Biryani is a dish for sharing - and debating
Once you know the basics, it's also quite doable at home.
For my recipe lovers":
Friday nights are takeaway nights in my household – there’s simply not enough steam in the parent engine to cook one more meal. The challenge, of course, is ordering something that everyone will eat. Last year, I cracked it: we started ordering biryani.
The fluffy, yellow-tinged aromatic rice at the top, sitting among a bed of boiled eggs, was perfect for my spice-hating toddler. The juicy, almost-falling-apart pieces of lamb loved by my “I need to eat meat everyday” husband.
As for me, nothing satisfies my Indian soul more than a bowl of rice. But what I loved the most was that there were almost always enough leftovers for Saturday lunch. One more meal conundrum solved!
Biryani is a celebration of all that is great about Indian food
Growing up, biryani was not something we ate regularly or cooked at home. That’s because it tastes best when cooked slowly, ideally in a large copper handi over a wood fire.
Imagine: a heady aroma of whole spices slow-cooking, the vibrant colour of marinated meat cooking in its own juices, and long grains of rice bringing everything together. Digging around a big pot of biryani for that perfectly succulent piece of lamb before someone else steals it.
Not quite the same experience when cooked at home in small quantities.
My grandpa, the OG food connoisseur, taught me that if there was a party worthy of biryani, it had to be ordered from Jaffer Bhai’s Delhi Darbar on Grant Road, Mumbai. While Jaffer Bhai – fondly known as the Biryani King of Mumbai – passed away in 2020, his restaurant established in 1973 continues to serve biryani that’s consistently out of this world.
Biryani is a dish that both unites and divides
It’s widely believed that biryani has its origin in Persia, and was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by the Mughals.
Legend has it that Queen Mumtaz Mahal once visited her army troops only to find out the soldiers were undernourished, so she asked the cooks to create a dish that featured both meat and rice and what originated was biryani. Lucknow, a city in Uttar Pradesh, claims to be the home of biryani – though in typical Indian fashion, so do Kolkata and Hyderabad.
In a country where the food you eat changes every 100km, biryani is a dish we all eat, and one that continues to evolve.
Hyderabadi, Mumbai, Awadhi, Thalasserary – there are so many different styles. Some made with lamb, others with chicken or fish. Keralan communities use short grain rice, Bengali's add potato, Mumbaikars like their biryani with more gravy - the list goes on.
Go to any Indian party, and you’ll find a middle-aged uncle or aunty making the case for how the biryani they ate from such-and-such place is actually the best one there is.
Is vegetarian biryani still biryani?
Biryani’s signature flavour comes from its “pakki-dum-pukht” style of cooking. Dum pukht literally translates to “breathe and cook” in Hindi and pakki stands for ripe or already cooked. Unlike pulao, where both meat and rice are cooked together, biryani is layered.
The meat goes in first, followed by a layer of fried shallots and saffron water – and fried cashews if you want to go all out – which is followed by rice. When cooking for big crowds, the layers would be repeated twice or even thrice depending on the depth of your utensil before being sealed with a simple dough and being slow-cooked a final time. The idea is that the steam produced by the layers of meat gravy rise, further tenderising the meat and rice, and then condenses, keeping everything in the pot from drying out.
Does that still work if there is no meat and therefore no meat stock?
This is another area that’s up for debate. One camp maintains that biryani made without meat is most definitely pulao, while the other soldiers make all sorts of variations cooking biryani with vegetables and sometimes with egg or even paneer.
Cooking biryani at home
I’m not sure why I resisted making biryani at home for so long. It’s likely the long ingredient list and multiple stages of cooking. Also, I have no patience for making dough that’s solely used to seal steam.
My mind block melted when I came across a food blog that rather inaccurately simplified biryani to “meat cooked with your favourite spicy curry sauce baked with a layer of rice.” The Indian food snob in me was horrified while the Kiwi cook in me appreciated the simplicity.
