I love biryani!
I mean the real deal, with beautifully spiced meat between layers of fragrant basmati rice…
NOT stir-fried rice with a few bits of meat thrown in, served with a side of sloppy vegetable curry, that is sold as biryani by so many curry houses across the UK. *rolls eyes*
Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the difference between pulao (pilaf) and biryani it is in the cooking method rather than the ingredients: rice is the core ingredient in a pulao, often supplemented by meat or vegetables, just like a biryani, however all the ingredients of a pulao are cooked together. In a biryani, the meat or vegetables are prepared separately, then assembled into a cooking pot with the rice, before the biryani is baked to finish. In some variations, the meat and rice are par-cooked before assembly, in others they are added raw.
“Biryani” comes from the Persian birian / beryan, which is a reference to frying or roasting an ingredient before cooking it. The actual dish was likely spread across the wider region by merchants and other travellers many centuries ago.
Biryani was very popular in the kitchens of the Mughal Emperors who ruled between the early 16th century to the early 18th century and it remains a much-loved dish in India today.
The Mughals were a Central Asian Turko-Mongolic people who settled in the region in the Middle Ages; their influence on architecture, art and culture, government and cuisine was significant. Mughlai cuisine is today best represented by the cooking of North India (particularly Utter Pradesh and Delhi, where my mother and father are from, respectively), Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Hyderabadi area of Andhra Pradesh in South East India. It retains many influences from Persian and Afghani cuisine.
There are many versions of biryani but two of the best known in India are Lucknowi (Awadhi) biryani and Hyderabadi biryani. For a Lucknowi biryani, the meat is seared and cooked in water with spices, then drained. The resulting broth is used to cook the rice. Both the pukki (cooked) elements are then layered together in a deep pot, sealed and baked. Hyderabadi biryani uses the kutchi (raw) method whereby the meat is marinated and the rice is mixed with spiced yoghurt (but neither are cooked) before being assembled in a deep pot and baked. The flavours of the meat and rice components in a Hyderabadi biryani are quite distinct, as compared to the Lucknowi biryani where they are more homogenous.
Also popular is Calcutta biryani, which evolved from Lucknowi style when the last nawab of Awadh was exiled to Kolkata in 1856; in response to a recession which resulted in a scarcity of meat and expensive spices, his personal chef developed the habit of adding potatoes and wielding a lighter hand with the spicing.
What is common to most variations is the dum pukht method – once the food has been arranged in the cooking vessel, the lid is tightly sealed (traditionally using dough but foil or rubber-sealed lids are a modern-day substitute) and the pot is baked in an oven or fire; the steam keeps the ingredients moist and the aromas and juices are locked in.
Biryani is often served for celebratory feasts such as weddings, though most don’t take it quite as seriously as the two families involved in a cautionary tale that my friend alerted me to – a wedding was called off after an argument between the two families about whether chicken or mutton biryani should be served at the reception!
My mum, who grew up in Utter Pradesh, makes a delicious pukki method biryani, in the Lucknowi style. However, rather than using the liquid from the meat to cook the rice, she makes a fragrant lamb curry (with just a small volume of thick, clinging sauce rather than the usual generous gravy) and she flavours the rice with fresh coriander and mint and rose or kewra (screw pine flower) essence. Her recipe involves slowly caramelising onions, half of which go into the lamb curry and the rest of which are layered with the meat and rice when the biryani is assembled. The pot is sealed tightly and baked until the rice is cooked through.
You’ll notice that I specify basmati rice for this recipe – and that’s because it’s the most traditional rice used for Indian biryani. Of course there is the taste – basmati is a wonderfully fragrant rice – but it is also important that the grains remain separate after cooking; some rice varieties are much stickier or break down more on cooking. Longer grained basmati is prized over shorter grain, perhaps because rice must be carefully harvested and handled in order not to break the grains or just because it looks so elegant?
Tilda, the best known brand of Basmati rice in the UK, recently launched a new product into their range. They describe Tilda Grand as a longer grained basmati rice, particularly well suited to making biryani and other Indian and Persian rice dishes.
