Biriyani and me

Fri, Aug 9, 2013

I love Biriyani. That is an understatement. I absolutely love Biriyani.

It started when I was very young. In fact, as far back as I can remember, I have loved Biriyani. A lot of people in my family - my father, a paternal uncle and his wife were cooks, and specialists in cooking for special occasions. In Malabar, that meant people employed them to cook at weddings, engagements, Iftars1, Parasavathinu Kontu Pokals 2 and Mudikalachils 3. They would cook up a storm of Biryani, Neychor 4, Porotta 5, Pathiri 6 and curries of beef, chicken and mutton. Of all these things, the Biriyanis were the best.

My uncle was regarded the best of them. He made large quantities of rich, tender, aromatic goodness of meat, rice and spices. He does not have kids and always treated the kids of his siblings as his own. This meant that I had insider access, or a ring side view to the making of a large number of delicious Biriyanis in and around the our small town. Whenever there was a function that called for a big cauldron of Biriyani, he would set out the following evening. Sometimes I got to tag along, if the place was nearby or was at some relative’s place.

The long process of making the Biriyani would start some time after mid night when a bunch of people would gather to start slicing the large quantity of onions and carrots that would go in the meat as well as for the layering. In my small town, this work is mostly done by neighbours and relatives who volunteer their time. Apart from the time, they also volunteer the tears caused by the onions. They would get a lot of gratitude at the end of the event and unlimited amount of black tea laced with the just right percentage of lemon while they worked. When the onions are done, they move on to carrots.

Around 3:00 in the morning, another important step of the process happens when the meat for the Biriyani is brought from the butchers. The delivery typically includes the meat for the Biriyani as well as some offal. The offal would be cooked later in the morning with tapioca and served as breakfast for the volunteers. Once the meat arrives, it is cleaned, and left on tables to drain the water off. There will be people, most often youngsters fascinated by the Biriyani making process who would be entrusted with guarding the meat from adventurous crows and other birds. Their reward would come in the form of lemon teas and the tapioca for breakfast.

Once the meat is cleaned and drained off water, focus shifts to cooking the breakfast of tapioca and tea. Once this is done and everybody had their breakfast, the main part of the Biriyani process begins. Temporary ovens are made with laterite stones, arranged as a triangle. At around 9:00, green chilies, garlic and ginger are crushed in large quantities. Tomatoes are cut, the rice for the Biriyani is cleaned and drained and cans of ghee 7 are opened and left to warm near the oven.

And then the fire and smoke begins. First to go in to the cauldron is the ghee and the butter. Once these and some vegetable oil heat up, the onions go for a swim. Salt and spices are thrown in and the onions are heated to golden brown. The meat is added, stirred and fried for a few minutes. Yogurt and chopped cilantro and mint leaves go in, followed by lemon juice. The cauldron is covered with a heavy lid and the meat is left to cook in the melody of spices, lemon juice and yogurt. The focus shifts to the other component of the Biriyani - the rice. As a child, I always used to look forward to this step and not because of the rice.

Another cauldron is setup for the rice and ghee and butter is heated in it. Onions, raisins and cashew nuts are thrown in and fried to golden brown. This is my favourite part as the fried onions, raisins and cashew nuts are kept aside. When I was a kid, I used to grab handfuls of the nicely fried, caramelized goodness. The Biriyani crew generally sneered at this practice, but my uncle who lead the team always smiled and winked.

The cleaned rice is added to the cauldron with some carrots, water is poured and the cauldron is covered with a heavy lid like the cauldron with the meat and is left to cook.

When the meat and rice are done, both cauldrons are opened and one of the iconic parts of the process - the Dum begins. Rice is taken and layered over the meat. A layer of the fried onions, raisins and cashew nut is sprinkled. Melt ghee is poured over this layer accompanied with chopped cilantro and mint leaves and saffron infused rose water. This layering is repeated three or four times till the all the rice is layered. The cauldron is covered with the heavy lid and is sealed by applying a dough of maida 8 along the edge. Hot coal from under the cauldron is poured over the lid. The dum ensures that the flavours are locked in and the melody of meat, rice, vegetables and spices are cooked to a tasty concoction, infused with the spices and saffron. For children like me at that time, the dum itself was a treat. The maida would have been baked into a nice smoky cake.

At around 11:30, the dum is broken to reveal the Biriyani. The work for the Biriyani gang is not done yet. Serving it to people, ensuring that everyone gets the right amount of meat and rice is an endeavour in itself. I will write about it in a later post.

The opportunity I had to have a ring side view of large quantities of Biriyani being cooked up made me a Biriyani fan for life. Wherever I go, I try the local take on Biriyani. I have had a variety of Biriyani - classic Malabari, Hyderabadi, Bangalore style, Thalappaakkettu, Ambur, Mughalai, Pakistani. I liked every single one of them. But the classic Malabari Biriyani is the one I really crave, because of how much it reminds me of home, child hood and good times. Oh and it is really tasty too.

I have been cooking Biriyani for a while now. I think I make a good specimen, but it still has room for improvement and I am working on it.

  1. Iftar: The evening meal consumed when Muslims break their fast. Read more here [return]
  2. Parasavathinu Kontu Pokal: A social custom prevalent among the Mappila community and the larger populace of Malabar. The word literally translates in to “Taking for delivering a baby”. In Malabar, when a woman is pregnant with her first child, she goes to her house from her husband’s house to give birth. This is done with a ceremony that involves white Sarees, prayers and of course great food. It is really difficult to find an English phrase that describes it. The interesting thing about this ceremony is that youngsters pretty much disown this ceremony when it take place in their households or relatives. Most youngsters in Malabar would not claim that they attended one of these ceremonies. [return]
  3. Mudikalachil or Aqiqah: A Muslim ritual performed for newborns that involve shaving off a newborn’s hair, sacrificing an animal and naming him/her. [return]
  4. Neychor: A Malabari Ghee Rice. Read more here. [return]
  5. Porotta: A layered flat bread from Kerala. Read more here. [return]
  6. Pathiri: Thin pan cake made out of cooked rice flour from Malabar. A mainstay in any Malabari feast spread. Read more here. [return]
  7. Ghee: A type of clarified butter used in Indian cooking. Read more here. [return]
  8. Maida: Refined wheat flour. Read more here. [return]