Spicy food

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Delicious Memories

Rice with a heavenly fragrance of unknown spices and herbs; garnished with semi-fried onions (ah, that charred taste…), brown-roasted cashewnuts and succulent raisins. A spicy chicken-thigh, hidden inside the rice with the masala. Hard-boiled egg, partially dipped in the centre of the rice as no biriyani is complete without the egg. A deep-fried papad; a piece of fresh lemon pickle and a bowl of raita.

Masala Chai is served after the biriyani but we kids often sadly let go the offer. Not because we have lesser appreciation for the nice hot spicy tea made with cream and sugar but the heavy lunch does not allow us from imbibing the luxury drink. We never ever said no to the Gulab Jamun that followed.

Such was the dear memories of Chicken Biryanis prepared and served back home when most of the people were taller and wiser than me. Visiting relatives and a festive season were inevitably linked with the dish. Happy memories, still refusing to fade away after many years of constant petting and caring, adamantly and comfortably clings to mind just as the four-year old child awaken from the bed with much reluctance, perches on her Dad’s arms, refusing to budge.

As a kid, Biriyani was a complete mystery dish.

Why it takes so much time to prepare the Biryani with so much of cleaning and chopping?

What are the secret ingredients that went into the dish other than rice, onion and chicken?

How did they manage to get that unique aroma rising in the air filling not just the kitchen or the entire house, but the whole neighbourhood?

In spite of serving the dish with just a raita and a papad and may be a lemon pickle, how it tasted so great?

After many summers… and festive seasons.

Did some research on Biryanis in an attempt to recreate that delicious memories one more time at home. Hyderabadi Dum Chicken Biriyani [Note: Long-grained rice (usually basmati) flavored with spices such as saffron, layered with lamb, chicken, fish, or vegetables cooked in a thick gravy. The dish is then covered, its lid sealed on and cooked on a low flame.] was chosen to be the star.

Surprisingly simple to make in just three steps.

1. Cook rice.
2. Prepare chicken.
3. Garnish.
4. Assemble and serve.

Some tricky in-between operations ensure that the biriyani could come out as close as the memories of yester-years. The magical taste was all about those in-between operations.

So this is not about any dish, let alone Biryani, but about the reliving of those wonderful years amidst noisy cousins and loving, kind relatives and parents, back home. Come with me, dear readers, on that exciting journey.

Deciding the rice was the first part. Long-grained Basmati or Wayanadan Kaeema. Kaeema was chosen.

Then the cook gets up early on a Friday, sacrificing the prerogative of a get-up-as-you-like week-end day and drives to the supermarket for the freshest chicken and herbs. The summer sun is already up and the temperature is a cool 35 deg C already. Herbs are just waiting in their racks… Cilantro & Mint for the Biriyani. Parsley for baked fish and Dill for Chicken Kofta, later. Some Chives for French Omelette. Now to the meat section: thighs of Chicken, bone-in. Fresh not Frozen. The recipe called for some chopped pineapple. Cashew nuts and black raisins (kish-mish) for garnishing. Saffron for mixing with creamy milk diluted with warm to add that wonderful golden-yellow colour to some rice.

Fresh eggs. Papad, a rice flour and urad dal wafer, served deep-fried. There is lime pickle and then yogurt for raita (Cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, green chili chopped and sliced served in yogurt seasoned with salt and Sumac).

Almost all spices are available at home so did not had to purchase.

Always the responsibility of the daughter to check and ensure all items required by the recipe is available: in the shelf, cabinet or refrigerator. Hope she had done a great job.

  1. Rice washed and soaked for 20 minutes.
  2. Chicken thighs marinated in chili powder, turmeric powder with some sea-salt.
  3. Chopping board. Onions, ginger and garlic. Indian garlic preferred though not-so-good looking as their Chinese friends. But more potent and difficult to handle.
  4. Mix rice in ghee in a pan on medium heat while water boils.
  5. Bay leaf, cinnamon stick, clove, star anise goes in with a couple drops of pineapple flavouring and rose water.
  6. Boil rice using lightly salted water in the ratio 1: 1.5, till rice absorbs all water. Remove from flame while the rice is almost cooked al-dante. Let it cook bit more on the colander/sieve.
  7. Sauté onions, for the chicken. Add all the spices and fry till the raw smell is gone. Add chicken and cover and cook.
  8. Fry onions for the garnish. Roast cashew nuts and raisins in ghee.
  9. Chop fresh mint and coriander leaves.

Take a deeper breath now and rest a while. The cooked food gets some time to settle. You will be amazed at the magical flavours that had filled the kitchen as you re-enter.

Pre-heat over to about 345F. Assemble the biryani in a glass bowl.

Chicken, rice, chicken, rice, chicken, rice. Garnish with 1/4 of a pineapple chopped small, fried onions, cashew nuts, raisins and finally coriander leaves. Cover bowl with an aluminium foil and bake for 10-15 minutes.

Some lessons learned:
1. The flame needs to be adjusted often as the food is being cooked through various stages.
2. Get only the best ingredients for the dish.
3. Thighs with bone-in is most suitable for this biryani.
4. The mistake made by choosing white onions instead of red onions proved to be a near disaster.
5. Prefer small garlic compared to large, perfectly-white ones.
6. Use pineapple flavour (essence) sparingly as it could easily overpower other subtle flavours.
7. Use not more than 1/4 of a medium pineapple.
8. After all is said and done, getting the rice cooked to that perfect point seemed to be the hardest part.