Thursday, December 03, 2009

Biryani to Kill and Die for

The city my dear mummy comes from in India, Hyderabad, is famous for two things: bangles and biryani.

Biryani is a type of Indian rice dish that consists of a delicious layer of spiced meat covered by a layer of rice, sprinkled with saffron and steamed. The following recipe is the extra fancy version:

Ingredients for 4-5 people:
1/2 kilo lamb (or chicken)
250 gr basmatic rice
1 large onion, or 2 medium ones
1 cup yoghurt
3 garlic cloves minced
about a tablespoon of grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup of chopped coriander and 1/2 cup chopped mint (important, you can't cut corners here, it has to be fresh coriander not the seeds. Ask your local laiki or central veggie market near Omonia)
2 chopped red or green chillies
Olive oil
a generous pinch of saffron soaked in three tablespoons of warm milk
handful of cashew nuts (optional)
6-7 dried plums or dried apricots (optional)

Spice mix:
1/2 tsp chilli powder - or more if you like it spicy
1/2 tsp tumeric
1 1/2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
2 cloves, pounded
2 cardamom pods shelled and seeds ground to powder
1/2 inch piece of pounded cinnamon or 1/2 tsp ground
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 bay leaf, broken into pieces and pounded as fine as you can
Salt to taste

Cut the lamb into bite-sized piece. If you have lamb on the bone, toss the bone in too. It gives extra flavour. In a bowl, mix the yoghurt and the spice mix along with the garlic, ginger, mint, coriander and chillies. Toss in the lamb pieces and mix everything nicely, salt to taste. Leave overnight if you can or a few hours, but if you don't have time you can move on to the next step.

Finely chop the onions and set a frying pan with some olive oil over a medium high heat. Try to get the onions nice and fine, because you're going to be browning them so it's less of a hassle if they are uniformly cut so that they cook uniformly too. Fry the onions in batches until golden brown, but not burnt. Like with curries, this is the secret.

This is where the depth comes from. Don't let your onions look anaemic, they should look like they spent a day at the beach rubbing baby oil on themselves. You'll recognise this from the yummy smell they release - if they start turning too brown the smell turns acrid.

Drain your fried onions on some kitchen paper. In a heavy-based pot big enough to contain the meat and rice, add some oil and toss in the lamb with the yoghurt. Cook on a medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring now and then, and add the fried onions. Cook everything on a medium heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring to avoid sticking. You'll notice everything start to get nice and juicy and dark as the fried onions break down and the yoghurt thickens.

Cook until the lamb is tender and switch off the heat. If using the plums and cashew nuts, add them about 5 mintues before switching off the heat. Don't use them if you're not a fan of mixing sweet and salty, but I love it, this is how my mum does it. It's not overwhelming, you get a burst of pluminess with random bites.

The meat mixture shouldn't be too watery, but it shouldn't be dry either. Somewhere in the middle. The lamb piece should be about 1/2 poking out of the liquids. Check for salt. It was at this stage that I remembered to take pictures. If you're wondering about the ring of dough, ignore that. I have a hassle free alternative to achieve the same thing further on. I was just showing off.

Take your basmati rice and give it a good wash in 3 changes of water. Add enough water to cover it, salt and boil on a medium heat for around 5 minutes. Drain the rice off and layer it over the meat mixture. Sprinkle your milk with saffron over the top. It will be a pale yellow. Ever eaten traffic light yellow biryani? That's usually food colouring.

Set over a medium heat and allow to come to the boil. Do not stir anything from now on. Take a towel and soak it under the tap. Wring it out, but not completely - juicy wet but not dripping. Wrap the lid of your dish containing the biryani in this wet cloth, as if you're gift wrapping. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, place the wrapped lid on top of the pan and if you have something heavy, weigh the lid down with that, like a marble mortar or a stone.

Leave undisturbed to cook on a low heat for 15 minutes. After the time is up, get a fork, crack open the lid and dive in to try the rice and see if it's cooked. Two important things here: 1) try not to faint with joy at the delicious aromas released when you break the steam seal 2) get in and out with your fork as quickly as possible and replace the lid. If your rice is not done, if will need to keep steaming and this will take longer if you let too much steam out.

When my mum was a little girl, her father would throw parties where cooks were hired to cook great big couldrons of biryani over coal fires. The traditional method of sealing the pot is with a ring of dough. This ensures absolutely all of the steam gets locked in to cook the rice, and the dough around the pot collects the best nutrients from the cooking rice and meat. A friend of my grandfather would volunteer to cook the biryani for parties so long as he got dibs on all the sealing dough afterwards. Personally I don't see the attraction. It tastes pretty awful.

And there you have it. Dig right in and enjoy this lucious, luxurious biryani. Mr Zeus didn't like it, I think it's too complicated in taste for him. But if anyone's interested I've got enough biryani for 4 people, so come on over!

Tips for success:

1) Make sure your salt levels are right. I'm still getting this wrong as the rice sets off a lot of the saltiness

2) To steam the rice, it's important to have a lid that fits snuggly onto the pot.

3) Once you've started steaming, resist your curiosity to crack open the pot and spoil the steaming. God knows I've been chased out of the kitchen by my spatula-wielding mother enough times as a child for sauntering over to a pot of rice and lifting the lid to take a peek.

4) Expect some stuff to stick to the bottom of the pot when steaming. You can reduce this by having a sturdy pot to start with as the heat distributes better. If you only have crappy pots with very thin bottoms, you can avoid too much burning by placing a frying pan on the heat and then your crappy pot on top of the frying pan. This makes the frying pan act as the bottom of the pot and the heat is distributed better.


Anonymous said...

Vile temptress!

Now I crave Biryani.

I thought of something some time back when you were blogging about your goody bags, and you reminded me of it again: bangles!

People love bangles. You could (if you had a way of acquiring them) have a whole range: glass, metal and so on, na?


Saigon & Baygon Inc. said...

OK, that's great, now I'm drooling.
The absence of international cuisine in this small provincial town is killing me.


Anonymous said...

In the picture it looks as if the sword is wanting Biryani. :p