If there is one, significant, food word that could define happy moments for me, it would be biryani. Beautiful, bountiful Biryani. Even the sound of the word is pleasing. A huge, catering sized platter took pride of place on a dining table for every birthday, engagement, wedding and christening. Most South Indians could chart their life’s course with plate or banana leaf piled with biryani. I cannot recall the names of the many weddings I attended while living in India, but the ones that recall to memory in an instant are those where the biryani was outstanding.
Like Natasha’s cousin’s wedding. Her parents let me take her on my 50cc gearless scooter, to the venue which was half an hour out of Kozhikode, the town I was living in. Though we didn’t make it for the ceremony, we were in excellent time for the food. The house was situated at a hillside, with plenty of stepped land around it. Tables and chairs were arranged higgledy piggledy, wherever one could be squeezed. Banana leaves were placed in front of you as soon as your posterior hit the seat. Out came a man, wearing a dhoti (white Indian sarong) and a shirt, carrying practically a bucket of biryani in one hand, and a side plate in the other. Using this plate, biryani was heaped onto your leaf, swiftly followed by chumundi (coarse coconut chutney), pickles, raiti and papadum by another bloke right behind him. Man No. 3 filled your glass with warm water. On this would go, steady as an assembly line. Seconds were encouraged, even bellowed for.
That biryani I shall never forget. Made in the famed, Kerala Thalassery style, refined to an art by the Muslim cooks particularly, the rice was tinged a mild, eau de nil green due to the concentration of fresh coriander. The grains glistened with flavoured ghee, stood separate from it’s neighbours but harmoniously came together under the pressure of greedy fingers. The masala was hot and almost ‘tart’ with the flavour and heat of green chillis and black pepper, heady with fresh coriander, perfumed with cassia bark, clove and cardamom. The meat was so succulent, falling apart in hot strips. As you dug your fingertips under the rice, you could feel the lightness of the tender grains, puffed and full of the masala flavours.
In the aftermath of that meal, Nat and I sat under a coconut tree in the heat of the tropical Kerala sun, us two with swollen bellies from gorging on double rounds of that biryani, sweating while drinking hot, sweet chai to finish it all off, incapable of even thinking but feeling so utterly satisfied; it was the best biryani coma ever! That wedding is one of my fondest Indian memories. Not only for the visuals it conjures up on that hillside, but the scents, the taste, the feel and being with a like minded friend. An all round experience.
I could waffle on about biryani stories for ages. Like when my mum flew into the worst winter Scotland had seen in decades and me waking up at 3 am, the morning after she arrived, to the smell of a biryani masala cooking. I maintain she’s bonkers, but she would justify it saying it was 7am in Abu Dhabi. That would effectively mean biryani for brekkie in either country. In fact, I think I ate her chicken biryani three days straight and with renewed greed at each serving. She knew it was just what I needed. Which makes me as bonkers as her.
And yet for all the passion I have for this Indian wonder of a dish (well not technically Indian as it came to India by way of the Moghul Persians, who brought their amazing ‘dum’ technique and in which cuisine, rice has a royal hold), I could never bring myself to cook it. I could and will bore you to tears verbally dissecting the finer nuances of a Malabari biryani, but didn’t have the guts to make it myself. It could only set me up for bitter disappointment. How can you recapture the very scent of your mother’s famous biryani or the love and work that went into it? Although not complex, biryanis are lovers of hard core labour. There may be some things that are better off left in another’s capable hands.
But this is the start of a new year and with that comes new challenges. I figure I’d do well to start in an area where I just might have a little advantage and that would be the kitchen. So biryani was top of the list and apple pie followed swiftly under, but that’s another post. I have foodie pals who have made my mother’s recipe several times over, posted about it, sung its praises and shook their heads when I confirmed, again, that I haven’t made it…yet. Well, ‘yet’ is long overdue and it has become Now, today in fact. I made my mother’s Malabari Chicken Biryani and it was a cracker! It was close, very close to my mother’s, close enough to make me very happy. And that qualifies for a blog post.
I’ll tell you right now, that this isn’t going to be a bung in the pan sort of job. There are stages but it can be divided over two days. In succint terms, a curry or masala is made and then layered with a pulao in a large pot with a heavy lid, and left on a low flame, until steam rises from the top. That’s the bare basics of a biryani. What makes it special is the flavour of the masala. Every part of India has it’s own interpretation. Here I give you the most common combination for the Malabar Coast. It’s heady with fresh coriander, it’s the main player, followed by whole garam masala spices like cardamom, cassia bark and cloves. Ginger and garlic are used with abandon too. Other flavour notes are crisp fried onions dusted with garam masala powder, toasted cashewnuts, raisins and sometimes, fresh mint. Traditional accompaniments are a tart lime pickle – though my mother serves it with a freshly made date pickle, which would be more of a chutney in European terms- a freshly ground coconut, coriander and green chilli ‘chutney’, kinda like a fresh sambal and deep fried crisp urad dal pappadums. I like to offer a lime and salt dressed salad of sliced tomatoes and red onions to freshen things up. Raita or plain yoghurt are excellent too.
