Biryani. The mere word is fragrant, delicate, delicious and laden with memories. It’s that special dish that gets hours of attention and drives you slightly out of your mind with its scents, so delicious that plates empty in moments. It’s the Indian equivalent of a Sunday roast, served at special occasions and always with lots of prep and pomp preceding it. Essentially a dish made of rice, (usually) meat, fragrant spices and lots of insider knowledge, the end result is miles away from its ingredients. Quintessentially Indian, which part of the country you eat it will determine what version of the dish you get to experience—and where you’ll find the best biryani is a fiercely contested detail.
My mother makes incredibly delicious chicken and mutton biryanis; I can also remember her turning out a prawn version once in a way as well. Her version is more Hyderabadi, meaning from the city of Hyderabad in South India, which is where she grew up. Hyderabad has a unique history, given that it was a centre of Muslim governance, dating back to the Mughals that came to India from Persia. Biryani is a dish believed to have been brought by them to the subcontinent, and Hyderabad as a centre of Muslim influence was a hub in the midst of a largely Hindu region. My mother's version has flaky grains of rice longer that you’d believe possible and tender meat fragrant from its marinade. Everything melds together beautifully without any stickiness or clumping. She maintains that the degree to which each grain stays separate from the other is a measure of the expertise of the cook making the biryani.
All this goes to say one thing: biryani, for me, was a dish made by experts. And made with meat. Ever since I gave up meat fifteen years ago, I’ve pretty much also given up biryani, seeing as the vegetarian versions paled in comparision to the originals. But two things changed that in the recent past: the amazing Five Morsels of Love cookbook by Archana Pidathala that has a very delicious recipe for an aubergine biryani and a recipe that Katherine of Cardamom and Tea posted recently for a sheet pan biryani. The title immediately set off bells in my head, to the tune of “Why didn’t I think of this earlier?!?” Her recipe is the jumping-off point for this one, which is a combination of an Ottolenghi one for Iranian rice mixed with my version of spiced sheet pan vegetables. Once both are cooked to the correct degree—just done and almost done—layers are built in a pot and some gentle steaming ensures flavours mix together well. This dish is a little bit of work, but not as much as you’d think and the result is really worth it. I find cauliflower a particularly good vegetable for this, since oven-roasting brings out a texture and flavour that steaming or pan-frying just can't. You could add a handful of fresh or frozen peas as well, either in the final minutes in the oven or straight to the pot whilst layering, for added sweetness.
One important point: It's important to make sure each component is well-spiced, since the overall dish is a series of layers. So check at each stage so ensure an end result that doesn't fall flat!
Potato & Cauliflower Sheet Pan Biryani
300 gm cauliflower florets
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 cm half moons
2 medium onions, finely sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon red chilli powder
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
Salt to taste
1 cardamom pod, lightly smashed
1 1/2 cups basmati rice
2 tablespoons ghee
1/2 cup almonds, chopped
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon saffron strands
1 tablespoon salt
Preheat the oven to 180° C.
Place the rice in a large bowl and wash under running water until the water runs clear. Cover with 2—3 cm water, preferably hot, and set aside for 30 minutes. This is the stage that creates those long flaky grains of rice, so try not to skip this.
Place the saffron in a small bowl, cover with two tablespoons hot water and set aside for 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the spice mix ingredients with 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil. Add the cauliflower florets and potatoes and toss to evenly coat the vegetables. Turn out onto a sheet pan taking care not to overcrowd, and roast until just done, about 15—20 minutes. Turn once or twice to ensure nothing burns. Place the sliced onions on another sheet pan (or the same one, if there’s space), drizzle with a teaspoon of oil, mix and set in the oven to roast. The onions usually need the same time as the other vegetables to get nicely caramelized, but keep an eye on them as they tend to burn quickly. Once the vegetables are done, remove from the oven, check for salt and set aside.
Whilst the vegetables are roasting, set a large pot of water to boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the drained rice and cook on high heat until the rice is almost done but still has a bit of bite to each grain, around 3—5 minutes. Drain the rice in a colander and return the empty pot to the stove. Add 1 tablespoon ghee, lower the heat to medium and once warm, add the almonds and raisins. Fry for 2—3 minutes until golden.
Now comes the layering stage: add a third of the rice to the pot and mix well with the nuts and raisins. Flatten this layer, top with half the cauliflower and potato mix and sprinkle over with half of the onions. Add another third of rice and press down lightly to flatten. Add the remaining cauliflower and potato mix, sprinkle with the remaining onions and cover with the remaining rice. Press down lightly and spoon over the saffron mixture and another 3 tablespoons water. Close with a well-fitting lid, turn the heat down to the minimum and cook for a further 10 minutes. Turn off the heat but leave the pot on the stove, remove the lid, place a kitchen towel over the mouth of the pot and close with the lid again. Allow the biryani to rest this way for 10 minutes before serving.
Serve the biryani straight from the cooking pot, taking care to go through all the layers for each portion. You can also gently turn it out onto a large serving platter, scraping the crispy bits of rice that will have formed at the bottom of the pot. Serve immediately, either on its own or with a raita or natural yoghurt as a side.
Text & Images: Vatsala Murthy