When I was a graduate student at University of Cambridge, I lived in a 16th housed Virginia Woolf and still possessed a resident ghost, a lady who occupied the attic bathroom. But I was more interested in one of my house-mates, a kind and robust Indian PhD student working on earthquakes, who would fill the kitchen with wondrous scents, and who taught me how to cook biryani.
Biryani recipe is a hearty rice dish that we associate with Indian food and restaurants, but which is actually of Persian origin. The Persian word beryan means, “fried or roasted”, and Turkish or Iranian Muslims who travelled to the Mughal court in India historically imported the dish. It was the Mughal emperors who made the dish famous, and it became associated with them, though variations on it (essentially rice cooked with vegetables and meat as a main course) appear in a wide variety of ethnic cuisines across Asia and Asia Minor. Along with Chicken Tikka Masala recipe (which is not actually of Indian origin but an invention of Indian ex-pats in Britain, and is the single most popular dish in England), Massaman curry, and a few other prominent Indian dishes, biryani is among the best known of all Indian foods, and often occupies an entire section on Indian restaurant menus.
Biryani is a good dish for the home cook, because you can make variations using just about anything you happen to have on hand: egg, shrimp, mutton, fish, chicken, lamb, you name it. There are dozens of variations, both within any single region but also across nations. There are Iranian, Malaysian, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Thai and even Mauritian versions of biryani, not to mention the dozen or more subtle variations found across India and Pakistan.
The traditional recipe is cooked in a large earthenware pot, sealed tightly to pack in the aroma and flavors while the dish cooks. A pantheon of south Asian spices feature in various recipes: cardamom, bay leaf, coriander, cinnamon, ghee, all-spice, mint leaf, ginger, nutmeg, clove, mace. But at its most basic, it begins with lots of caramelized onions and garlic, with the addition of a protein of choice (I always like lamb). This is cooked at a high temperature to brown, and then turned down to simmer. Basmati rice is cooked separately, but just undercooked, as it will cook further when mixed with the vegetables and protein. This is where my housemate taught me a valuable trick. Cook the rice until it is about two-thirds done, and then spoon it over the top of the vegetable-spice-protein mixture, as it continues to cook on the stovetop. Do not mix the rice and other ingredients through, not yet anyway. Instead allow the rice to rest and finish cooking atop all the other ingredients. The rice, in this way, seals the other ingredients beneath it, while a cover is placed over the whole pot, locking in the flavors. The rice finishes steaming atop the proteins, infusing with the flavors trapped beneath it. Only at the last minute, just before serving, do you mix the rice with the meat beneath. This also prevents the rice from overcooking, burning, or getting soggy. The dish is served as a main, with the option (which I always like) of adding yogurt at the last minute, which nicely binds the flavors and provides an umami accent that is otherwise lacking.
My housemate’s version is just one of many options. Kacchi biryani (“Kacchi” means “raw”) has the distinction of seeing the meat and rice cooked together, from the start, with the cooking pot sealed with dough to create an airtight lock. This is typical of Bangladeshi weddings, and is indeed festive, with the pot only unsealed at the table, just before serving. In Iraq, rice is infused with saffron. In Burma, cashew nuts and raisins are included. In Iran, meats are marinated overnight in yogurt. Mauritian biryani adds potatoes and roasted cumin. In Indonesia, a goat broth and milk are added. Wherever biryani is eaten, its origins and most significant consumption, is among the Muslim population.
For the purpose of home cooking, you really can’t go wrong. Variations on the spices included, the vegetables (largely optional, with some recipes only including meat and rice) and the protein are all at your discretion. Biryani is a good catchall for leftovers. The key is to use Basmati rice, not fully cooked, and then layered over the meat and spice mixture to finish cooking in a nicely sealed pot, as my housemate taught me. It’s satisfying, inexpensive, and a hit every time.