In which I embark on a perilous journey to make a dum pukht biriyani
No man (or woman, at least those few who cook) in his right mind would dare consider making a dum pukht biriyani. It is well known, at least in places where such things are well known, that the dum cuisine of the long-ago Avadh kingdom of India was for the consumption of kings and nabobs, and that only genetically gifted royal chefs from Lucknow, known as khansamas, knew the secrets of getting it right. To make matters worse, exactly such a chef — the redoubtable Ishtiyaque Qureshi, fruit of the loins of the formidable Imtiaz Qureshi, the man who introduced dum cuisine to India — had made a true mutton dum pukht biriyani for me.
After I regained consciousness, I remembered the following things — subtle, subliminal fragrances had wafted like sirens from the rice; each grain was separate and moist, glistening; it had all been served with an amazing yoghurt raita, the likes of which I had never had before.
As I said, only a fool would undertake such an undertaking.
Call me a fool.
I have cooked it twice so far and — let me be blindingly honest — neither has matched the high bar that Ishtiyaque set for me. Let's say I've scored between 6 and 7 out of 10 — but dummed if it still wasn't the best biriyani I've ever had the honor to put together. Should you decide to follow in my calamitous footsteps, then here are some words from the wise —
1. Be sure to buy fresh mutton. In lamb-eating countries, such as Australia or the USA, this could be a bit of an expedition, but I'd suggest you could turn it into an adventure in ethnic exploration. Check out with your Muslim friends, or take an excursion to Lebanese, Indian or Pakistani neighborhoods, where mutton is often the meat of choice. If mutton is absolutely unavailable, then I cannot stop you from using lamb. You will still get a more than passable biriyani, but expect different fragrances both during and after cooking. Chopping mutton is not a joke and a neanderthal butcher could give you a sorry mess with ragged bones sticking out. Ask for the meat to be deboned and cut into 2 inch pieces, remembering that they will be a little smaller after cooking.
2. Buy good quality saffron. If you're new to saffron, we're talking about the skilfully dried stigma of the plant Crocus sativa, at its finest in Iran. They come in very small canisters, and the best ones are a lovely crimson and have a subtle but distinct fragrance. A little bit goes a long way, and in the dum biriyani saffron is used both for color and fragrance. If you cannot find Iranian because of too many sanctions on that country, then take your business elsewhere and choose between Moroccan, Kashmiri or Spanish saffron. I find it hard to judge which is best, but in general if the product is a pleasing carnadine in color and the fragrance makes you swoon, you're on the right track.
3. Don't cut corners; get vetiver water. It's known as kewra if you buy it in Little India. And chances are, that's where you'll finally go looking for it because, face it, which Caucasian has ever used vetiver for anything other than after-shave cologne or underarm deodorant?
4. Cut some corners; be prepared to add a little turmeric to deepen the saffron's natural color. I did it. I admit it. So sue me.
5. Take the afternoon off. A good dum biriyani is not something you make while preparing a presentation for tomorrow's staff meeting. It will require your attention, your time, and a hand-towel to mop the sweat off your brows. You will be cooking even after your guests arrive, and the best you can hope for is that they mistake your frown for insouciance.
6\. As a rule of thumb, 1 kg mutton will need 2 kg of rice.
Now on to the heavy lifting. Here are the ingredients, in batches so you do not mix them up. This dish feeds a private gathering of about 6 person and takes about 3 hours to make.
FOR FLAVORING THE RICE
SPICES FOR MUTTON
- Grind all the spices for mutton together into a coarse powder.
- Grind the garlic and ginger to a paste, and then press or strain out the extract.
- Dissolve the generous teaspoon of saffron strands in the warm milk, adding the turmeric powder for deepening the color.
- Fry half the sliced onions till they are a lovely golden brown in about 1 tablespoons of ghee or olive oil.
- TO PREPARE THE MUTTON/LAMB
- In 2 tablespoons ghee or olive oil, fry half the sliced onions to a nice golden color. Add the mutton pieces and the mutton spices you ground in step #1 above, the ginger-garlic extract and the powdered saffron, and fry until the mutton is slightly browned. Add the yoghurt, the chilly powder and salt to taste, and cook until the sauce has thickened a little.
- Add hot water and continue cooking until the mutton has cooked through. Add a little more water as necessary to prevent the meat from drying up or the sauce from burning. The final sauce should be thick enough to flow slowly.
- TO PREPARE THE RICE
- In 1.5 tbsp of ghee or oliveoil, fry the rice till it becomes opaque. NOTE: Do not wash the rice first. Tie all the spices listed above for flavoring the rice into the muslin cloth, leaving out only the bay leaves. Immerse this in a large pot with about 12 cups of water and bring to the boil. Add the rice and let it cook till it is a little more than half cooked. This will be roughly when the rice has swollen up enough to be visible near the surface of the water.
- Remove at once and drain, and then spread out on several large plates to cool.
- Dribble the saffron-colored milk over roughly half the rice on the plates, and use a spoon to mix them a little, until the are lightly colored, and the saffron strands randomly dispersed. Do not worry, if water and milk from the process remain on the plate.
- TO PREPARE THE BIRIYANI
- Using your hands, spread ghee or olive oil along the sides and bottom of a large casserole. In this layer the rice and the cooked mutton in alternating layers. Be sure to combine the colored rice with the white. Pourany residual liquids (milk, water) into the casserole. The bottom and top layers should both be rice.
- Add the onions fried golden in step #4, and also sprinkle vetiver water generously over the rice. Make sure at least 4-5 strands of saffron are visible.
- Place the lid on the casserole and seal the edges tight with the dough as shown in the picture above. Ensure that the dough overlaps with equal thickness both above and below the lid so that no steam can escape. Place a heavy utensil such as a pestle on top of the lid.
- Cook on low heat for about 10 minutes on a hot plate, until the dough is dry and warm to touch and a little steam is escaping the sides. Do not unseal this until just before serving. I prefer not to transfer the biriyani into more elegant dishes so that the layers remain undisturbed.
- TO PREPARE THE BURHANI RAITA:Peel the garlic cloves, and pound them to shreds in a pestle. Transfer to a bowl, and mix the yoghurt, cumin powder, chilly powder, black salt and plain salt. Blend together using the tines of a fork.
There isn't a lot more to do. The last I made it, of course, it came out wrong again. While the rice was boiling, I thought I'd duck out to see a man about a poodle. By the time I returned — it was a long poodle — the rice had cooked completed. I realized instantly that cooking this further in the casserole (steps 9-12) would only yield a squishy pulp of rice. Might as well as just mix the mutton and the rice, both cooked, and be done with it, right? Wrong. Being a stickler for the instructions, I put it in the casserole and dummed the edges with dough as prescribed, and let it cooked for about 10 minutes. Which was how I achieved a biriyani whose rice grains were moist and wet and heavenly in taste and fragrance — but also which had begun to char slightly at the bottom. My friends, being friends, ate with loud cries of praise and encouragement.
But deep inside, I knew that once again the dum had been pukht.