I have a serious love for a North Indian dish called Biryani. It consists of meat, rice, spices, raisins and nuts layered and cooked together into an aromatic and flavorful blend of deliciousness. Once, a friend and I were craving it and spent the better part of week searching for the perfect Biryani in Mumbai. After testing several restaurants, we came to the sad realization that no one makes it like Mama does (Or Mama’s cook, as the case may be).
At any rate, when Varun and I went to India in June, I had one mission: learn how to make biryani. One morning, the girl who works for Varun’s parents was reportedly preparing biryani for supper. I grabbed my journal and headed to the kitchen. Now, biryani is reportedly a very difficult and time consuming dish. But I was determined. Although I know the words for most spices and ingredients, I was finding it difficult to ask in Hindi, “How long did you marinate the mutton?” and “How many servings does this make?”. So, I dragged Varun, who was still in his pre-chai stupor, into the kitchen to translate. The conversation went something like this.
Shanti: (something in Hindi while measuring a spice)
Varun: Then you add that.
Me: Okay. What was that called again?
Varun: (translates the question for Shanti)
Shanti: (Says something else. Presumably answers Varun’s question while handing me cashews to chop)
Varun: Chop those. Add a pinch of that. Then add kevera.
Me: What’s kevera?
Shanti: (Points to a brown, wrinkled seed and talks animatedly)
Varun: Then let it cook for three whistles.
Me: Three whistles? But our pressure cooker isn’t big enough! Can I make it in the oven? On the stove? How long does it cook for?
As you can imagine, my notes from that cooking lesson were a jumbled mixture of words scribbled in Hindi, lists of ingredients, instructions, tips and question marks. Upon arriving home I would look longingly at the page in my journal but, intimidated by the gaps and lengthy process, would flip quickly to a blank page, salivating at the thought of biryani I couldn’t savor.
This weekend, I decided to take the plunge. I found a recipe online and compared notes to create a coherent and, hopefully, accurate set of instructions. Like any good cook, I decided to invite over guests upon whom to test my untried recipe. The guests? The friend who had scoured Mumbai with me for the perfect biryani and his girlfriend. (They’re also mixed: She’s from Canada and he was born in India!)
Guess what! It was fantastic. Despite my fears it didn’t take hours of prep, dirtied only two pots and tasted very similar to Shanti’s.
Now, like all of my Indian cooking experiments, this one was not without a few casualties:
1. For some reason which I’d love to know, the rice is meant to be colored orange and yellow with food coloring. Mine turned out pink. Yipes.
2. Despite my friend’s advice, I stubbornly stuck to the recipe and left it cooking on the stove. This resulted in the bottom of the pot having fossilized rice burnt into it.
And my dear husband scrubbed and scoured that pot until it looked as good as new. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some leftovers calling my name…