Stop and stare on any street in Bombay and your eye is likely to register at least three places to eat in any direction, be it the ubiquitous sandwich seller or chaat house. (I don’t suggest you do this though. You’re likely to get shoved about and cursed at in seven different languages if you stop longer than 5 seconds. Just like in New York, waffling about in Bombay will raise temperatures faster than the heat of the summer.) Bombayites, present and former, love food. We love eating it, arguing about it and seeking it out. You will be spoilt for choice with all that the city has to offer. Naturally, any native will have categorical and vociferous opinions about where the best “insert suitable food item here” is available. It will not necessarily be the fanciest restaurant around, though there are a fair amount of luxurious examples with incredible food. No, sometimes the best of things can be found in street food or in your humble, no-nonsense lunch homes.
One such no-frills restaurant was Lucky Restaurant in the West Bandra neighbourhood. This is where I first tasted biryani and where I fell irrevocably in love with it. When I was growing up, this establishment served some of the best available restaurant biryani around. For the uninitiated, biryani is one of the most delicious things you could eat. There is stewed meat cooked slowly with yoghurt and spices, along with the irresistibly fragrant basmati rice. The resultant dish is a thing of delight, a delicacy of dreams. Over the years, the quality of Lucky became a bit unreliable. That you had to be ‘lucky to have a good meal at Lucky‘ became a standing joke. I hear it still has its good days along with its bad ones, but the good ones are pretty great.
Of the myriad recipes that include rice, there is nothing quite as spectacular as biryani. It is said to originate in Persia, making its way to India along with the conquering Mughals via Afghanistan. It was a favourite food of the conquering kings and made its way all over India as the Mughal influence grew. This resulted in several adaptations to their meat and rice creation, including a vegetarian version of it. There are slight differences depending upon the region that attaches its name before the biryani. But broadly classified, there are two categories based on the cooking method, one where the meat is cooked separately from the rice and then assembled in layers (pukki biryani), and the other where the two cook together (kacchi biryani).
For this toothsome dish, the meat is marinated, with yoghurt, papaya and spices. Rice is parboiled and fried. Everything is put in an earthenware pot, sealed with dough at the edges and then slowly heated. Cooked this way, it is divine. Traditional biryani takes time and patience. Both are things that rarely come together to me. Convinced as I am that I’d make a hash of it, I can’t think of any dish that I’d be more depressed about screwing up. Nothing tastes as bad as mushed-up cakey rice. That’s why this recipe is a godsend.
Indian mothers and grandmoms might sniff disparagingly at this version. It lays no claims to being the authentic way to make biryani. It is, however, fast and easy (insert appropriate bad joke here). You don’t need to marinate the meat, the rice doesn’t need to be fried, and the dish comes together in about 30-40 minutes, some of which is simply cooking time requiring little involvement from you. The fragrance of the basmati settles in and gets to know the other spices. The house fills with the heady aroma and there’s little you can do to calm the hunger growing within. You can barely wait for the cooking to be done before you heap a generous serving onto a plate, spooning some of the cooling raita alongside. You maneuver that first spoonful of chicken. potato and rice, tinged with a just little raita, into your mouth. The spices and textures explode in your mouth and fill you with an intense satisfaction. Authentic or not, you don’t care. You have yourself a plate of chicken biryani.
Quick Chicken Biryani
Boneless chicken – 1 pound, cut into 1 inch pieces
Basmati rice – 1 1/2 cups uncooked
Cumin seeds -1 tsp
Cinnamon – 1 stick
Bay leaves -2
Cloves – 5 to 6
Turmeric powder – 1/4 tsp
Green cardamoms – 3 to 4
Red chilli powder – 1 tsp
Garam masala powder – 1/2 teaspoon
Ginger paste – 3/4 tbsp
Ginger (fresh) – 1 inch piece, cut into matchsticks
Garlic paste – 3/4 tbsp
Green chillies – 3, slit longitudinally
Red Onions – 2 large, slivered
Potatoes – 2 medium, cut into one inch cubes
Tomatoes – 2 medium, diced
Thick yogurt – 1 cup
Mint leaves – a handful, roughly torn
Coriander leaves – a handful, roughly torn
Milk – 1/2 cup, warmed
Saffron – a few strands, soaked in the milk.
Canola Oil – 3 to 4 tbsp
Salt to taste
- Wash the basmati and soak it for at least 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile fry half the slivered onions until golden brown.
- Heat water in a pot and salt it generously as it comes to a boil. Boil rice until parboiled (just about done).
- In a pan, heat the oil. Add cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, cumin seeds, green cardamoms and sauté for half a minute.
- Add the reserved sliced onions and sauté. Add slit green chillies, chicken cubes and potatoes and continue to sauté.
- Add turmeric powder, tomatoes and salt and mix to incorporate. Then add the ginger and garlic pastes, red chilli powder, yogurt and salt. Mix well and cook for a bit until mixture comes to a boil.
- Turn down the heat. Add half the fried brown onion, then mix in the parboiled rice. Sprinkle garam masala powder, ginger strips, mint leaves and coriander leaves.
- Pour in the warmed milk and saffron mixture and add the remaining browned onions. Cover and cook on low heat for about ten minutes.
Serve hot accompanied by the raita below or with slices of raw onion sprinkled with some lime juice and salt.
Tomato & Onion Raita
Yoghurt – 1 cup
Tomato – 1 medium, chopped
Onion – 1/2, diced
Green Chilli – 1, chopped fine
Cumin & Coriander powder – a pinch
Coriander leaves – 1 tsp, chopped fine
Sugar – a pinch
Salt & pepper to taste
- Mix all the above ingredients together. Set aside for ten minutes before serving.
Soak the rice before you boil it. This helps get rid of some of the starch coating and makes the rice less sticky. The importance of using basmati rice here cannot be stressed enough. It is fragrant and robust enough to stand up to cooking in the fairly substantial gravy without mushing up. It’s a bit less sticky than other varieties of rice, which also helps. It is the rice of choice for biryani.
Customarily, biryani is made bone-in. It adds to the flavour. Using boneless here will help it cook a bit faster. As far as dark or white meat is concerned, use whatever kind of chicken you like. Either or both turn out great. I love potatoes in biryani so for me they are essential, but they don’t have to be for you. The schools of biryani differ on their inclusion, or not. You could use a couple of boiled eggs, cut into halves or quarters instead. Increase the amount of chilli powder if you want a spicier biryani, or reduce for a milder version. You could also also add a few roasted cashews. Some people add soaked raisins, but not me. I’ve never been able to deal with raisins in savoury foods. A note for the uninitiated: the whole spices in the dish are meant to be set aside as you eat, not consumed.
This recipe is more than successful if you feel an overwhelming need for biryani in a hurry. If you’re excited about it and have some time on your hands, try this fabulous one from Mona at Zaiqa. Hyderabadi biryani is one of the best kinds you can have. I dream about making it someday soon, if I can get over that gnawing certainty that I’d muck it up.