What can I say about biryani that hasn’t already been said? Everyone craves a good biryani and everyone has an opinion on what it should taste like. In grad school we had several discussions about what the biryani really is. Yes that’s how much time one has in grad school! I was not aware that it was such a big deal. In Chennai a biryani is just what we call a pulao – rice and chicken cooked together with lots of spices and served with a boiled egg and onion raita. But apparently things are not as simple as that. I remember a colleague telling me that his roommate made a mean biryani and wondering what the big deal was. Until he went on to explain how the rice is layered and steamed and how the whole concept of the dish was to infuse the meat with the flavor of the rice. Apparently the nawabs would then just eat the meat and leave the rice. None of this of course is verified, but it all adds to the mystery and fascination surrounding this grand dish.
A dear friend of mine once cooked a biryani for the hubby and me just before we got married. He patiently marinated the meat overnight, then partly cooked it separately before layering it with rice and cooking it completely. It was luscious. The slow cooking ensures that the flavours go deep into the meat and the longer you cook it, the more the flavors infuse. I think that’s why the biryani works better with mutton than chicken because chicken tends to get dry when cooked for a long time. We both loved it, except the hubby, stickler that he is for Kolkata food quietly mentioned to me later that it should have been under spiced and had potatoes! I will never understand the idea of potatoes in meat but I think it has something to do with the Western idea of meat and potatoes.
The best biryani I have had though is at a place called Cafe Dhaka in Santa Clara, CA. It was a Bangladeshi restaurant with sweet little owners who would attend to you personally and which had the most amazing food – mughlai paratha, sorshe ilish, Kolkata biryani. As the Bongs would say, ish! So sad that it closed down. Their biryani was mildly spiced and a true kachi biryani – the raw, marinated meat and the raw rice is cooked together on a low flame for hours which is why they had the dish on offer only on weekends and they ran out late in the evening. The hubby of course loved the fact that it had potatoes and surprisingly enough so did I. I think the potatoes offset some of the heat of the garam masala and add some sweetness to the dish. The rice was silky with oil and cooked just right – with a gentle bite to it and yet mushy between the fingers, delicately spiced with only a hint of cinnamon, cardamom, clove and nutmeg. The meat was tender with the taste of the garam masala seeped into it, perfectly seasoned and falling apart. Easy on the palate, easy on the stomach. Such bliss!
The closest thing to that piece of heaven I have had is the mutton biryani (not the chicken one) at Hanglas in Powai, Mumbai and the Lucknowi Biryani (which is ironic since Lucknowi biryani is apparently not a kachi biryani) at the Cafe 360 inside Home Town in Vikhroli, Mumbai. There is an interesting story about the Cafe 360 Biryani. We dropped into the cafe one afternoon while we were shopping for home stuff and had lunch there. We ordered the biryani even though we were wary about it because we’ve had unpleasant experiences with Mumbai biryani which tends to be sticky and over spiced. But we were thrilled to find that this biryani was in fact like a Kolkata biryani – beautiful, mild spicing and potatoes. We were so excited by this discovery that we went back a few weeks later just for the food and found that the biryani had changed to the Mumbai style biryani – which I think is basically rice mixed with mutton curry. We were seriously upset by this and when the server asked us if we were happy with our meal we mentioned this. Then the hubby noticed that someone he thought was a childhood friend of his went into the kitchen. So he asked someone who that was and found that it was indeed his friend. The guy was called out and the old buddies caught up. It turns out that he is a trained chef who works for their hospitality division and was sent from Kolkata specially to improve the quality of the food. He asked us how we liked the food and we honestly admitted that we were disappointed with the biryani. He then revealed the reason – the chef who had cooked us the biryani we so loved was in fact a Kolkata chef who the friend had personally sent over to improve the quality of the food. But apparently no one apart from us had loved the biryani and so it had gone back to being a Mumbai style biryani. Such sweet irony.
After Cafe Dhaka closed in Santa Clara we had no place to eat a good biryani. The next best one was a Pakistani biryani which was too spicy and had way too many coriander and mint leaves. So I started making a biryani at home with this recipe. It is a trade-off between a kachi and a pakki biryani. The meat is partly cooked on the stove to speed up the process and then finished off in a low oven to replicate the “dum” idea. I will sometimes play with the proportion of the spices and the amount of oil depending on whether I want to make it healthy or not. Of course I add lightly fried (practically uncooked) potatoes while layering as well. Often I will omit the coriander and mint as well. But otherwise this is a pretty foolproof and yummy recipe. I cook the dish in the oven for 90 minutes at 300F and the meat comes off the bone, the rice cooks just right and the potatoes are soft. Served with sliced onions sprinkled with lemon, you have yourself a one-pot wonder that will leave you sweetly satisfied. Thank you Ria’s Kitchen.