Tuesday, July 21, 2009

1001 Easy Biryanis

Almost all experts agree that Biryani is a Persian dish, coming to India with the Moguls / Arabs. However, many wrongly believe that the name Biriyani is derived from Beiryan ( Persian : to fry) which they claim refers to rice being fried in oil before being cooked.

In fact, you can still order Beryani in Esfahan, Central Iran (modern day Persia). But you’ll be served a meat sandwich ! The original Persian Beryani does not have rice at all. It is just chopped up, boiled and fried meat served between two pieces of Persian flatbread. This meat sandwich is the ancestor of our Biriyani. Later, rice came to replace the flatbread. This was made possible by a technique called Dum pukht ( Persian : "steam-cooked") where both rice and meat were steamed together. This technique led to the creation of the Biryani we know and love today. Beriyan ( frying) did not create the Biryani, but Dum Pukht ( steam cooking) did. This is why a Biryani is still called Dum Pukht in Persia and dan pauk in most of South East Asia. (especially Burma).

A Biriyani is in fact a rice sandwich, where layers of meat / veggies served sandwiched between layers of rice. It is interesting to see that many rules for a good sandwich also apply to a biriyani.

1. It should be perfectly cooked, but not soggy.

2. It should have multiple layers

3. It can have vegetable / meat fillings

4. It should be assembled in a colourful, artistic way, with all layers clearly visible - the brilliant white of the rice layer, with splashes of saffron, the brown/ red/ orange meat layer, and the whitish brown layer where these layers mix.

In addition, the golden rule in a biriyani is that no two grains of rice should stick together.

Many confuse between Biryani and another middle eastern rice recipe, the pilaf. Remember that a Biryani is a sandwich at heart, whereas a pilaf ( pulao) is not. A pulao is a one pot dish where rice gets cooked in a meat / vegetable broth. (Interestingly the Spanish paella, is a variation of the pulao and the Cajun / creole Jambalaya is also another version of the pulao) But it does not get assembled in layers like a Biryani.

Like any recipe, when Biryani moved into different regions, it used the rice, flavouring agents and additives much loved in that region. The utensils used, the fuel and the cooking style also changed from region to region, giving us a huge array of Biryanis.

In India, we see two major classes of biryanis – the Pakki biryani of Awadh ( Lucknow) and the Kachi Biryani of Hyderabad. The north Indian Pakki Biryani is closer to the spirit of the original Biryani, as it remains a sandwich at heart. Cooked meat and cooked rice are layered and steamed together to make the pakki ( cooked) Biryani.

The Hyderabadi Kachi ( raw) Biryani is a completely different invention. Here the sandwich is assembled with raw ingredients ( meat and rice) and they are steamed together. This is possible because of the fact that both meat and rice take similar times for getting completely cooked.

Most biryanis use variations of these two major styles. Keeping in mind the spirit of the biryani, we can now mix and match the base, flavouring and additives, giving rise to a countless array of Biryanis.

The base : One cup = 200 ml
The long grained Basmati rice is the most preferred rice as it is aromatic and does not stuck together. But as you travel further south, you’ll see Biryanis made from the shorter Seeraka Samba or even from the hardy Ponni rice. Biryani made from Ponni keeps well and lasts much longer than that made from Basmati. Ensure all rice is well washed and cooked so that no grains stick to each other after cooking. Both raw or parboiled rice can be used. Raw rice cooks faster but par boiled rice is firmer and chewier. To make rice softer, it can be soaked in water for an hour before being cooked. , Stir frying rice also makes it less prone to sticking together. Rice can also be cooked along with a variety of flavouring agents like cinnamon, bay leaf, clove, cardamom etc. but care should be taken to see that the rice does not get coloured by the addition of spices. A Bangladeshi biriyani uses puffed rice instead of rice. Some Srilankan / Arcot Biriyanis use iddiappam ( string hoppers) as a base instead of rice. (I tried cooking a biryani with rice flakes and it was delicious ! I just soaked thick rice flakes in water for five minutes, layered them with cooked meat gravy and steamed it over a slow fire for 10 minutes. There is no reason why you cannot use other grains in cooking biryanis)

The key skill to master:
Cooking rice perfectly is the key to a good Biryani. Cook it anyway you like, but when you assemble the biryani, the rice should be almost ( but not completely) cooked and no two grains should stick together. The easiest way is just to dump rice in lots of boiling water and keep tasting till it is almost done. Then drain water using the colander and use rice for Biryani.

Once you have rice ready, all you need to do is to layer rice and meats in a vessel. close it and bake it or cook it over a slow fire for 15 - 30 minutes, so that the flavours merge. That's it, your Biryani is ready !