Mum comes from a Basmati growing region of India and has seen Basmati planted, growing and harvested many times. Her family in India buy large sacks of rice when it is newly harvested and store it to mature because the flavour gets better with age; indeed I remember mum telling me how her parents saved their oldest basmati rice to serve to guests and on special occasions. Since I was a child, mum has always bought Tilda Basmati rice, so I asked her to try the new Tilda Grand and give me her feedback.
She didn’t find it as fragrant as usual but confirmed that it cooked much the same as the rice she regularly uses and commented that the grains remained separate and were longer than standard. That said, the grains weren’t as long as she was expecting; she has come across significantly longer grained rice in India in recent years.
This biryani, made to my mum’s recipe, is the first I’ve ever made and it was utterly delicious!
Mamta’s Lucknowi-Style Lamb Biryani
For the rice
- 500 grams basmati rice
- 1.25 litres water
- small sprig mint leaves
- small sprig corriander leaves
- large pinch salt
For the meat
- 2-3 tbsp vegetable oil , or ghee
- 600 grams onions , peeled and thinly sliced (about 3 large onions)
- 500 grams lamb or mutton, leg or shoulder , cubed
- 2 cloves garlic , finely chopped, grated or pureed
- 2-3 tsp ginger , finely chopped or grates (1/2 inch piece)
- 2 brown cardamoms (*) , lightly crushed to crack pods open
- 3 green cardamoms (*) , lightly crushed to crack pods open
- 1-2 inch cinnamon or cassia bark (*)
- 2 bay leaves (*)
- 4-5 black peppercorns (*)
- 4-5 cloves (*)
- 1/2 tsp black cumin seeds (*), use ordinary cumin seeds if you don't have black ones
- 1-2 green chillies , slit lengthways (adjust to your taste and strength of chillies)
- 1/2 tsp chilli powder (adjust to your taste)
- 1 tsp salt
- 60 ml thick, full fat natural yoghurt
- 100-150 gram chopped tomatoes
- small bunch mint leaves , chopped
- small bunch corriander leaves , chopped
- half small lemon , cut into small pieces
For the biryani
- 1 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
- a few strands saffron , soaked in a tablespoon of warm water
- a few drops rose water and/or kewra (screw-pine flower) essence
- orange or jalebi food colour, dissolved in 1 tsp water (optional)
- 1/4 cup cashew nuts or blanched almonds (optional)
The quality of the meat is important, so do buy good quality lamb or mutton. I used lamb steaks for my biryani.
In a large pan, heat the vegetable oil or ghee and fry the onions until they are dark brown, stirring regularly so they do not catch and burn. This is a slow process; mine took approximately half an hour.
Remove onions from the pan and set aside.
Add more oil to the pan if necessary, then add the whole spices (marked *) plus the ginger and garlic. Fry for a couple of minutes to release the aromas.
Add the lamb, salt and chilli powder and stir fry to brown the meat on all sides.
Add the yoghurt, tomatoes, two thirds of the mint and coriander that is listed for the meat, the sliced green chillies, lemon pieces and half of the fried onions. Cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is done and only a little thick gravy is left. This may take 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the quality and cut of the meat.
Once the lamb curry is made, turn off the heat and set it aside.
While the meat is cooking, prepare the rice. Boil briskly with salt, the mint and coriander leaves listed for the rice until the rice is nearly cooked. (When you squash a grain between your fingers, only a hint of hardness should remain).
Drain, rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process and set aside.
Grease a large oven proof dish or pan with ghee or vegetable oil.
Spread a third of the par-cooked rice across the base of the dish.
Spread a quarter of the reserved browned onions over the rice.
Sprinkle a little saffron water, rose and kewra essence over the rice.
Spread half the lamb curry over the rice.
Repeat to add another layer of rice, onions, lamb curry and the saffron and flavourings.
Top with the last third of the rice, the remaining browned onions and another sprinkling of saffron and flavourings.
Dot the surface with a little ghee plus a few drops of colouring, if using.
Sprinkle cashew nuts or blanched almonds over top, if using.
Cover the pan tightly with foil and then the lid.
Preheat oven to 180° C (fan) and bake for about 30-40 minutes.
Kavey Eats received samples of Tilda Grand rice from Tilda; as usual, there was no obligation on my part to write about it or to review favourably.