Yes, I'll admit the seared-steamed-roasted potato unique to biryani from this city, anathema to all others, is quite a golden nugget of fluffy fun-in-a-spud. But that's just the thing — a rice-and-meat steamed dish admittedly demanding of technique is one thing; the pursuit of the perfect potato is quite another.
And it's technique that lets down most biryanis. Oh, you can have each grain separate and the meat falling off the bones from many a roadside degh — but it's no good if it's so greasy as to stick together into a lardy lump the moment it cools to a tongue-friendly temperature. There's no joy in the delicacy of good degh technique when the spices crust the meat and dot the rice with coarse speckles; furring the palate with an excess of mace and screwpine. And the rubbery boiled eggs, so prized of some, I can do without the sulphurous stink of, though I admit they add much-needed colour to a monochrome meat-and-rice-(and-potato-perhaps) dish.
The other kinds of colour in your average box of biryani, now plastic-lined paper (to the convenience of your coat and the detriment of your health), are more worrying than winsome: traditional cochineal from a ground-up insect; turmeric that overwhelms flavour and fragrance, or worse, dishonestly dangerous metanil yellow, a carcinogen often sold under the guise of 'safe' tartrazine, itself an azo dye substituting the expensive saffron...
Hair-raising enough to put you off your lunch, isn't it? So why am I even thinking of dishing up any?
Let me start by signposting that authenticity is not the reason, whether in terms of technique or ingredients. In fact, you might say I love this recipe for all the wrong reasons — a biryani sceptic's caveats.
For one thing, it involves no steam-cooking, which means the ruin of a beautiful Sunday's non-work if it goes at all wrong. Pressure-cooking or cooking under pressure do not my restful Sabbath make.
For another, it involves no mace, a spice I have an irrational aversion to in savoury dishes.
It has very little rice, a positive disbalance, by Subcontinental standards. Which suits me fine. I've always deplored the excess of rice by countrymen and -women consume, especially along the coasts, even in the face of plenty. I can understand carbohydrate-heavy meals enforced by poverty; but to pad out every rich morsel with a mouthful of starch is injustice to both the fragrant grains and the necessarily overspiced gravy, I've always felt. (Yes, it's personal: I can't eat much at one sitting, and eating traditionally requires me to hypnotize myself into believing myself a boa. Which I rather resent.)
It does have fruit and nuts, and even a fresh green. All of which makes the average biryani, lacking it, not enough of a one-pot feast for me.
Oh, and it has eggs. Yes, I sound contrary, but bear with me — these are just the way I like them, boiled just-so and quickly cooled till they verge on soft, squishy yolks.
And it has fried onions on top — sweet, crunchy with caramelization, but not deep-flash-fried, slowly and patiently coaxed there instead.
The recipe — appearing in the December 2010 issue of Good Food (UK edition, p.81), endorsed by the jolly Hairy Bikers — is not perfect. Purists will gag. I have a few quibbles myself. But with a few nudges this way and that, it's a nice ride to a post-excess Sunday siesta.
Hairy Bikers' Extra-Special Biryani (adapted)
4-5 hearty, meaty servings
1/2 cup milk
Good pinch of saffron
4 small red onions (one of the ingredients I increased, almost doubled — partly because I like them, but largely because I'm cooking with goat, not lamb, and the sweetness goes so well with it)
5 garlic cloves (another top-up; just because we love it)
thumbnail-sized chunk of ginger (reduced, because I don't love it, often deplore it, and perversely, like a purist, don't see why it should be in a biryani)
75g almonds, blanched and sliced (flaked is too dry and stupidly expensive for my taste)
4-5 cloves (a little more, because I like the punch)
1 tsp each cumin and coriander seeds
small stick of cassia, crumbled
seeds from 8 green cardamom pods (extra, because Amit says they're his favourite spice)
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp black pepper (I'd have left this out, as I did the chillies — don't see why a biryani should be 'hot' rather than 'spicy'; but added it to compensate the lost pungency of true cinnamon that cassia seems to lack)
About 1/2 cup oil (I used olive, but most white oils would do)
500g boneless goat meat (kid's faster to cook and more tender, the shoulder particularly tasty, if you have access to a good old-fashioned butcher)
1 cup plain yoghurt
4 cassia leaves (these are always called bay leaves in India, rather confusingly, just as cassia bark is typically called cinnamon)
25g of sweet, large black raisins
200g basmati rice (a little more than the original recipe, in deference to Indian eating habits)
1 tbsp butter, though I'll probably use ghee next time
3 eggs, hard-boiled for 10 mins in water started from cold, immediately cooled and shelled just before use
A small handful chopped coriander leaves and stalks
- Steep the saffron in hot milk overnight. (The recipe says to warm them in the milk for a couple of minutes, and I'll try that next time because I didn't get much colour — but I rather think the saffron wasn't very good to start with)
- Grind the whole spices to a powder, and then blend 2 onions, garlic, ginger and 50g almonds to a paste with a tablespoon of cold water. Mix the two together.
- Cut up the meat into generous bite-sized chunks, rub with salt and lightly brown in a spoonful or two of oil, in batches. In the same pan, adding extra oil if needed, cook the masala paste till it starts to colour, stirring so it doesn't stick. Stir in yoghurt and bay leaves, adding back the lamb, then cover and cook for an hour and a half, till the meat is quite tender. (You could certainly pressure-cook at this point, but I find the result is rather watery — fine for a stew or soupy curry, not for barely-moist biryani)
- While the meat simmers, toast the rest of the almonds till just starting to brown — keep shaking the pan lest they burn, and don't leave them unattended for the 2-3 minutes it takes. Thinly slice the other two onions and gently fry in a spoonful of oil till golden brown, for about 5 minutes. Don't let them crisp entirely; drain on kitchen paper.
- Once the meat is tender, take the lid off and cook off the liquid till the gravy is quite thick, about the consistency of a veloute, say. Season well.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180 degrees C and cook the rice till just opaque and tooth-tender, rather than fully cooked. Drain well.
- Place the meat and gravy into the bottom of a deep baking dish and spoon the rice over. Drizzle the saffron milk, stamens and all through it — no need to be too even-handed in distributing it: you want some of the rice to stay white for contrast. Dot with butter (or drizzle with ghee), top with half the fried onions, and tightly seal the dish with aluminium foil.
- Bake for about 30-40 minutes, till the rice is cooked through and the gravy quite absorbed. Meanwhile, you can boil and quarter the eggs, and chop the coriander.
- When the biryani is done, reheat the remaining onions with the sultanas. Unseal the rice and mix in the coriander, onions, sultanas and nuts, then garnish with the boiled eggs. Serve with a raita or a tangy-sweet salad.*