At the end of a long, scorching day in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, my colleagues and I, participants in a journalism fellowship, were famished. After a hair-raising lift in an auto rickshaw through the teeming metropolis and a pearl-shopping spree, it was time to indulge in a third local pastime: biryani.
We were steered to Hyderabad House, a franchise specializing in biryani as it was prepared for centuries to the specifications of the nizams who ruled the once princely state.
Expecting a sumptuous setting worthy of royalty, we were let down by Hyderabad House's glum surroundings. Soon, though, came a feast of biryani flecked with carrots, potatoes and okra, as well as raita and chewy naan that conjured the city's Mughal past and its signature perfume of piquant spices, herbs and condiments.
Our dreary setting receded with each savory bite of Hyderabadi dum (steamed) biryani, a concoction of basmati rice and meat marinated in yogurt laced with ginger, garlic, chiles, cardamom and floral-scented kewra and cooked in a copper pot called a handi.
Biryani was once reserved for weddings, birthday celebrations and Eid, the Islamic celebration at the end of Ramadan, a monthlong holiday that concludes Oct. 12. Today, biryani, often served with a gravy of green chiles and garnished with crispy fried onions, fried raisins and hard-boiled eggs, has become the pizza of South Asia.
Soothing, fortifying and lavish, our meal was tangible proof that India's vanished royalty "left behind a courtly redolence that enchants both palate and imagination," as Chitrita Banerji writes in Eating India: An Odyssey Into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices.
In Hyderabad, biryani is served from late morning until late in the evening in countless locales from the famous Hotel Paradise to the drabbest of carryouts. You can even have a "jumbo pack" of chicken biryani delivered to your door, raita included.
Biryani, an extravagant form of rice pilaf, is found in dozens of variations across India and throughout the Muslim world. Hyderabadi biryani stands out for its pungency, which may come from tamarind, tomatoes or lemon juice, says Sajida Nomani, who once lived in Hyderabad, as she prepares the elaborate dish (using lemon) in her Wheaton kitchen. "When I lived in northern India, we used almonds and poppy seeds," she says.
Hyderabadi biryani is "more sour," says Nomani, who remembers how its scent wafted across the courtyard from a nearby kitchen, where cooks prepared her wedding feast years ago. Nomani had just arrived in Hyderabad for an arranged marriage to a city native. "At first, [the local] biryani didn't appeal to me," Nomani says. She grew accustomed to the fragrances and flavors of her new home.
In her book, Banerji distinguishes Hyderabadi biryani by its "katchi" mode of preparation. "The meat is not precooked when it is added to the rice," nor is water added to the pot, she says. "The juices released by the meat are supposed to provide just the right amount of moisture."
"The rice has to be right. The meat has to be right," Nomani says. That's why she leaves katchi biryani to the professionals. Nomani is more likely to prepare a "pakki" style of Hyderabadi biryani, in which the ingredients are partially cooked before they are blended together and steamed to perfection.
Hyderabadi biryani often is served as well with a thin stew called mirch ka salan in which "long, fat green chiles have been simmered in a tangy broth," Banerji says. "The ingredients of the broth include copra [dried coconut], sesame, whole coriander, whole cumin and peanuts, which are all roasted and ground together before going into the broth with tamarind and brown sugar."
Biryani is a slow food. At the Columbia vegetarian restaurant Mango Grove, Hyderabadi dum biryani is "cooked over a very slow fire," manager Minu Bisda says. The biryani is served with lemon pickle, raita and pappadams. "We put a lot of love into it so that everybody will get happy," she says.
As her mother cooked, author Asra Nomani recalled how biryani's comforting properties - and its availability - sustained her during an unsettling stint in Karachi, Pakistan. One night, she placed an order with a carryout called Student Biryani that promised delivery within 30 minutes, "just like Domino's," Nomani says.
While awaiting her dinner, Nomani told herself that if the biryani arrived promptly, she would stay longer in Karachi. It did. "The biryani guy kept me here," Nomani later wrote in her diary.
Biryani traditions continue to evolve, often upending other civic customs. Hyderabadi journalist Lalita Iyer speaks of "midnight biryani," consumed by friends after a night of revelry. Because Hyderabadi restaurant kitchens typically close at 10:30 p.m., "five-star hotels" have wrangled reclassification as coffeehouses after a certain hour to serve biryani into the wee hours, Iyer says.
Extending the biryani hour is convenient for friends "if they get together for a bunch of drinks and do not want to eat regular food," Iyer says. Instead, they "would go for a midnight biryani, since this meal would be served only at and after midnight."
Consumed by both Muslims and Hindus, biryani reflects Hyderabad's communal history, a saga of cultural mingling and unrest. Like cricket and other national obsessions, biryani is something that unites all sects - even if Hindus refrain from biryani cooked with forbidden beef.
A collective love for biryani doesn't preclude passionate debate among foodies as emphatic about their preferences as barbecue fanatics are in the United States. "A true biryani lover would swear by a mutton biryani only," Iyer says in an e-mail message. Yet, according to banter on Web sites such as indiacurry.com, nizam, nawabs and sultans were known to dine on biryani with fish, quail, shrimp, hare and venison, among other prey. And traditional ingredients, such as cauliflower and peas, often are supplanted by jackfruit and garbanzo beans.
On a weeknight not ordinarily devoted to such an extravagant meal, Sajida Nomani removes a fragrant pan of chicken biryani from the oven. She fluffs together the layers of saffron-streaked rice and meat. The rice doesn't stick together. If she had thrown a spoonful on the floor, it would have scattered, per standards established hundreds of years ago.
The biryani is served with a cooling raita made from low-fat yogurt, cucumbers, tomatoes and coriander. Additionally, Nomani has whipped up a frothy pitcher of lassi, also made with yogurt, a bit of sugar and ice.
