Indian cuisine is one of the most, if the the most, complex in the world. The sheer amount of spices that go into a dish is staggering. And that’s what intimidates most non-Indian cooks. Where does one source all those spices?
In the age of the internet and online shopping, Indian spices are much easier to find. Armed with the correct ingredients, it feels less daunting to venture into the unfamiliar.
But the authentic way (or ways, because I have learned that there are two) of cooking authentic biryani is another matter. And there are proper cooking equipment to make it.
So, I thought I’d take all the right ingredients and cook a biryani-inspired lamb and rice cassrole using regular cooking equipment — a wok and a stove.
I start by marinating the lamb. It needs at least an hour to soak up the flavors in the marinade and I use that time to prep the rest of the ingredients.
Mint leaves and cilantro stems, roots and leaves are cooked gently in ghee until softened then set aside.
The cloves, cardamon, fennel seeds, start anise and coriander seeds are toasted in an oil-free pan until they smell nutty. The spices are cooled then ground to the consistency of coarse sand. How are they ground? You can use a mortar and pestle if you’re feeling rustic — I prefer the food processor.
The ground spices are sauteed with garlic and onion in more ghee until the onion bits appear translucent.
Rice is added and tossed repeatedly until every grain is coated with ghee. This step also allows the rice to start soaking up the flavors of the spices.
Yogurt, broth and lime (or lemon) juice are stirred in and assembling the uncooked biryani-style casserole begins. Half of the rice is scooped out. Vegetables (carrot and peas in this case) are scattered on top of the rice in the pan along with the cilantro and mint that had been cooked in ghee earlier.
The rice that had been scooped out is spread on top of the vegetables. The lamb with the marinade is scattered on top of the second layer of rice.
The pan is covered tightly and everything just cooks together. No peeking and no stirring. During the cooking, the juice of the meat and the marinade drips down slowly into the rice and vegetables as they all cook in the steam and pressure inside the covered pan. That’s the secret so no peeking and no stirring.
Once the casserole is done, all it needs is to be garnished. With a dish like this, the garnish is no mere decoration but essential components of the dish to give it the right flavor, aroma and texture.
Biryani-inspired lamb and rice casserole
- ¾ kilo meaty lamb with some bones for better flavor (chicken or other poultry, pork, beef, goat, mutton or veal may be substituted), cut into one-inch cubes
For the marinade:
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander seeds
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 cup yogurt
To cook the biryani:
- 2 cups long-grain rice soaked in water for several hours then drained
- 3 to 4 cloves
- 3 to 4 cardamom pods peeled
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 star anise
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic finely minced
- 4 to 6 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or butter
- a handful of mint leaves roughly chopped
- a handful of cilantro (stems, roots and leaves), roughly chopped
- ½ to ¾ chicken broth
- juice of two limes or lemons
- 1 carrot diced
- 1 cup sweet peas
- salt to taste
- torn cilantro leaves to garnish
- toasted chopped cashew nuts to garnish
- Place the meat in a bowl. Season with all the marinating ingredients. Leave to marinate for at least an hour.
- Heat half of the ghee or butter in a pan. Cook the mint leaves and cilantro until softened, about two minutes. Set aside.
- In an oil-free pan, toast the cloves, cardamon, fennel seeds, start anise and coriander seeds until nutty in aroma. Cool a bit then grind.
- Heat the remaining half of the ghee or butter. Saute the ground spices with the onion and garlic.
- Add the rice and stir to coat each grain with oil.
- Pour in the remaining cup of yogurt, half cup of broth and the lime or lemon juice. Sprinkle with salt; how much depends on how well-seasoned the broth is.
- Scoop out about half of the rice. Scatter the carrot and peas over the rice in the pan, followed by the mint leaves and cilantro. Cover with the rice that had been scooped out.
- Scatter the meat — with the marinade — on top of the second layer of rice.
- Cover tightly and cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes to an hour. No peeking.
- After 45 minutes, remove the lid and test the rice and meat for doneness. If longer cooking is needed and the liquids have dried out, pour in the remaining quarter cup of broth, replace the cover and cook for another 15 minutes.
- Stir lightly when done to separate the rice grains.
- Garnish the lamb biryani with cilantro and toasted cashew nuts before serving.