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Basmati Tales and a Mutton Biryani Recipe for Bakr-Eid

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My family is from undivided Bihar, and my father remembers that biryani was rare before the turn of the millennium, even in Bakr-Eid. Pulao took center stage at festive events. It was made with fine and medium grain sonachoor fragrant rice with a sweet fruity aroma. When I was growing up in the 90s, my aunts in Calcutta introduced our family to the dish that is now revered during Bakr-Eid – biryani – and the rice that is synonymous with it – basmati.

Twenty years ago, we learned to associate basmati and aristocracy. My father was of the opinion that it came from shahers (bigger cities) like Delhi or Kolkata, and he could have been right. Delhi-based public historian Farah Yameen has a special interest in food and she shares biryani in Patna, a bada shaher– was made only with basmati in the past and even now.

When we moved to Delhi in 2011, basmati infiltrated our family biryani. The change of venue allowed us to adopt readily available ingredients and basmati appeared regularly on our table. As a training leader, I wondered how basmati became the rice of choice for biryanis in most parts of India?

It is believed that this variety of rice gained popularity in northern India during the Mughal era. Dr Debal Deb, founder of the Vrihi and Basudha rice seed banks in Odisha, explains that the Mughals were loyal to basmati, the aromatic, thin rice that doubled in length after cooking. The history and folklore of basmati rice, an academic article written by Subhash Chander, Uma and Siddharth Ahuja, suggests that the Ain-i-Akbari records the culture of mouchkeen (a red-skinned variant of basmati) in Lahore, Multan, Allahabad, Oudh, Delhi, Agra, Ajmer and the Raisen region of Malwa Subah.

Rana Safvi, the Delhi-based author and historian, says Lucknow has always used basmati (to make pulao and biryani). This particular rice, she says, requires delicate handling of each grain. Lucknow’s love for nafassat (delicate) and viscous (sensitive) palate was also reflected in their choice of rice.

From the north, basmati biryani traveled to Calcutta (now Kolkata), and acquired a new variation with more Masala and adding potato. Manzilat Fatima, from Kolkata, home chef and restaurateur for Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s family, said she has always used basmati and their biryani recipe is a family heirloom.

Kolkata biryani shares similarities with Bohri biryani in Mumbai. Shanti Petiwala, a Mumbai-based home cook, says Bohri biryani is chewy, delicately spicy, and has a strong cilantro flavor with lots of potato.

On the other hand, the tradition of pulao of the kitchens of Bihar in the 90s is similar to the eating practices of Bhopal. Ruchi Shrivastava, founder of production house Greed Goddess Media, who grew up in Bhopal, says biryani have gained a foothold in their city over the past two decades. Pulao was the main preparation of rice for festivals like Bakr-Eid. But, whether it’s baby boomer pulao or millennial biryani, the common thread has always been basmati.

Long, thin grains of basmati add beauty to a dish. Perhaps it was also promoted for its appetizing aroma, chewy texture, and practicality – it almost doubles in size after cooking, making it possible to feed large groups of people with less effort, especially during festivals. It also has special status as a go-to rice option for festivals and celebrations.

The immense popularity of certain grains, such as basmati, can also be attributed to government support in post-independent India as a country geared towards economic growth. There is a massive demand for this variety of rice in the world markets. The Indian government has experimented with different high-yielding basmati cultivars to boost exports. In 2003, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), after years of breeding experiments, developed a cultivar named PUSA 1121 for commercial production. Today, it is the most consumed Basmati variety in India.

However, it has not always been so homogeneous and several parts of India have cultivated their own basmati, imbuing it with local flavors and spectacular variety. Brinder Singh Sandhu, farmer in Benazir farms, Rampur is now in his fifties and says when he was young they had Pakistanis or Dehradun Basmati. These beans, he shares, weren’t as long as the ones we have now, but the aroma was much more superior. It is still available but very rare and expensive.

Today, the market is also inundated with shoddy basmati, which is suitable for all budgets and helps fulfill dreams of making a hot and delicious pot of biryani at festivals like Bakr-Eid.

