Food for Thought: Biryani

Dive into the cultural, political, and personal significance of food

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Person in thinking pose with a thought bubble overhead featuring an image of biryani
This dish will replace your chilli cravings! Alyssa Marie Umbal / The Peak

By: Tamanna T., Staff Writer

Staying inside during Vancouver’s recent cold snap inspired me to make some dishes from India, my home country. Ever since I was young, biryani was made at my house on special occasions, so I decided to try and make it on Christmas. Biryani is a culmination of everything aromatic — from the spices to the rice, a specialty of the dish is being able to distinguish each smell separately.

Biryani is said to be native to Persian cuisine, and was brought to India by the Mughals. A legend states that one of emperor Shah Jahan’s wives, Mumtaz Mahal, inspired the first variation of biryani when she asked a chef to prepare a dish of meat and rice for some soldiers. The dish quickly rose to fame and became a household favourite. The relation between food, history, and storytelling from India never ceases to amaze me.

I remember my mother and father having different recipes for biryani. My mother, being a vegetarian, made veg biryani, and my father, a fan of poultry, made his famous chicken biryani. 

Biryani isn’t the easiest dish to make, but once it is done, nothing can compare to its rich taste!

For vegetarian biryani (adapted from Swasthi’s Recipes):

  1. Soak 1 cup basmati rice (easily found at any grocery store) in a container with 2 cups of water and set aside for 20–25 minutes.
  2. In a pressure cooker, add 1 tablespoon ghee or olive oil and let simmer for a minute before adding your spices. If a pressure cooker isn’t readily available, a crock pot or steamer works just as well.
  3. Add the following whole spices to the cooker: 1 bay leaf, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 star anise, 3 cardamom pods, and cumin seeds according to preference. 
  4. When the spices have simmered and begin crackling slightly, add 1 chopped red onion and 1–2 green chillies (or substitute with Thai chillies) and sauté until the onions have a golden tinge to them.
  5. Now add 2–3 cloves of chopped garlic or 1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste. Mix until it cooks.
  6. Chop any vegetables you want in your biryani. The most commonly used are cauliflower, peas, carrots, and green beans. For a more gluten friendly option, you can also add pre-soaked soy chunks to make the dish more filling. Add these to the pot and mix.
  7. Now add the secondary spices: chopped coriander leaves, 1 tablespoon chilli powder, 1 tablespoon garam masala, 1 tablespoon turmeric powder, and 1 tablespoon salt. Then add ½ cup yoghurt and chopped mint leaves according to taste.
  8. Fry the vegetables and allow the spices to mix properly, until the two are indistinguishable from each other. By this point your kitchen should be smelling amazing!
  9. Add the soaked rice to the vegetable mix. Mix evenly and add ½ cup more water and 1 tablespoon salt. 
  10. Cover the pressure cooker or the pot of your choice firmly on medium to low heat for 15–17 minutes. Then slowly open the lid and mix very lightly, otherwise the rice will turn mushy.
  11. Serve with yoghurt or any chutney of your choice and enjoy!

Each serving can feed 3–4 people, or if you’re like me and live by yourself, you’ll have it at least twice in one day.

For those who can’t make it at home, Agra Tandoori Restaurant in Burnaby makes amazing veg biryani, so check them out.