Choir: Biryani will make your mouth sing

Published 12:24 pm Monday, September 24, 2012

Recently I had a party for my choir, 16 people. What to cook for this crowd? I wanted to do something they do not get normally and I decided on biryani. What in the world is that? Biryanis are grand, festive casseroles in which partially cooked rice is layered over cooked meat. Orange saffron milk is dribbled over the top, thereby coloring some grains yellow while leaving others white. (But today even in India, saffron is so expensive they use yellow food coloring mixed with water). I used the food coloring also. Soaking the rice in salted water for three to 24 hours is a trick the Persians used to get the rice grains as white and as separate from each other as possible.

A biryani is a meal in itself, but may be eaten with some accompanying dishes: a yogurt dish, a carrot salad or tomatoes with ginger. I used all three to go with the biryani and made naan (an Indian bread), and it was a wonderful meal. I did have a good Indian dessert with ground cardamom served over ice cream. So, this choir had something to “sing” about!

A long recipe, but worth it! I did it three times so it took most of the morning. I could have done with only two, but I had some left over to freeze for a quick meal sometime when I need one.

From Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking, serves six to eight people


15 oz. long grain rice

3½ pints plus 3 tablespoons plus 6½ pints water

About 3 tablespoons salt

1 teaspoon saffron threads (if using) or 2 teaspoons yellow food coloring and 2 teaspoons water for substitute

2 tablespoons warm milk (if using saffron) to mix

3 medium-sized onions, peeled

4 cloves garlic, peeled

¾ inch fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons blanched, slivered almonds

13 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 tablespoons raisins

1 ½ lb. boned lamb from the shoulder (I used chuck from grass-fed beef)

8 oz. natural yogurt

5-6 cloves

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

½ teaspoon cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 inch stick cinnamon stick

about 1/6 nutmeg

¼ cayenne pepper

1 oz. butter, cut into 8 pieces

3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and at room temperature


Wash the rice in several changes of water. Drain it and put it in a large bowl. Add 3½ pints water and 1 tablespoon of the salt. Mix and soak for three to 24 hours.

Put the saffron threads (if using) in a small, heavy frying pan. Toss the threads until they turn a few shades darker. Crumble them into the warm milk and soak for three hours.

Cut two (2) of the onions in half, lengthwise, and then cut the halves into fine half-rings. Set these aside. Chop the remaining onion very coarsely. Put this chopped onion, garlic, 2 tablespoons of the almonds and 3 tablespoons water into the container of an electric blender. Blend until you have a paste.

Put 6 tablespoons of the oil in a 10-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, and set over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the onion half-rings. Stir and fry them until they are brown and crisp. Remove them with a slotted spoon and spread them out on a plate lined with paper towels.

Put the raisins into the same oil. Remove them as soon as they turn plump – which happens immediately. Put the raisins in another plate lined with a paper towel. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons almonds into the oil. Stir and fry them until they are golden. Remove them with a slotted spoon and spread them out beside the raisins. Set aside for use as the garnish.

Now, put the meat cubes, a few at a time, into the same hot oil and brown them on all sides. As each batch gets done, put in a bowl.

Add the remaining 7 tablespoons of the oil to the frying pan and turn heat to medium. When hot, put in the onion-garlic-ginger-almond paste from the blender. Fry, stirring all the time, until the paste turns a medium-brown color. If it sticks slightly to the bottom of the pan, sprinkle a little water and keep stirring. Return the meat and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add the yogurt, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring well between each addition. Now put in 1¼ teaspoons of the salt and 5 oz. of water. Mix and bring to a simmer. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.

While the meat is cooking, put the cloves, peppercorns, cardamom seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon and nutmeg into the container of a spice-grinder or a coffee-grinder. Grind finely.

When the meat has cooked for 30 minutes, add all the spices from the spice-grinder as well as the cayenne and mix well. Cover again and continue to cook on low heat for another 30 minutes. Remove cover, raise heat to medium, and cook stirring all the time until you have about 7 oz. thick sauce left at the bottom of the pan. The meat should be pretty well cooked by now.

Spread out the meat and sauce in the bottom of a heavy casserole. Cover and keep warm.

Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees.

Bring 6 pints water to a rolling boil in a large pan. Add 1 ½ tablespoons salt to it. Drain the rice and rinse it off under running water. Slowly, scatter the rice into the boiling water. Bring to a boil again and boil rapidly for exactly six (6) minutes. Then, drain the rice.

Work fast now. Put the rice on top of the meat, piling it up in the shape of a hill. Take a chopstick or the handle of a long spoon and make a ½ inch wide hole going down like a well from the peak of the rice hill to its bottom. Dribble the saffron or food coloring in streaks along the sides of the hill. Lay the pieces of butter on the sides of the hill and scatter 2 tablespoons of the browned onions over it as well. Cover first with aluminum foil, sealing the edges well, and then with a lid. Bake in the oven for an hour. Remove from the oven.

Just before serving, quarter the eggs, lengthwise. Mix the contents of the rice pan gently. Serve the rice on a warmed platter, garnished with the eggs, remaining browned onions, raisins and almonds.