Biryani inspires many feelings among desis across the sub-continent.
While the exact origin of biryani is disputed, it was certainly inspired by merchants from Persia, and has over the years taken many different forms in South Asia.
In Islamabad, I mostly grew up eating pulao (more on that later). It was only during college that I got introduced to this glorious, flavor-packed dish by my Karachi friends. I would religiously treat myself to biryani take-out from Biryani Express post exam week - a welcome break from cup noodles and stale pizza from the campus khokha (tuck shop).
For my friend, Albar, biryani was also a treat during college breaks. Except he was lucky enough to enjoy one lovingly prepared by his mother, and not from a suspect take-out joint.
Albar's family is originally from Lahore, and the biryani he enjoyed during his college years reflects the rich Mughlai culinary tradition of the area. Here Albar recreates his mother's recipe to make it more accessible for people on-the-go. It's what he calls the "young professional biryani" (a term that could only originate in Washington).
The recipe below is broken into three parts: rice, chicken and raita (savory yogurt).
2 cups basmati rice
1 tbsp whole cumin
2-3 whole cloves
Salt to taste
4 tbsp oil
1 1/2 pound boneless/skinless chicken thighs
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
Ginger and garlic paste mix (3 tbsp fresh ginger, 2 tbsp fresh garlic, minced in a food processor)
1 black cardmamon
1 cinnamon stick piece
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp cumin powder
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp coriander powder
3/4 tsp red chilli (lal mirch) powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
14 oz can of crushed tomatoes
1/2 tbsp dried pomegranate seeds (anar dana)
2 tbsp whole milk yogurt
Handful of cilantro
Raita (savory yogurt to be served on the side)
16 oz yogurt
4 mini cucumbers roughly sliced
Handful of mint leaves
Handful of cilantro
1/2 a green chilli
1/2 tsp cumin powder
Juice of 1 whole lime
Salt and black pepper to taste
Wash the rice well, and soak it for at least 30 minutes. Drain it.
Bring a large pot (about 4 quarts) of water to boil, and add spices (cumin, cloves and salt) and rice. Lower heat, stir and let the rice simmer till it's al dente, about 5 minutes or less.
Drain the rice immediately on a colander.
You can get started on the chicken once the rice is soaking.
Dice the boneless chicken thighs. Set aside.
Heat a saucepan and toast the cumin and coriander seeds on low heat until they are aromatic. Stir constantly so they don't burn. Once they are toasted, grind them and mix in the cumin and coriander powder. Put alongside the rest of the spices.
Heat a large, heavy-based saucepan and add oil. Once the pan is hot, add the thinly sliced onions, a dash of salt, and begin browning them on medium heat. Continue till they are about evenly medium brown.
Once the onions are evenly done, add in the garlic/ginger paste, all the spices (the toasted cumin/coriander mixture, cinnamon stick, red chilli powder, turmeric powder, cardamom, garam masala) with the exception of the pomegranate seeds. Stir the spices into the pan a couple of times.
Add a splash of water to deglaze the pan, add some more salt and then the can of crushed tomatoes. Let the tomato spice mixture simmer on medium heat for about 4 minutes.
Add in the pomegranate seeds, and the diced chicken. Cover the pan with a tight lid and let it cook on medium heat for another 4 minutes. Once the chicken is about done, add yogurt and green chillies.
Once the volume of the mixture has reduced and become concentrated, check for salt and add more if needed. Add half of the chopped cilantro and top it with rice.
If you want it layered, move half the chicken to a bowl and set aside. Spoon half the rice over the chicken in the pot. Top with remaining chicken, cilantro and rice.
Now here comes my favorite part. Wrap the lid with a kitchen towel, put the lid on the pan, and on very, very low heat, let the rice steam with the meat for 10 minutes. The residual heat from the rice and chicken will help cook your rice fully - this stage is called "dum".
During this time, you can start getting the raita ready.
Toss the sliced cucumbers, cilantro, mint leaves and half a green chilli into the food processor. Grind it and fold the mixture into a yogurt. Add a 1/2 tsp of cumin powder, lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk the yogurt mixture to thin it.
Once your biryani is ready, gently fold the chicken mixture with the rice well.
Add remaining cilantro for garnish. Serve, with raita on the side.