years, mostly as a guest of people in modest circumstances, or in less-expensive restaurants.

Then several years ago I was tasked with putting on a meal for a large group of people. A favorite Turkish restaurant had on its menu a whole stuffed, roasted lamb—for something like $150 – $200. It was too much for a family, or even several families, but since I had a large crowd to feed, I decided to satisfy my curiosity.

It was glorious—like every medieval feast I ever saw in movies growing up. (It’s amazing how proud one can be of a piece of meat.) The meat was delicious. The body cavity was stuffed with rice, and the rice was cooked perfectly. I would love to know how they did it. We were served a large helping of rice and as much meat as we wanted. Looking at the rice and the lamb, I realized that this was the culinary ancestor of pilau.

The memory of that meal came to mind earlier this week, when I was eating the best pilau I’ve ever had in this country. The pilau was bountiful: a tremendous quantity of meat, served on the bone but coming off easily with a spoon. The air was warm, but we were in the shade, and there was a light breeze. The conversation was good. We ran into people. Everything was perfect: the platonic ideal of pilau. The thought that kept coming to mind was, “This is what pilau is supposed to be; this is what they’re all aiming for.”

(I can’t be sure, but my hunch is that the oil is key: the best pilau gets its oil from the fat, whereas lesser pilau is made with cheap vegetable oil. At least one famous variety of pilau is made with sesame oil, and that would of course be a different matter.)

People like David Hume are skeptical about the existence of platonic ideals, because they believe that all knowledge is derived from sensory experiences. Individual experiences are bundled together because of association, but are not connected (even by hypothesis) to real, abstract entities. This is a difficult position to refute, because on the one hand you can explain quite a lot by reference to sensory input and associative learning, and on the other hand it’s quite difficult to give a careful account of what platonic forms there might actually be.

I know of just a few descriptions in literature of people who realize a platonic ideal—C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle, and J.R.R. Tolkien in Leaf by Niggle. In both cases, the experience takes place in the afterlife.

I advance my lunch as a tentative example from the real world. After years—years—of eating pilau that was mediocre or uninspiring, I finally had true pilau. No previous sensory experience had prepared me for it. I had no sense that there was something to pilau I had been missing. But when I found the real thing, I was immediately able to understand everything that I had experienced before in relation to that new ideal, and indeed became comprehensible to me as a striving after an ideal of which I had previously had no experience.

So it goes without saying that there will be pilau in heaven.