But, the signature rice of northern Indian biryani lovers has failed to invade southern cuisines. The tropical climate of regions such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala is not suitable for the cultivation of this cereal. Their rice of choice is the aromatic short grain rice. jeerakasala for dishes like the famous Thallesary biryani. Marina Balakrishnan, founder and chef of Oottupura in Mumbai, explains that Thallesary biryani does not have rose water, an ingredient that is an integral part of the North Indian counterpart because they want to preserve the aroma of the rice.

Biryani in most families Malabar is made with homemade spices and freshly crushed by hand. Even here, pluralities exist as some versions of Thallasary biryani have tomatoes with curd, while others are infused with coconut cream. Marina says the fish version of Thallesary uses tomatoes, which is different from other meat-based biryanis. In neighboring Tamil Nadu, one of the best-known biryanis is the Chettinad version. This too doesn’t use basmati, but is made from Seeraga Samba, a fragrant short-grain rice. The origins of biryanis in India also differ: while the Mughals brought biryanis to the kitchens of northern India, in southern India it was the Arab traders.

Considering the mind-boggling variety of biryanis in India, it would be unfair to pick a favorite. But whether you are from the north or the south, a Bakr-Eid dastarkhan will cross borders and boast of slow cooking kamil (perfect) biryani.

Mutton Biryani

Ingredients

For the sheep

500 g mutton, with bone and hind legs

Salt to taste

2 teaspoons of chilli powder

Three quarters of a teaspoon of turmeric

1 tablespoon of ground coriander

1 tablespoon of ginger paste

1 tablespoon of garlic paste

2 tablespoons of papaya paste

One and a half cups of curd

For Qorma

Half cup of ghee

2 teaspoons of shahi jeera

5 cardamoms

1 cinnamon stick

1 cup of onion paste

1 tablespoon of garlic paste

1 tablespoon of ginger paste

A dash of water

Three quarters of a teaspoon of turmeric

1 tablespoon of chilli powder

A spoon and a half of ground coriander

Salt to taste

Half teaspoon of powdered cardamom

Half teaspoon of mace powder (javitri)

For the rice

500 g of basmati rice

3 liters of water

Salt to taste

4-5 cardamoms

2 bay leaves

1 inch of cinnamon

For assembly

Half a cup of fried onion

1 tablespoon of kewra water

2 green peppers

1 cup of mint leaves

Saffron (dissolved in 2 tablespoons of milk)

3 tablespoons of ghee or leftover oil

A handful of mint leaves – a handful

3 teaspoons of garam massala

Handful of toasted nuts of your choice

Method

1. Wash and dry the mutton pieces.

2. Make the marinade and put all the pieces of meat in it.

3. Let sit for 8 to 10 hours

For the rice

4. Soak the washed rice in water for 30 to 45 minutes.

5. Drain the water and add the rice to a heavy-bottomed saucepan with 4 cups of water, salt, bay leaves, green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.

6. Cook the rice until cooked through to 70%.

For the masala:

7. In a deep, thick-bottomed pan, heat some ghee and brown the onion with the ginger-garlic paste. Mix all the whole spices and let them splash. Make sure to cook over low heat so you don’t let the spices burn.

8. Add the marinated mutton and cook until the mutton qorma is ready. It should take 45-50 minutes.

9. Your qorma sauce should be thick and not contain a lot of water.

Assembly of the biryani:

10. Heat a heavy-bottomed container or earthenware pot and pour in melted ghee.

11. Start layering with the mutton qorma and boiled basmati rice.

12. Garnish with fried onions, mint and cilantro leaves, garam masala and chopped toasted walnuts.

13. There should be at least two layers.

14. On the top layer of rice, sprinkle the milk soaked in saffron. Kewra water (use rose water if desired) and additional ghee.

15. Cover the earthenware container / pot tightly and cook over very low heat / simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

16. When finished, let sit for another 10 to 15 minutes.

17. Fluff with a fork and serve hot with raita.

Sadaf Hussain is a chef and author of the book Daastan-E-Dastarkhan. @ hussainsadaf1


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