Peeling back the lid of a biryani, the exquisite Indian rice dish, releases a steam headily floral with saffron and cardamom, underscored by earthier coriander seed, cumin and ginger.
It’s a steam that recalls its Persian heritage. Biryani is one of the key dishes of Mughlai cuisine, a strand of Indian cookery developed in northern India in the kitchens of the Persian Mughal rulers more than 400 years ago.
Mughlai dishes are now among the most well-known in Indian restaurants outside India.
Biryani descends from Persian pilau (or pilaf) rice, which also gave us the Turkish pilav and Spanish paella. Indian chefs added spice and complexity.
Made properly, biryani is an elaborate dish, from the ritual of soaking and rinsing the rice, to the delicate spicing of the meat to the layering of parboiled rice, meat and garnishes before tightly covering and slowly infusing the flavours in a low oven.
According to Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Biography, when the Moghuls came into India from Persia (present-day Iran) and established their royal palaces they brought with them a highly evolved cuisine – Muslim traditions saw food as one of the great pleasures of life and rulers lavished great sums on their kitchens. By contrast, Indian society tended to be more restrained in their approach to food. Vegetarianism was common as a sign of religious purity.
Nonetheless, the Hindu chefs who joined the Persian chefs in the Mughal courts had a great range of additional spices and cooking treatments in their repertoire.
With biryani, the Persian technique of marinating meat in yoghurt was adapted to include ginger and other flavours. The spice mix added was based on the Indian idea of masala – a combination of complementary spices. The rice cooking technique of allowing flavours to infuse was based on the Persian pilau – but India had a strong tradition of rice cooking of its own; the staple dish of most of the peasantry was khichiri, rice and lentils. Nuts, dried fruit, fried onions, saffron were all part of the pilau.
This kind of culinary synthesis over several centuries led to Mughlai cuisine, which spread in India initially via the royal courts of regional princes (nawabs). Other Mughlai dishes include: numerous stews and curries such as rogan josh (hot butter curry), dopiaza (heavily onion based), korma (almonds and cream); Indian-style kebabs; naan breads; and sweet desserts such as kulfi.
In India, biryani has become a pan-Indian dish with extensive local variations. A dish for a feast, it’s very popular at Indian weddings.
How to make biryani
Madhur Jaffrey has spent almost 50 years communicating the joy of real Indian food to western audiences. I used her lamb biryani recipe available on the UKTV website. A very similar Madhur Jaffrey recipe, taken from her Indian Cookery book is reproduced on the Once Upon a Feast website (I referred to this version too, as I appreciated the extra notes added here – for example, in reality the biryani does take about six hours start to finish!)
Allow lots of time and enjoy working with the different spices. If you can, buy them fresh. Spice Supermarket in Sandringham, Auckland (539 Sandringham Road) has everything you need in its spice bins. Onions, ginger, garlic, chillies and yoghurt are also cheaper here than in the supermarkets.
Where to buy good biryani in Auckland
Sandringham is Auckland’s hub of Indian culture, with 10 or so south Asian eating places in the village strip.
Recommended for biryani are Paradise Indian Food (591 Sandringham Road) and Top in Town Briyani [their spelling] House (586 Sandringham Road).
These are inexpensive canteens with a few seats – clean and functional, most patrons opt for takeaway.