The perfect biryani – that is what we were looking for in Hyderabad. A biryani - rice layered with a spicy curry and cooked over low heat, is delicious anywhere but has reached perfection in the city of Hyderabad and has to be tried at least once.
True Hyderabadi cooking, local residents told us, would be found near the Charminar, the medieval gateway that is the most recognized symbol of the city. The four towering spires of the Charminar were a helpful landmark as we started our sightseeing, but despite them we soon lost our bearings, swept along by the crowds spilling out from the nearby mosque into the maze of alleyways that form the heart of the old city.
Being lost in the famous Laad Bazar is no misfortune, for there is something new to see around every corner. The lanes are lined with little shops brimming over with the treasures that Hyderabad is famed for – pearls, jewellery, inlaid metal work, silks, brocade, bangles, glassware and perfumes. Delicious scents wafting down the street told us that we had serendipitously found our destination: a restaurant whose biryani had been voted as the best in the city in a popular newspaper poll.
The centre-piece of our meal was, of course, the famed biryani: basmati rice fragrant with saffron and studded with tender morsels of lamb. Accompanying the rice, as is traditional, was mirchi ka salan - hot green peppers cooked with toasted spices, peanuts and tamarind extract. Next came a platter of succulent kababs and a bowl of pasanda (lamb pounded thin and simmered in a sautéed onion-almond cream sauce), which were eaten with naan. Dessert was faluda, vermicelli and tapioca seeds served in rose syrup mixed with milk.
After eating such a memorable meal, I couldn't wait to get back home to my kitchen and try my hand at making Hyderabadi biryani. In my recipe here, I have tried to simplify the cooking process while still holding on to the authentic flavours. Although lamb is rarely eaten in India - goat is the preferred meat - I have used lamb here because it is easier to obtain. If you can find goat meat, feel free to use that instead!
You can substitute chicken for the lamb and make a chicken biryani following the same recipe. I like to serve biryani with yogurt raita and fresh coriander-mint chutney on the side.
For the curry:
1 -1/4 lb. boneless leg of lamb, trimmed of fat and cubed into 1 inch pieces
1 medium onion, quartered
2 cloves of garlic
1 inch piece of ginger
1/4 cup plain yogurt
6 large canned whole plum tomatoes, lightly drained
Salt to taste
1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, dried fenugreek leaves
½ tsp each: cayenne pepper, turmeric
2 tbsp oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
Place lamb in a large mixing bowl. Add all remaining ingredients except oil and cumin seeds, to food processor and mince well. Pour over lamb and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours up to overnight.
Heat oil in deep non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add cumin seeds and let them sizzle for 30 seconds. Add lamb and all its marinade, stirring continuously for 5 mins. Cover and let mixture come to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and cook until lamb is very tender, about 1 hour or longer. Stir occasionally. The sauce should be very thick and clinging to the lamb at the end of cooking. If there is still a lot of liquid left at the end of cooking, uncover skillet, turn up heat to medium high and cook off some of the excess. Reserve and refrigerate lamb curry until ready to make biryani.
For the biryani:
1 cup basmati rice
1 tbsp oil
½ tsp saffron strands
¼ cup warm water
2 tbsp melted butter
¼ cup golden fried onions
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and quartered
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in deep saucepan set over high heat. Add rice and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the rice is just done but not mushy, about 7 mins. Drain and spread on a tray to cool.
Meanwhile, soak saffron in the warm water for 15 mins.
Choose a large heavy bottomed, deep saucepan with a tight fitting lid for assembling the biryani. Set it over medium high heat and add the oil. Add reserved lamb curry and spread it in an even layer in the bottom of the pan. Cover it completely with the rice. Sprinkle the saffron water over the rice. Drizzle melted butter over top. If you are using the optional garnishes, scatter them over top as well. Cover pan and let it heat up for 2-3 mins until the curry starts to bubble. Reduce heat to very low and let biryani cook for 1 hour. Uncover pan, making sure all the sauce has been absorbed by the rice. Transfer to a platter, mixing it gently as you go.
Adapted from A taste of Hyderabad, Desi Life magazine, May 08, 2008