Ordinarily, the Nomanis would eat biryani with their hands, as is the custom. The term "eat like nawabs" is attributed to those who roll the daintiest balls of rice and meat with their fingertips without dribbling sauce.
But tonight, even with forks and knives, everyone eats like a nawab.
Serves 6 to 8
6 onions, medium-sized (divided use)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 piece ginger, 2 inches long, peeled and chopped
10 cloves, whole
20 peppercorns, black, whole
seeds from 8 whole cardamom pods
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon poppy seeds, whole
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
4 1/2 teaspoons salt (divided use)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
8 ounces plain yogurt
8 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
4 cardamom pods, large, black (if available)
2 pounds chicken legs and breasts
2 teaspoons leaf saffron, roasted and crumbled
2 tablespoons milk
2 cups long-grain rice
2 tablespoons golden raisins, fried
2 tablespoons blanched almonds
2 eggs, hard-boiled, sliced or quartered
Make marinade for the chicken: Peel and coarsely chop 3 of the onions. Place chopped onion, garlic and ginger in an electric blender, along with the cloves, peppercorns, the seeds only from the 8 cardamom pods, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, poppy seeds, mace, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and the lemon juice.
Blend until you have a smooth paste. Place this paste in a large bowl. Add the yogurt and mix well.
Peel the 3 remaining onions. Slice them into very fine rings, and halve all the rings.In a 10-inch heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil over medium flame. When hot, add the bay leaves and 4 black cardamom pods. Fry for about 10 to 15 seconds. Now put in the onions and fry them, stirring, for about 10 minutes or until they get brown and crisp (but not burned).
Remove them carefully with a slotted spoon, squeezing out as much of the oil as possible. Reserve all the onion-flavored oil, the black cardamoms and the bay leaves. You will need them later. Mix in two-thirds of the fried onions with the marinade paste. Place the rest on a paper towel to drain. Set aside for garnishing.
Remove skin from the chicken legs and breasts. Cut the legs into 2 pieces each (drumstick and thigh), and quarter all the breasts. Pierce the chicken pieces with a fork and place in the bowl with the marinade paste. Mix well. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Turn occasionally.
After 2 hours (or more), remove the bowl from the refrigerator and place all its contents in a 3- to 4-quart heavy-bottomed pot. Bring slowly to a boil, cover, lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes.Remove only the chicken pieces, place them in a 5-quart casserole dish, and cover. Set aside. On a medium flame, boil down the marinade paste, stirring, until you have about 9 to 10 tablespoons left. Spoon the paste over the chicken. Cover again.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Soak the saffron in 2 tablespoons hot (not boiling) milk. Bring about 13 cups water with the remaining 3 teaspoons of salt to a boil in a 4-quart pot, then add the rice. After it has come to a boil again, cook 5 minutes, timing very carefully (the rice must not cook through).
Drain the rice in a colander, then place it on top of the chicken in the casserole. Pour the saffron milk over the rice, streaking it with orange lines. Spoon out the onion-flavored oil from the pan, reserving a level tablespoon to fry the raisins for garnish if you like.
Sprinkle the oil, cardamom and bay leaves over the rice. Cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil, cut 2 inches wider than the rim of the dish. Now put the lid on and use the protuding foil edges to seal the dish as best you can by crinkling it and pushing it against the sides. Bake 1 hour.
As you lift the cover off your casserole dish, you will see beautiful saffron streaks on the white rice. Spoon the rice and chicken out onto a large platter. Sprinkle fried onions and other garnishes of your choice over, and serve hot.
From "An Invitation to Indian Cooking," by Madhur Jaffrey
Per serving (based on 8 servings): 480 calories, 23 grams protein, 19 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 54 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 53 milligrams cholesterol, 1,384 milligrams sodium
2 pounds of cubed chicken, beef or lamb
8 ounces onions, finely chopped
8 ounces vegetable oil, plus more for heavy pot
8 ounces yogurt
pinch of saffron
1/2 cup milk
2 green chiles
piece of fresh ginger, 1 inch long
4 cloves garlic
6 green cardamom pods
1 teaspoon allspice
1 ounce fresh mint leaves
1 ounce fresh coriander leaves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt to taste
2 pounds basmati rice
Soak the meat in plenty of cold water for 1 hour.
Stir-fry onions in 8 ounces of vegetable oil until they are a rich, golden brown. Strain onions and add to the yogurt, reserving oil.
Soak saffron in milk.
Squeeze out all the water from the meat and prick it all over with a fork.
Grind together the green chiles, ginger and garlic. Smear the paste liberally all over the meat and once again prick with a fork. Cover and let marinate for half an hour.
Add meat to the yogurt along with the allspice, chopped fresh mint leaves and coriander leaves, lemon juice and salt. Cover and leave the meat to marinate for 1 hour.
Reheat the vegetable oil; add the meat and the marinade. Stirring frequently, fry the meat until it is almost tender and the sauce has thickened. Cover and let it cook slowly while the rice is being prepared.
Bring 2 1/2 pints of water to a boil. Add the rice. Bring it back to a boil. Strain and set aside.
Smear some vegetable oil on the bottom and sides of a heavy pot. Place a 2-inch layer of rice at the bottom. Cover it with a layer of cooked meat and sauce. Top it with a layer of rice and another layer of meat. Drizzle saffron-infused milk across the top. Cover with a tightly fitted lid.
Place biryani in a hot oven, set at 375 degrees, until the rice is well cooked. Remove from heat, and leave it aside for a few minutes. Blend together and serve.
Courtesy of Sajida Nomani of Wheaton
Per serving: 822 calories, 33 grams protein, 32 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 99 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 66 milligrams cholesterol, 86 milligrams sodium