The food of home holds a special place in most hearts. ‘Home cooked’ generally implies made-by-the mother and in my case there are a few things that I crave. Chicken curry, zhunka roti and biryani. With dal.
And I am very particular about my biryani. The trash that is peddled in the umpteen restaurants is exactly that – trash. Rice with a bunch of spices thrown in does not a biryani make. There are three biryanis that I swear by – mother’s, aunt’s and Shilpa’s. Some might say that I haven’t lived till I’ve tasted it from ‘dilli ki galiyan’ or ‘char minar ki dukaane’. That for another day.
My current European stint in little Austrian villages does not lend itself to biryani eating. So if one doesn’t just want to endure, one needs to roll up the sleeves and get to work. About a month ago I made mom’s biryani. It was good. The mother doesn’t really do the ‘dum’ thing. Instead she chops, peels, sautees and mixes till the spices are fragrent, the masalas glisten in oil and the chicken is browned just so. The mint and coriander blend beautifully with the rice and overall it makes for an extremely satisfying afternoon meal, inevitably leading to a very contented afternoon nap! I’ve always been weary of making it myself because the mother, being the mother, could never give me a recipe for it. I’ve always imagined the dish to be something special, perfected by the saints and handed down, verbally through the generations. Insurmountable. The one time I made it it took me a good 2.5 hours. Time I’d rather spend whining about the cost of a ticket back home and the lack of biryani resources in town. Tasty as it turned out, the task seemed rather Herculean.
Shilpa is from AP. A region known for their nawabs, the minarets, insane chilli eating ability and the inimitable- Hyderabadi biryani. Shilpa’s biryani is hot with flavour packed layers. The perfectly cooked chicken is coated with a delicious spice mix, browned and hidden in the fragrant saffron infused basmati rice with layers of caramelised onions. It is the kind of spicy that needs to be experienced, not just eaten. It is a kind that makes you want to keep eating and not pause
She’s always serves it with raita and we have been known to sit around a large pot of biryani, in our PJs eating for hours while exchanging life-gossip.
I always thought that Shilpa’s biryani would be my Everest. She threw in words like marinate, caramelise, half-cook and the dreaded ‘dum‘. Wiki defines this cooking technique as:
Dum means to ‘breathe in’ and pukht to ‘cook’. Dum pukht cooking uses a round, heavy – bottomed pot, a handi, in which food is tightly sealed and cooked over a slow fire. There are two main aspects to this style of cooking; bhunao and dum, or ‘roasting’ and ‘maturing’ of a prepared dish. In this style of cuisine, herbs and spices play an extremely critical role. The process of slow roasting gently persuades each to release maximum flavor. The sealing of the lid of the handi with dough achieves maturing. Cooking slowly in its juices, the food retains all its natural aromas and becomes imbued with the richness of flavors that distinguishes the dish.
I’ve had the recipe for ages. It looked formidable. Last night I decided to give it a go. The first few steps were easy, if I do say so myself. Once the chicken was marinated and the rice half cooked I had to set the whole thing on ‘dum’. A pot was procured, the raw meat layered, followed by the onions and the rice. I sealed it the best I could, turned down the heat and sent a silent prayer up to the biryani Gods. It takes immense trust this. I guess it is a measure of friendship when you (read ‘I’) trust someone enough to stick raw meat and half cooked rice in a sealed dish, with only their recipe to guide you with cooking times.
So 25 minutes of agonising wait ensued, after which the whole thing steamed away for another 10 on high heat. The hardest part, like a cardio workout, was the last 10 mins when I was itching to open it and see if the meat was cooked.
50 minutes later (5 mins for good luck and to feed my paranoia) we were there. The lid was opened and the senses were pervaded with the glorious fragrance of biryani. We had reached the summit.