The Biriani-phile

My love affair with the Biriani started early in life. I love crafting a Biriani. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than serving a fragrant grain for grain, culinary work of art. It is an easy one dish meal, a favourite with most, that looks deceptively complicated, and can be served with a bowl of raitha and a sweet mango chutney.

Some Sundays, my Dad would drive down to the Islamic Restaurant in Singapore for their signature dish, the Biriani. This lingers in my memory, as a Persian, good looking, fragrant variant of the look-a-likes that I have met subsequently. The needle thin, long grained, aromatic rice, fell grain for grain, on the plate with an invisible tinkle, as its aroma filled the house. The dazzling, white of the rice was streaked artistically with the yellow from random strands of saffron, while the thick gravy enveloped the succulent pieces of meat cooked to perfection. Crisp fried onion roundels, cashew nuts and raisins lay as a colourful garnish on top of the Biriani. The finished rice dish was NOT an unappetising homogenous colour. The rice that fell on your plate had white bits of rice, saffron bits of rice and meat bits that belonged happily together. It was a piece of Art.

I am a compulsive Biriani cook. On Sundays. unless I am gagged and tied to the top of a tree like Cacaphonix, of the Asterix Comic series, I will be found in my kitchen crafting a Biriani. I have stood on my head, trying to recreate the Islamic Restaurant Biriani of Singapore. I am close, but not really there.

Some Birianis that I have met in later years have been an unappetising homogenous colour , more like rice mixed clumsily in a curry. The Chicken in the Biriani sits in the Biriani, indifferent, detached and in total disdain, as if it had nothing to do with the rice it was buried in . The meat lacks flavour, because in most restaurants the meat would have been boiled separately, only with salt and pepper and thrown into different gravies, when assembled.

Mutton Biriani

I kg Mutton…750 gms boneless and 250 gms with bone. Each piece should weigh around 50-75 gms.
Use 1 kg of mutton mince if it is for a party, to avoid savage gnawing of bones in public. Add a 1/4 kg of mutton-with-bone for flavour, if you are using Mutton mince. Mutton mince works well for kids as they do not waste meat on the bones.

1 Kg Basmati Rice,

Ginger garlic paste…1/4 cup
8-10 slit green chillies
2 large ripe red tomatoes quartered
1/4 cup finely chopped mint leaves
1/2 cup finely chopped coriander leaves
4 large onions sliced thin
Thick yoghurt …1 cup
2 tsp Kashmiri Chilli powder
Turmeric 1 tsp
Juice of 2 big limes
4 large Potatoes sliced round and thin, soaked in salted water
Oil..1/4 cup
Ghee..2 Tbsp taste
2 pieces of cinnamon, 1 inch each, 10 cloves, 8 pods of cardamom, 2 Anise seeds, 2 Bay leaves. For parties, use 1 tsp Garam Masala Powder to spare guests the embarrassment of spitting out whole spices onto their plates.
1/4 cup cashewnuts
1/4 cup raisins

1. Marinade the meat in the fridge overnight if possible, with the Ginger-garlic paste, yoghurt, chilli powder, turmeric, salt and 1 tsp lime juice. If not, marinade for at least 1 hour.

2.Soak the Biriani Rice when you start the Biriani. The longer you soak the rice, the longer the grains become and shorter the cooking time.

3. To cook the Mutton, use the pressure cooker.

4. Heat 1/2 cup of peanut oil.
Add the whole garam masala spices.
Add the thinly sliced onions and caramelise them.
Remove 1/2 of the fried onions and keep aside for later.
Add the slit green chillies to the onions in the pressure cooker. Add the mint and coriander leaves and fry.
Add the tomatoes and let it cook.
Add the marinaded meat and stir well till the yoghurt blends with the gravy.
Close the pressure cooker and let the meat cook for 4 whistles depending on how tender the meat is. Let the pressure come down on its own to open. Do not force it open with water baths.

After opening the pressure cooker , check how much gravy you have, to determine how well the rice should be cooked. If the gravy is watery, cook the rice less. If it is thick, cook the rice more. The rice will continue to cook in the steam generated by the biriani. With experience your judgement will get better.

To cook the Rice.
Boil 8-10 cups of water, salt and 1 tsp lime juice, 2 tsp of oil, 1 piece of cinnamon, 4 cloves and 4 cardomoms and 2 anise seeds in a large pan.
Add the soaked and drained rice to the boiling water.
Do not cook the rice more than 3/4 done. The rice will continue to cook in the oven.

Potato base
Meanwhile, slice the potatoes, round and fairly thin.
Soak the potatoes in salt water to prevent discolouration.
Layer the bottom of the pan with the drained potatoes.
Sprinkle salt on the potatoes.
The layer of potato will prevent rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan and any excess of oil /ghee will trickle down to roast the potatoes to a tasty crispy “s’more please”, that kids and adults will fight over.
Keep the prepared pan over a low flame as you layer the Biriani. This will help start the browning of the potatoes.

To layer the Biriani,
Keep the boiling rice, cooked meat and the oven worthy pan with the layered potatoes close to each other for ease of handling.
Do not strain all the rice together.
Strain the boiling rice in batches with a sieve, to alternate with the cooked meat, so that the less cooked rice that is removed early, becomes the bottom of the Biriani and will not get overcooked.
As the rice is boiling , start with a layer of rice to cover the layer of potato and add alternate layers of cooked mutton ‘n’ gravy and lightly sprinkled sieve full of boiling rice.
Do not pack or press the rice down. This will make the rice gooey and cake-y.
Sprinkle the caramelised onions, mint and coriander,between the layers of rice and meat.
Finish with a layer of rice.

Drizzle a Tbsp of melted Ghee or butter on the top of the last layer of rice.
Sprinkle saffron softened in warm milk on the top of the rice.
Do not press the rice down.

Seal the Pan with silver foil and place in a preheated oven at 200 degrees Centigrade for 30-40 mts.

Remove the pan from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before opening. If it is well done, the rice on the top will curl upwards slightly.

Do NOT use a spoon. Do NOT stir. Do NOT mix the Biriani.
Invert the Biriani into a larger dish so that the crisp roasted potatoes come on the top and the rice and meat fall down on its own.

Serve garnished with fried onions,fried cashewnuts, fried raisins, finely chopped mix of mint and coriander leaves.

Use a saucer to cut through the biriani from the top to the bottom of the pan to serve. DO NOT STIR. This way, there will be white bits of rice, yellow saffron coloured rice , succulent chunks of meat covered with gravy, and roasted roundel potatoes in every serving, on every plate.

There a zillion ways to Biriani. This is what has worked well for me over the years.

For my vegetarian guests I substitute the meat with Cottage Cheese or Paneer, cut into thick squares and fried. Cooked exactly the same way.

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