-Photo by author
-Photo by author
Biryani, to love or to love a little more?

If you are from the subcontinent, foodie or not, you may have asked yourself this question: What is it about biryani that we love so much?

The legendary Mumtaz Mahal may be credited for the modern day biryani, she believed that it was a complete food and was thus suited best for troop consumption every night, during wartime and peace. That is the story on modern day biryani, but where did it actually originate?

The word biryani comes from the Persian word birian, which means frying the food before cooking it, and by cooking this writer implies the process of dum, the traditional method to make biryani. History suggests that the method of dum and the name comes from Arab or Persian style of cooking, and may have travelled to the Indian subcontinent from Persia through Afghanistan, or from ancient Arabia to Kerala through the Arabian Sea with Arab traders. Nonetheless in Persian, birian means frying before cooking, hence the method to cook biryani.

Today, we boil the rice before the process of dum but historically when biryani was prepared the unwashed rice was initially fried in butter or ghee, before boiling. It was believed that frying the rice gave it a nutty flavor and also burnt the starch gelatinising the outer layer of the rice.

Separately, a lamb leg was set to sit in a marinade of curd, spices and papaya and then cooked to tenderness. Once the meat was cooked, it was layered with the half-cooked rice, garnished with droplets of rose water, saffron and mace, these spices gave it an almost flowery and royal essence, and then sealed in a handi and set on low flame until the rice was fully cooked and plumped, and ready to be served.

Biryani has variations from different regions of the subcontinent, all claiming that their twist on it is the best. Recent history of biryani dating to the 18th and 19th century tells us many a stories as to how the rice dish gained popularity far and wide in the region. Lucknow, was called Awadh and since the Mughuls were ruling at the time, the royal palace introduced us to the Awadhi Biryani. It is also said that before the advent of Mumtaz Mahal, the grand daughter-in-law of the great Akbar, he made Asfa Jahi the Nizaam of the great state of Hyderabad. The Nizaam wanted his state to own the royal dish thus, he had his kitchen give it a twist and the outcome is the legendary Hyderabadi Biryani. Tipu Sultan of Karnataka spread the biryani to Mysore, giving us the Mysoree Biryani, but the most special biryani may be the one that does not have meat, the nawabs of the region hired vegetarian cooks to create the meatless biryani and thus Tahiri came into being.

The people of central Asia lay claim to this dish also and believe that it was Tehmur Lung who brought biryani to North India from Kazakhstan through Afghanistan.

Despite all the different twists to the dish, like the Sindhi Biryani with potatoes, the Memoni Biryani with teez masala, the Kacha Goshat Biryani that is cooked in garam masala spices without tomatoes and the Bho-ri Biryani, very popular in Karachi and Bombay, it is actually Lucknow that lays ultimate claim to it. The Awadhi Dum Biryani is a gift that the Muslims of the Mughul era gave to the northern part of India. The specialty of the Awadhi Dum Biryani is that the meat is also half-cooked like the rice, and the dish is brought to cooking perfection through the dum pukth style of cooking, almost like the ancient times when berian was buried in the ground and cooked to perfection.

I want to share with you a twist on biryani called Hara Masala Biryani. It cooks to perfection; the taste is royal and the aroma Mughlai. I recently ate it at Imran Qureshi’s and Aisha Khalid’s house, in the historic city of Lahore. The first bite of this biryani put me in food heaven, and my gracious hosts offered me tips on this style of biryani, to which I added my love for food, experience, research and some ingredients, conjuring it up for a birthday dinner. It was an instant hit. Here it is from my kitchen to yours:

Hara Masala Biryani

Ingredients:

1 bunch cilantro (hara dhanya)
1 bunch mint (pudina)
10 serrano peppers (hari mirch)
15 blanched almonds (badaam)
2 ½ tbs coconut powder (narial)
1tbsp ginger garlic (lasan, adrak)
1 cup yogurt (dahi)
1 ¼ chicken (approximately 19 to 20 pieces)
3 medium size red onions (laal piyaz)
½ cup to 1/3 cup oil
Salt to taste
½ cup water
3 red potatoes
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp kewra water
½ tsp garam masala powder
2 mugs of Basmati rice

Method:

Slice onions thinly and fry in hot oil until golden brown, set aside half of the fried onions and add ginger garlic and chicken to the other half. Cook on high heat for a few minutes.

In a blender, blend cilantro leaves, mint leaves, green peppers, ½ cup water, blanched almonds, coconut powder, once blended add the green mixture, yogurt and salt to the chicken. Now add peeled and halved potatoes, cooking on high to medium heat, add a little water if masala looks to dry. Cook until oil separates and the chicken and potatoes are tender.

In a separate pot (colander) boil 8 to 10 mugs of water, adding bay leaf, 10 to 15 black peppercorns, 5 to 10 cloves, 5 green cardamoms, 1 black cardamom, 1 cinnamon stick bringing it to boil.

Now add pre-soaked rice to the boiling water keeping the rice to tender crisp phase, still offering resistance to the bite but cooked through, since we cook the rice completely in the dum phase.

Drain rice, layer the pot with rice, layer with chicken and masala, add the second layer of rice, sprinkle garam masala powder, fried onions, kewra water, seal pot with foil and lid. Notching full heat for 5 minutes and medium to low heat for 15 to complete the dum.

Let sit for 10 minute, and serve.

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