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Biryani bounty

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I realised I was becoming some kind of a biryani fiend when our cousin’s old cook –— Mahto — quit his job. I wasn’t as worried about the cousin and his wife as I was about myself. Mahto, in my opinion, cooked the best Calcutta biryani this side of the Hooghly. How on earth would I manage without him, I asked myself despondently.

Actually, I needn’t have bothered. Though Calcutta biryani is really one of my favourite biryanis, I now see it as a been-there-done-that dish. Because, soon after Mahto left, I found myself avidly going through a book called Biryani by Pratibha Karan. Karan talks about such exotic biryanis in the new book that poor Mahto’s much loved dish pales in comparison.

When we talk of biryanis, we usually refer to the Calcutta rice, meat and potato dish, the Awadh biryani, or the Hyderabadi kutchey gosht ki biryani, or perhaps Kerala’s Moplah biryani. But this book mentions those dishes that I had almost forgotten all about.

Take something like the doodh ki biryani, a Hyderabadi speciality known for its light flavours (see recipe). Or take something like Muthanjan biryani — which is an incredible dish of mutton, sugar, nuts, butter and cream. I first ate Muthanjan at a friend’s wedding — and was completely bowled over by the sweet dish that had been cooked with mutton. The biryani recipe likewise is a sweet meat biryani. A Delhi speciality, Karan points out that this is one of the few rice dishes to be garnished with gold leaves and not silver.

Kampuri biryani

But unlike the Muthanjan pulao, the seviyyon ki biryani is not sweet — even though we usually connect vermicelli with desserts. Rajasthan has a seviyyon ki biryani which consists of vermicelli threads and mutton. And Hyderabad has its own version of vermicelli cooked with minced meat, coconut milk and curry leaves.

Of course, not all biryanis are cooked with meat or fish. India has a whole range of exotic vegetarian rice dishes. The Ravan bhaat of Maharashtra is one such biryani.

Ravana, as we all know, kidnapped Sita and fought a pitched battle with Rama. So the Ravan bhaat, clearly, has to be suitably fiery. This Kolhapuri dish is cooked with whole red chillies, raw green mangoes, lentils and peanuts. For this dish, you first need to fry mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves and asafoetida in hot oil. Then you fry raw peanuts, and then soaked lentils. Add desiccated coconut and whole red chillies and top with grated mango. The biryani is then cooked with a layer of semi-cooked rice covered by the fried lentils and peanuts, and then layered by some more rice. This is steamed till the rice is ready, and then tempered with fried whole red chillies.

Karonde ki biryani

Sometimes, a vegetable or a fruit is mixed with meat to give a biryani a new flavour altogether. When we were kids, we used to love this fruit called karonda, which was so tart that our mouths used to pucker up when we bit into it. It led to a great pickle, and we would eat it with ease once it had been suitably tamed with oil. Karan writes about a karonde ki biryani from Hyderabad, in which rice is cooked with karonde (carissa caranda), minced meat, yoghurt and spices. “This biryani is overwhelmingly sour, so bite into the karonda pieces somewhat sparingly,” she warns.

Another dish I found interesting was the Kampuri biryani of Assam. I was in Assam some years ago and had been hoping to eat some good regional cuisine there. We had gone for a Hindu wedding, so the Kampuri biryani, which originated in the predominantly Muslim town of Kampur, was unlikely to be on the menu. Of course, it’s another matter that we ate butter chicken at the wedding, for the Assamese guests all wanted something different too.

I wish they’d presented us with the Kampuri biryani instead. After all, it is a simple dish, where chicken is cooked with peas, carrots, beans and potatoes and then flavoured with cardamom and nutmeg. It’s colourful — and flavourful.

Indeed, the unknown biryanis are often as delicious as the ones we have known and loved. Mahto’s Calcutta biryani will stay in my heart — but there will always be place for the lesser known biryanis too. Each dish, after all, is in a class of its own.

Doodh ki biryani (serves 8 - 10)


• 1kg mutton (with chops, marrow bones and medium-sized pieces) • 4 sliced onions • 5 glasses milk • 2 litres and 1 glass water • 500g rice • 3 tbs thick cream • 3tbsp ghee • Salt to taste

A: • 75 g coarsely chopped ginger • 60 g coarsely chopped garlic

B: • 50 g chopped green chillies • 1 cup chopped fresh green coriander leaves ½ cup mint leaves

C: • 1 tsp caraway seeds • 2 1-inch cinnamon sticks • 6 pods of green cardamom • 2 large pods of black cardamom • 6 cloves • 1 small piece of nutmeg • 2-3 mace flakes


Wash the mutton. Drain. Coarsely crush the ingredients under A, B and C in three lots and tie them in separate bundles of muslin cloth. Cook the meat in the milk along with the water and the three bundles. Stir frequently. A minute after the liquid starts to boil, add salt. Continue stirring for 3-4 minutes. Cook covered on medium-slow flame, stirring now and then till the meat is tender. Squeeze out the liquids from the bundles into the meat and remove the bundles. When done, the dish should have about 1 ½ glasses of liquid left. Take out 3/4th of a glass for later use.

Soak the rice for about 20 minutes. Drain it. Boil 2 litres of water with a little salt. Once the water starts to boil add the rice and cook for 5-6 minutes till the rice is half done. Drain and transfer to a flat dish.

Take a heavy bottomed pan and smear it with ghee. Place a little more than half the parboiled rice in the pan. Take out the cooked meat and place it over the rice. Spread the liquid in the meat over it. Cover with the remaining rice and sprinkle the 3/4th glass reserved liquid from the meat over the rice. Dot with ghee and cream.

Cover tightly and place a heavy stone on the lid to prevent steam from escaping.

Cook for two minutes on high flame to heat the dish and then on medium-slow flame for 10-15 minutes till the rice is cooked. Serve hot.       

Photographs by Anushkha Nadia Menon


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