The favouring techniques :
These vary from region to region and actually from cook to cook. A variety of whole spices is fried in oil / ghee. Onions are then fried and other ingredients are added. Popular ingredients are cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, saffron and bayleaf are often added. Kewra / saffron water / rose water is sprinkled on top just before serving.

Different regions have their own flavouring. Asafetida and fennel powder is used in Kashmir, green chilies and southern spices like coriander powder, turmeric powder are used in Hyderabadi biryanis, Kalpaasi & Marathi Mokku in Dindigul Biryani, Khus Khus in Malabar biryani, cashew-cumin- fennel paste in Arcot biryani, black cumin and fennel in Awadhi biryani, almonds and cashew ( and sometimes coconut) in Malaysian Nasi biryani, a paste of sesame seeds, black cumin and dry fenugreek leaves in Memoni biryani. Experiment with your favourite flavouring techniques !

Additives :
A whole range of meat / vegetables can be used in a Biryani. Mutton / chicken are most common. In Kerala we find the fish / prawn Biryani, in parts of Tamilnadu we see the Turkey Biryani and
in Karachi we bump into the Beef Biryani. Almost any meat can be used for a Biryani. The Nizam of Hyderabad boasted of 49 varieties of Biryani made from quail, deer, hare etc. A variety of vegetables can also be used in to cook up the Tahiri ( Tehri) Biryani. Sindhi & Calcutta Biryanis include potatoes, a combination unthinkable elsewhere.

Utensils :
Different regions cook biryani using their traditional cooking utensils(made of copper / bronze / aluminium / mud etc). Some regions prefer wide, shallow utensils, some prefer cylindrical utensils and some regions prefer the conical vessel with a rounded base – the handi. The biriyani is cooked over different fires - wood fire, charcoal, coconut shell embers etc. Most large scale cooking of Biriyani happens in the open.

Side dishes:
Biryani is eaten with a wide variety of additives.In Sri Lanka it is eaten with a pickle, Mint Sambol ( mint chutney), or scrambled eggs. Indian biriyanis are usually served with Raita. South Indian Biriyanis are served with a sour dish of eggplant (brinjal) or Mirch ka salan, In addition , In Tamilnadu a Muslim biriyani meal is complete only with the serving of a dessert ( sweet sticky rice / bread halwa).

The technique of Dum :
‘Dum’ is a technique where the vessel is sealed and cooked from above and below with gentle heating. This gentle cooking allows the flavors of rice and meat to mix and slightly dries out the rice, making each grain separate. Usually the vessel is placed in a ring of charcoal, the lid is sealed with atta and charcoal is placed on the lid. This gentle cooking may last from 30 minutes to over an hour.

Though it is true that traditional Biriyanis from each region follow a similar recipe, with minor variations, there are no hard and fast rules about what goes into a Biriyani, as long as the spirit of the recipe is followed. Remember that the meats and rice need to be perfectly cooked, layered and the rice grains should not stick to each other. As long as you follow this, you can experiment with a variety of bases, flavouring techniques and additives and will end up with lip smacking biriyanis everytime !

Marination :
The process of soaking the meat in a tenderizing paste is common to North Indian biriyanis. Usually yogurt is mixed with ginger- garlic paste, spice powders and the meat is coated with this mixture and rested for 1 – 2 hours . A variety of tenderising agents like raw papaya paste, lemon juice etc may be added. Though meat is usually marinated for 1-2 hours, some regions follow the overnight marination method where the marinated meat is refrigerated overnight. South Indian Biryanis do not use marinated meats.

Layering :
In a vessel, add a thick layer of rice as the bottom layer. Spread the garnish (fried onions, mint / cilantro leaves, lemon juice) over it. Add a thick layer of meat / vegetables. Spread the garnish and add another thick layer of rice. Sprinkle a couple of spoons of milk in which a few strands of saffron has been soaked. Seal the top of the vessel with a tight fitting lid and bake. Baking can be done over charcoal embers ( placed both on the bottom and top of the vessel), in an oven, or a thick heated steel plate ( to ensure even heating and prevent scorching).

Experiment with a variety of bases, flavouring techniques and additives to create never before cooked Biryanis !


God said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
God said...

Wow you done a research about Biriyani. Really interesting...and thanks for the recipe..

Ramasamy. L

Anonymous said...


aynzan said...

Thanks for sharing your technique in cooking biryani..I love this dish..


Good Pediatrician in Chennai said...

this looks awesome and I saw it just when I sat down with my khitchdi.
It really made me crave the biryani.

Anonymous said...

U r unreal!

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