There is a word in Indian cooking that used to send a chill down my spine every time it was uttered – biryani.

I was never suspicious of the biryani because it’s difficult to cook, but because it’s typically served as a main course. As a little girl, rice had always been a side dish for me – something to go with the daal or to soak up a sauce.

It didn’t matter if the rice was bland because there were other dishes on the table to perk it up. But when I discovered the world of biryani, there was a shift in balance – the rice had become the star of the show and everything it was cooked with had to taste good. If it didn’t, the whole dinner went to pot.

But now I’m a fully-fledged member of the biryani lovers club, I’m here to offer a lesson in how easy preparing it can really be, provided you know the basics.

Spice notes

Spice mixtures for biryanis tend to vary depending on the region in which they’re being prepared and the main ingredients going in. Some essentials include but are not limited to: Cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander seeds, black and green cardamom, bay leaves, mace and saffron.

Used sparingly, these spices infuse the rice and vegetables with the most wonderful aromas imaginable. Earthy, rich, spicy and perfumed, a true biryani should release all of these notes as soon as the lid has been lifted and the rush of steam escapes from within.

What I love about the finished dish are the flavours and smells of Southern Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa all coming together in one harmonious orchestra of edible goodness – it’s a tour of the East in a single bite.

The rice should always be basmati – an aromatic long-grain variety used to prepare almost every Indian rice dish. It’s even used in spiced rice puddings, unlike its western counterpart which favours short grain.

At home, cooking biryani has become somewhat of a ritualistic affair reserved only for special occasions and buttering up certain people. Every component needs to be prepared in advance: The vegetables and rice should be semi-cooked, the spicy sauce made and the nuts toasted.

Sound like a chore? Never forget that if you take your time and give your biryani some love, it will love you back tenfold.

Biri-what-ni?

Thousands of years ago, the Mughals introduced the Indian subcontinent to the science of cooking rice and vegetables (or meat) together. A beautiful Iranian dish quickly became something every Indian dadima (grandmother) excelled at, and every dadaji (grandfather) dreamt of being hand fed by his doting wife each evening.

Today, I’m stepping into dadima’s slippers and in true grandma style, passing my recipe on to you.

Now let’s talk about the one of the biryani’s most noteworthy ingredients, saffron.

Saffron school

-Use saffron sparingly. By weight, it’s the most expensive spice in the world and nobody can argue over prices when each crocus contains three single strands of pure saffron, handpicked by ever-patient and light-fingered saffron collectors.

-Beware of copycats. For years, saffron fakes have been abundant and it isn’t easy to tell whether you’ve been conned out of your pounds when they look so convincing.

-Always buy from a reputable spice dealer or stockist.

-To get the most out of your saffron, place it in a bowl and microwave it on high for 10-15 seconds to lightly toast it and dry it out (be VERY careful and keep a watchful eye on it). Gently rub it through your fingers when you add it to your dish and it will release heaps of extra flavour and colour. Magic.

3 tips for the perfect biryani

- Biryanis are traditionally cooked in clay pots – not only are these hard to come by, they’re also high maintenance. Without having to invest in one of these, I find that you can get similar results by cooking your biryani in a Dutch oven.

- Every biryani should be slow-cooked with a lid on. An old school trick to stop any steam escaping is to seal the lid with a ring of wheat flour dough. This type of cooking is known as dum cooking. Dum simply means ‘warm breath’ to connote the steam inside the pot. Once cooked, the dough seal is broken and the beautiful aromas are released – of course, the bread is eaten along with the biryani.

- Many people cook their biryanis on the stove, but I prefer to bake mine for the simple reason that the bottom of the dish tends not to burn as quickly as it would if it was placed on direct heat. If you prefer to use the stove top method, place your pan inside another, slightly larger pan filled halfway up with water (essentially a bain marie) to promote even cooking.

