Royal rice

Biriani benefits from the flavor that meat, seafood or vegetables impart as they are heated together.

yellow rice 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yellow rice 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I first encountered the layered rice casserole called biriani more than 30 years ago at an Indian restaurant in London, where I got my first taste of Indian cuisine and have loved it ever since. I was very impressed with the delicate, aromatic basmati rice flavored with saffron and served with whole spices. Traditional biriani (also spelled biryani) features marinated lamb or chicken seasoned with coriander, cumin, cardamom and other spices, cooked with sauteed onions and garlic in a rich sauce, and heated with the rice. My friend Neelam Batra, author of 1,000 Indian Recipes, wrote that birianis are special Mughlai dishes, which means they originated in the imperial kitchens of the Mughal Empire, a Muslim dynasty of Central Asian origin that ruled much of India until the mid-1800s. Batra says that birianis are "elaborate affairs full of enticing flavors" usually served on holidays. She makes a delicious biriani with eggplant and coconut, another with lamb and apricots and another with a lavish amount of fried onions, mixed nuts and raisins. For accompaniments, she recommends serving chutneys or simple yogurt raitas, such as tomato raita with fresh mint leaves. Mavis Hyman, author of Indian-Jewish Cooking, calls such rice casseroles pilaws instead of biriani to highlight their Persian roots. She finds that there is a Jewish connection as well: "It is quite likely that the Moghul emperors... brought these culinary delights with them. In this way the Muslims of India were the carriers of many Middle Eastern dishes. The Jews who migrated to India from Iraq and Syria reinforced this process to some extent." For one version she layers fish with cooked rice seasoned with turmeric and studded with whole spices, and advises serving it with a diced vegetable salad that resembles Israeli salad with cabbage added. At the Los Angeles Pakistani festival, I enjoyed a peppery lamb biriani spiced with whole cloves and cumin seeds. Lately I've found biriani at vegetarian eateries too. At my favorite Indian café in Los Angeles, the biriani is basically yellow rice with carrot slices, lima beans, green beans, fresh coriander and sometimes sautéed peanuts. At another Indian vegetarian restaurant I like, the chef adds sauteed cubes of tofu to the biriani, along with a variety of vegetables and whole spices. Biriani benefits from the flavor that the meat, seafood or vegetables impart to the rice as they are heated together. Although in its classic form biriani is a fairly involved dish originally served at weddings and other special occasions, it can be used as an inspiration for easier, lighter modern casseroles, like the recipe below. For making biriani, fragrant basmati rice is preferred. Handle the cooked rice gently when adding other ingredients so that its long, delicate grains are not crushed. VEGETABLE BIRIANI WITH SAFFRON, GINGER AND GARLIC At an Indian restaurant in Santa Monica, California, I particularly enjoyed a gently seasoned vegetable biriani that was flavored with fresh coriander leaves and toasted nuts. This is an easy adaptation of that dish. Despite the fact that there are several different spices, it is not peppery or fiery. If you don't have basmati rice, you can use long-grain white rice. You can substitute broccoli, green beans, zucchini or pale-skinned summer squash (kishu) for the cauliflower, or carrots for the peas. If you like, add 1⁄2 cup cooked lima beans or chickpeas. To make a chicken biriani, use vegetable oil, not butter. Heat 2 cups of roast chicken cut in cubes with a little of its roasting juices or with an additional onion sautéed in oil, then layer it with the rice and the vegetables. Serve the vegetable biriani with raita. If you like, serve chutney from a jar and s'hug (Yemenite hot pepper garlic paste) on the side. 2 or 3 Tbsp. butter or vegetable oil 1 onion, finely chopped 1 Tbsp. minced peeled gingerroot 3 large garlic cloves, chopped 1 1⁄4 cups basmati rice, rinsed and drained 2 cups water 1⁄4 tsp. saffron threads 1⁄2 tsp. salt pinch of pepper 1⁄2 tsp. ground coriander 1 bay leaf 1 cinnamon stick 5 cardamom pods (optional) 2 cups small cauliflower florets, cooked and drained 1 cup fresh or frozen peas, cooked and drained 3 Tbsp. chopped coriander 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 cup toasted cashews or almonds Preheat oven to 175º. Melt butter in a wide saucepan or sauté pan. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add rice, water, saffron, salt, pepper, ground coriander, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until rice is barely tender. Discard bay leaf. With a fork, lightly fluff rice and add 2 tablespoons chopped coriander. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add peas to a pan of boiling salted water to cover, return to a boil and cook frozen peas for 1 minute, and fresh for 7 to 10 minutes or until just. Remove with a slotted spoon. Add enough water to cover cauliflower and return to a boil. Add cauliflower and a pinch of salt, return to a boil and cook for 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove with a slotted spoon. Butter or oil an 8-cup casserole. Spoon half the rice into casserole. Top with cauliflower and peas. Sprinkle vegetables lightly with salt and pepper. Top with remaining rice. Cover and bake for 15 minutes. Serve sprinkled with remaining chopped coriander and with cashews. Makes 4 servings. RAITA WITH CARROTS AND MINT Raita is a yogurt salad or dip that comes in many versions and is a standard accompaniment at Indian restaurants, as it helps quench the fire of spicy dishes. Biriani often is not a particularly pungent dish, but raita is a popular partner for it because it is so refreshing. I've had raita made with diced tomato and cucumber, with fresh ginger, with carrot and even with tiny chickpea dumplings. 2 cups plain yogurt 1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin salt and freshly ground pepper 1 to 11⁄2 cups grated carrot 1⁄2 cup finely diced cucumber 2 Tbsp chopped green onion (optional) 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint Pinch of paprika (for sprinkling) Mix yogurt with cumin, salt and pepper. Lightly stir in carrot, cucumber, green onion and chopped mint. Taste and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve in a shallow bowl. Sprinkle with paprika just before serving. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.