If you want to make a biryani that’s as close to the real thing as possible, you can’t escape the multiple stages of cooking, but there are hacks to make life easy. Our Dolly Mumma Biryani Box is definitely one of them.
Some other hacks include buying pre-marinated Tandoori lamb from my local Pakistani butcher, hunting for Shan Biryani Masala and smoking my biryani using a dutch oven and foil. Though haters will say that replacing the lamb with chicken is not "authentic" that does also cut down on cooking time.
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Lamb biryani made easy
Ingredients (for 6-8 servings)
1kg lamb on the bone
1/2 bottle Dolly Mumma Tandoori Paste
Salt to taste
For the biryani rice
Dolly Mumma Biryani Rice Pack
300-350gm long-grain basmati rice (ideally aged)
2 tbsp cumin seeds
3-4 bay leaves
5-6 star anise
2 tbsp ghee
Salt to taste
For the biryani gravy
2-3 tbsp ghee
1 jar Dolly Mumma Indian Everyday Paste
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 can of chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp fenugreek leaves (optional)
Layering the biryani
1 pinch saffron or 1 pinch turmeric powder
50 ml warm milk or hot water
100-150gm birista (deep-fried sliced onion)
coriander to garnish
100-150gm deep-fried cashews
1 large piece of charcoal
Begin with the marination
Marinate the lamb with salt and the Tandoori Paste, ideally overnight.
Next comes the gravy
To make the gravy, warm up the ghee in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Fry the onion until golden brown. Add in the marinated lamb allowing it to sear on high heat until sealed.
Add in the Indian Everyday paste, tomato and fenugreek leaves. Mix everything well. Cover and cook in the oven, slow-cooker or on the stove until the lamb is close to falling apart. Biryani tastes best when the meat is falling apart so you must cook the lamb until completely tender.
When the lamb is cooked, cook the gravy until it's thick and dry. You don't want too much liquid.
Cook the rice
Wash the rice in a colander.
Heat the ghee in a saucepan. Add in the cumin seeds, bay leaves, star anise and cloves. Cook briefly on high heat until the spices release their aroma.
Add in the rice and top with water. Similar to cooking pasta, you want to cook the rice in excess water - this helps to make the rice grains cook separately.
After 15 minutes, check on your rice. When it's almost cooked, turn off the heat and strain all the water out. The rice will cook again later so make sure not to overcook it.
Now, let's layer the biryani
Warm up the milk/water and add in your saffron. The saffron gives the biryani a delicious aroma and your rice a lovely tinge of yellow. If you don't have saffron, substitute it with turmeric to still get the yellow rice. Note that your rice will not turn orange like the takeaway shops unless you use food colour.
Optional step: Make sure your cashews are fried, coriander is chopped and birista handy.
Using a dutch oven or a deep baking dish, begin with a layer of the biryani gravy. Top with rice.
Now sprinkle on some of the saffron or turmeric mixture, a fistful of birista and a sprinkle of coriander.
Repeat the layers until you reach the top. Finish by adding cashews and a final fistful of birista. Don't add coriander to the top, as the steam will make it an unappealing brown.
For added flavour, smoke the biryani (optional)
On an open flame, heat the piece of charcoal until red hot (about 7-10 minutes).
Take a small steel bowl and, using tongs, place the charcoal inside.
Make a small dent at the top of your baking dish and place the steel bowl.
Add the oil and quickly cover with a lid as the charcoal starts to smoke. Seal the edges with foil.
Place the dish in the oven and cook for a further 15-20 minutes at 150 degrees.
Serve with a yoghurt raita
Note: Adjust cooking times if replacing with chicken. If you'd like to make it vegetarian, consider using paneer or halloumi as well as some mixed vegetables.
This post was originally published in The Spinoff. I’m grateful to the Spinoff for their focus on having diverse voices be a part of NZ Media, especially in the area of food.