Lil Lassie is not a curry lover. She says she’s only half Indian so she only likes Indian food half as much! However, she attacked this plate with gusto as did her brother, both going for seconds after coming up for air. It was a proud Indian mama moment for me and I can now see why my mother busts out a biryani for us- her four kids – at the drop of a hat, without a birthday or anniversary in sight. Watching my kids eat something that I took a lot of care to prepare made me feel like they weren’t just nourishing their bodies, but their hearts as well. Biryani for me means love and happiness. And I think, they get that too.
The Patterned Plate - Malabar Chicken Biryani
Biryani’s are multi staged in nature. To get ahead, you can make the chicken masala the day before you want to serve the meal. The next day, heat the curry and layer as explained in the recipe below.
The quality of your spices are paramount here. There isn’t a lot in this recipe, but it is enough to perfume the rice, rather than overwhelm. So ensure you use the freshest whole spices you can get, rather than one that’s been lying in a jar for years! Seasoning it correctly makes such a difference too. Carefully season the food, and season well. The curry has to flavour all the rice, so add a touch more salt than required. Also if you have any leftover a great dish for the next day is stuffing a bell pepper with the biryani, topping with cheese (pleases kids) and bake in a moderate to hot oven until the pepper is tender. If you want to eat a portion as is, its better to steam it hot rather than microwaving! Though I tend to to the latter after adding some water to the bowl. And lastly, but importantly, do use ghee (basically clarified butter). It doesn’t burn and the flavour and scent it imparts is wonderful. I understand there are health issues with ghee, but as this biryani isn’t going to grace your table weekly, it’s worth using ghee.
Traditionally, copper lined, round bottomed dishes with a narrow neck and wide lip are the perfect vessel for ‘dhum’ or this kind of layered dishes that are finished off by steaming. As this won’t be widely available, try to use a narrow and tall dish like a stockpot, rather than a wide pan. It all helps.
For the wet masala:
3 big onions, finely chopped.
1 onion, finely sliced
4 cardomon pods, lightly crushed
3 whole cloves
1.5” cinnamon bark or cassia bark if you can get it.
1 scant teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1.5” piece of fresh ginger, crushed
1 whole garlic bulb, crushed
1 large bunch fresh coriander, chopped. 4 tbsp to be kept aside
6 green finger chillis, chopped (depending on the heat, you can add more, it will only taste good. If it’s mild, add more as it will impart a delicious flavour without the heat)
1 ½ cups full fat natural yoghurt at room temperature (low fat yoghurt will curdle)
1-1.25 kilo whole chicken, skinned and jointed into 8 pieces
6 raw, unsalted cashewnuts, ground to a fine paste
For the rice:
10 unsalted, unroasted cashew nuts
25 golden sultanas
¼ teaspoon garam masala powder
4 cups of basmati rice, washed and soaked in cold water for 15 min and strained
5 cups of boiling water
5 sprigs worth of fresh mint leaves chopped.
Ghee as needed
Heat 3 tablespoons of ghee on a low heat in a large saucepan/casserole and add the finely chopped onion to sweat until translucent.
Add the cardomom pods, cloves and cassia/cinnamon barks and saute for one minute until the fragrance hits you.
Add the cumin, turmeric, ginger garlic, fresh coriander, green chillies and saute´ on a low heat for 10 minutes until pulpy and mushy.
Turn up the heat and add the chicken pieces, toss in the masala and let cook for 5 minutes.
Lower the heat, add yoghurt, salt well and let the chicken cook until it’s almost done. The masala should be thick and fluffy with no pools of water. Add the cashew paste and let it cook for a minute. Taste it, it should be tangy, add lemon juice if it’s not. Take it off the heat.
While the chicken is cooking, get on with the rice.
Boil 5 cups of water.
In a largish saucepan, sauté the finely sliced onions until nicely golden brown and crispy. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and spread on a plate to cool and keep crisp. Sprinkle with garam masala.
Add the cashew nuts to the pan and fry until slightly brown and then add the raisins. When they puff up remove the nuts and raisins.
Put the drained rice into the pan and fry gently until the rice gets crispy but not coloured, around 5 minutes. Now pour the boiling water in, salt well and let it come to the boil. Put the lid on , reduce the heat to the lowest simmer and let the rice absorb all the water letting it cook till ¾ of the way done. Remove from the pan and spread on a non-stick sheet/ baking paper to stop the grains sticking together.
Now for the final stage
Take a large saucepan/stockpot. Spread a little of the masala, not the chicken at the bottom and spread half of the rice on top. Sprinkle half of the crispy onions, cashews and raisins along with ¾ of the chopped fresh coriander you have kept aside and the chopped mint.
Spread all the remaining chicken mixture on top of the rice in the pot.
Top the chicken with the remaining rice and strew the rest of the cashews, raisins, onions, coriander and mint.
Cover the pan tightly, sealing with foil if necessary and then the lid and place on a low flame, preferably over a heat diffuser, until you can see some steam rising out of the top*, anywhere from 30-40 minutes. Leave to steam for another minute, then turn off the heat.
Take off the lid and quickly place a tea towel over the rice and place the lid back on. The towel helps absorb excess moisture so that the rice at the top doesn’t turn soggy. and let it sit for half an hour before serving.
Serve with chutney/pickle, raita and pappadums
*If it’s getting close to that time and you cannot see the steam, lift the lid a crack and check that the underside of the lid is wet. If so, it’s done.