Controversially, I sauté my potatoes, onions and paneer separately, in a combination of ghee (clarified butter) and sunflower oil for added flavour before adding them to the biryani. I hear you heckling me for my flippant use of ghee but when you’re pouring yogurt and double cream into your sauce, you may as well go the whole hog and make an amazing biryani for a special occasion. I’ve never been one to skimp on the good stuff.

Classic Vegetable Biryani
(Serves 6)

Ingredients (all of these are available in supermarkets)

For the sauce:
400g passata
1 tbsp ground coriander seeds
5 green cardamom pods, seeds removed and ground
2 black cardamom pods, ground (optional)
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
1 ½ tbsp sugar
½-1 tsp red chilli powder
Pinch of ground mace (optional)
4 inch stick cinnamon, broken in half
1 bay leaf
3 cloves
1 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp ginger, minced
2 tbsp concentrated tomato puree
1 ¼ tsp salt
100ml double cream
3 tbsp plain yoghurt

For the rest of the biryani:

255g basmati rice
Pinch saffron
1 medium onion, sliced finely
½ aubergine, sliced into half moons
115g baby potatoes, quartered
100g paneer, cubed into 2cm pieces
5 French beans, trimmed and sliced
100g frozen peas
60g cauliflower florets, broken
10 cashews, toasted in a dry pan
2 tbsp flaked almonds, toasted in a dry pan
1 ½ tbsp desiccated coconut, toasted in a dry pan
1 tbsp golden sultanas
1 tbsp dried apricots, chopped into small pieces
2 tsp salt

Ghee and sunflower oil to fry

Method

1. Wash the rice in cold, running water to remove as much starch as possible. Allow to soak in a pan whilst you make the sauce.

2. Whisk together the passata, ground coriander, cardamom, cumin, chilli powder, mace, sugar, and salt. Heat the ghee in a large saucepan and add the cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf tomato puree, ginger and garlic. Sauté for a few moments, and then add the passata mixture. Stir and cover with a lid. Allow to simmer on a very low heat for 40-45 minutes, stirring often.

3. Heat the ghee and sunflower oil to shallow fry the vegetables one by one. Start with the onions, remove from the pan when golden, then in the same oil, shallow fry the aubergines (until 40% cooked), then the potatoes (until 80% cooked), and then paneer until golden all over. Set aside.

4. Boil the rice in plenty of hot water and 2 tsp salt until 60% cooked. Drain and set aside. Note: You could boil the rice in two batches, adding a little bit of food colour to one. This is a little frivolous and totally optional.

5. Place the saffron in a bowl and microwave in 5 second bursts, checking after each one until the saffron becomes lightly toasted and brittle. Add three tablespoons of hot water to the saffron and allow to steep.

6. Combine the dried fruits and nuts. Preheat the oven to 190°C.

7. Remove the sauce from the heat and quickly whisk in the cream and yoghurt. Add in all of the cauliflower, potatoes, peas, French beans and paneer. Mix thoroughly. You’re now ready to layer up your biryani.

8. Rub some ghee into your dish/dishes (I used mini Dutch ovens)

9. Layer in some onions, aubergines, rice, saffron water, fruits and nuts, vegetables in sauce, repeating until all ingredients are used up.

10. Make a dough using 200g flour, 3 tbsp oil and hot water to bind. Roll into a rope and place onto the edge of your dish. Lightly press down the lid. Alternatively, you can place a piece of foil over the rice and cover with a lid.

‘Dum’ cooking

11. Bake the biryani for 30-35 minutes. The aim of the game is for the rice and vegetables finish cooking at the same time.

12. Break the bread seal and remove the lid when you’re ready to serve. For those final touches, garnish with plain yogurt and fresh coriander.

This biryani is best served with cucumber raita and Peshwari Naan.

Cooking biryani is an art which some chefs spend years trying to fine tune. When they get it right, people flock to their restaurants, hotels and homes, travelling from hundreds and thousands of miles away, just to sample a taste. And that’s when you know your biryani is really good.

Do you have a signature biryani recipe? Now I’ve shared mine, I’d love to read your best tips and tricks.

 

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