Biryani means to me what a roast dinner might been to a Brit – it’s the ultimate comfort food without any guilt. Warm, fragrant, reminiscent of the comfort of beautiful Pakistani houses with marble verandas, airy rooms where the singular ceiling fan brought sacred cool breeze to a stifling humid afternoon – these were much like the Sunday afternoon’s at Dadijaan’s (paternal gran) home – nothing was ever to difficult to create for lunch. With 5 aunts and my grandmother instructing I was always in awe of how some many women worked so well together in a small sweltering kitchen. Was it the love of cooking, food, eating or family. I think I learnt with time it was a combination of all – but in my family, it was always more about the creativity of a dish than just the eating. With strong a Uttar Pardesh Lucknowi background which is proudly deep rooted Muslim culture and steeped in deep literary, intellectual and culinary heritage – the ladies on my Dad’s side of the family grew up with a skill of cooking that is most unlike the rest of North India – it’s rich in Persian and Mughal influences techniques of cooking initial flavour enhancers such as onions, garlic ginger well, smoking meats, using rich decadent spices – all historically inherited by the royal cuisine of the Mughal emperors. I learnt a lot of my cooking from them and from my mother who quickly took on this style of cooking (she being a Punjabi, had a very different style!) – But the Lucknowi style soon took over – and has ever since been my guideline for cooking Pakistani food. No matter how I innovate, the techniques remain my starting point. Funnily enough this was reaffirmed when I cooked for Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation TV show and the recipes for her cookbook she noticed my Lucknowi style and commented on it! I believe though this recipe is a combination of that style and my influences of Pakistani cookery – this recipes borrows much from the famous spicy Sindhi biryani, the province I was born and raised in.
Coming back to biryani – a meal on it’s own – its a curry with rice and the experience of all the aromas that escape the steam as you open the seal, it’s like opening a treasure chest of jewels..I believe that most people think that Pakistani food is all about meat – yes it may be the dominant choice but if you think about how expensive meat is for most people in Pakistan, many prefer to use fresh season vegetable to make a biryani. This is a light, fragrant and healthy alternative and goes beautifully with my Beetroot and Jaggery raita. This is based on my grandmother’s basic biryani recipe and you can substitute any of the vegetables with seasonal ones – if using aubergines, I would suggest grilling them and add after as a garnish. My best memories of growing up in Pakistan are always filled with the aromas that fill the room as you open the sacred seal of the biryani and the enticing steams rises out of the saucepan – not only confirming that the biryani is ready, but that you are in for one sensual and sensory experience. My signature topping of pistachios, rose petals and pomegranate adds an exotic addition as well – it’s festive but it’s wholesome.
Serves: 10 people buffet style, as a main
Prep and cooking time: about 60-90 minutes
300 g rice, washed and soaked in tap water for 30 minutes, then par-boiled in hot boiling salty water for only 2-3 minutes
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp Ghee
2 large onions, peeled and cut into half moons
1 ½ tsp garlic paste
1 ½ tsp ginger paste
4 tomatoes, chopped
300 g natural yoghurt
1 tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp turmeric
1 bunch fresh methi (fenugreek), washed and chopped (you can substitute with dried methi, but only use about 2-3 tsp)
A handful of green beans, cut into two pieces,
1 potato, peeled and chopped into small squares
100 g shelled peas
200 g chopped spinach
1 large green capsicum/pepper, de-seeded and chopped into medium squares
salt to taste
For adding when layering:
1 bunch or coriander leaves, chopped
10-12 mint leaves
1 lemon sliced thinly
1 pinch of saffron, soak in hot water for 15 minutes
3-5 green chillis, chopped finely
Whole Garam Masalas:
1 cinnamon quill
10 green cardamoms
1 large black cardamom
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp peppercorn
A handful of pistachios, pomegranate, coriander leaves and rose petals
- Heat vegetable oil and 2 tbsp ghee in a saucepan with the tight fitting lid add all the whole garam masalas until fragrant, be sure not to burn. The add onions and cook until translucent. Add ginger and garlic and fry until the raw smell of ginger and garlic leaves the pan (about 2-4 minutes) Do not allow to get brown. Add a splash of water to ensure that nothing gets burned and keep on medium heat. Add tomatoes and fry until they cook down. Add yoghurt and keep stirring until the oil leaves the curry. Add salt, turmeric and red chilli powder.
- Now add all the vegetables and cook until mixed well.
- Top the vegetable curry with coriander leaves; mint and green chilli and then layer par-boiled rice on top of the vegetable curry spread evenly. Top with coriander, mint and green chili again and also pour the 1 tbsp of ghee (melted), shove in some lemon slices, pour over saffron and cover tightly with foil and then the pan’s lid.
- Keep on very low heat, and allow to cook in it’s own steam for 20-30 minutes.
- Once done, open up the biryani, serve in a dish and sprinkle the garnish! Serve hot with raita