Different Ramadan flavors

Indian cooks compose their iftar from local specialties; as in the Mideast, dishes that combine meat and grains are among the most popular.

Garnishing a biryani food 521 (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
Garnishing a biryani food 521
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
When it comes to food for breaking the fast during Ramadan, we tend to think of Middle Eastern dishes like majadra, rice with lentils and browned onions; musakhan, chicken with sumac and onions; and maqlouba, lamb or chicken with rice, eggplant and other vegetables.
In the Indian subcontinent, cooks compose their iftar, or break-the-fast meals, from local specialties. As in the Mideast, dishes that combine meat and grains are among the most popular items. This is natural, as they satisfy hunger quickly.
There were several meat- and grain-based dishes on the Ramadan menus of two Los Angeles restaurants where we dined recently. Apey Kade, a Sri Lankan restaurant, served specialties of the island off the tip of southeastern India, and Red Chili, a Pakistani restaurant, served dishes from the northwest part of the Indian subcontinent.
At the Sri Lankan restaurant we were greeted with kanji, a golden, lightly thickened chicken soup with basmati rice and coconut milk flavored with ginger, garlic, turmeric, fresh curry leaves, cinnamon sticks, onion and tomato. The soup was tasty, smooth and soothing.
We also ate two kinds of spicy biryani – one of mutton and rice and another of chicken with chopped string hoppers, which are thin Sri Lankan rice noodles. The rice and noodles gained good flavor and richness from being simmered slowly with the meat, which had been cooked with green chilies, garlic, ginger, black pepper, whole black cardamom pods and other spices. Each portion of biryani was topped with coconut-mint chutney, a deep-fried hard-boiled egg, a sprinkling of chopped fresh coriander, and eggplant and sweet pepper relish. (See recipe.) At the Pakistani restaurant, the dishes we ate were also hot and spicy. There was tasty chicken biryani and savory beef haleem, which is made with wheat, barley and lentils cooked for six hours with herbs and spices, including cardamom and hot pepper, until the mixture becomes a puree. Both dishes are popular among Pakistani and Indian Muslims for breaking the fast, and both have a Middle Eastern connection.
Haleem, which is thought to have been brought to the Indian subcontinent by migrants from Yemen, Iran or Afghanistan, is considered by many to be a variation of Middle Eastern harisse, and is related to several dishes of slow-cooked meat and grains in the region. Malka Almoni, author of Yemenite Cooking (in Hebrew, “Habishul Hateimani”), makes harisse from cracked wheat simmered in water with soup bones, Yemenite spice blend, onion, and tomato, and notes that it can be cooked overnight like hamin.
Previously we had sampled Persian haleem with turkey and wheat, Assyrian haleem with chicken and barley and Armenian harissa with chicken and wheat berries, and all were very lightly seasoned.
The Pakistani version was by far the spiciest.
Biryani was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by the Mughals or Moghuls, wrote Prem Souri Kishore, author of India: A Culinary Journey. This Muslim dynasty from Central Asia ruled much of India from the mid 1500s to the mid 1800s, and promoted Persian culture in the subcontinent. They are said to have brought recipes for 26 variations of biryani.
“‘Regal sumptuousness’ are the words that come to mind when describing feasts during the Mughal period,” wrote Kishore, noting that dishes were presented on gold and silver platters. “A biryani could be cooked as an entire one-dish meal with lamb, fish, chicken or vegetables, accompanied by raitha, the cooling mix of cucumber and yogurt. One distinguishing feature of the biryani is that the rice and meat are arranged in layers for the final cooking phase.”
This savory dish is also a favorite for cooking at home. Kishore prepares Mughal lamb biryani by sauteing lamb pieces in oil with ginger paste and garlic paste, and seasons the dish with ground coriander, chili, turmeric and the Indian spice blend garam masala. For her Hyderabadi chicken biryani, she marinates the chicken in ginger-garlic paste and cooks it with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, red chili powder and tomatoes. In both biryani dishes she layers the cooked meat with half-cooked rice, fried onions and fresh herbs, and simmers the mixture over low heat until the rice is tender.
Garnishing a biryani in the traditional manner is quite an art, wrote Smita Chandra, author of From Bengal to Punjab, and calls for such items as edible silver foil and rose petals. For a delicious biryani that does not require such exotic ingredients, see the recipe below.
Faye Levy is the author of Feastfrom the Mideast.
Rice with Chicken – Murgh Biryani
This recipe is from Smita Chandra’s book From Bengal to Punjab. To make the dish kosher, we have replaced the yogurt with soy milk; choose a brand that is unsweetened or very lightly sweetened.
Makes 4 servings with other dishes
❖ 700 gr. (1½ pounds) chicken breasts or thighs ❖ 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil ❖ ½ tsp. whole cumin seeds ❖ A 1.25-cm (½-inch) piece fresh ginger, grated ❖ 4 cloves garlic, grated ❖ 2 medium onions, chopped finely ❖ ½ tsp. ground coriander seeds ❖ ½ tsp. ground cumin seeds ❖ ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper ❖ ½ tsp. ground turmeric ❖ 6 Tbsp. soy milk ❖ Salt to taste ❖ 1¼ cups water ❖ 1 tsp. garam masala (purchased or homemade, see recipe below) ❖ 1 cup basmati rice ❖ 2 cloves ❖ 2 cardamom pods ❖ 1 bay leaf ❖ A 1.25-cm (½-inch) stick cinnamon ❖ ¼ cup each loosely packed fresh mint leaves and fresh coriander leaves, chopped finely (optional)
Skin and debone chicken and cut it into 2.5-cm (1-inch) pieces.
In a large, heavy-bottom skillet over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the whole cumin seeds. When they darken (1 to 2 seconds), add the grated ginger and garlic. Cook for 1 minute; then add the onions and saute until lightly browned (about 8 minutes). Add the ground coriander seeds, ground cumin seeds, cayenne and turmeric. Cook for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the soy milk and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the chicken pieces, salt and ½ cup of the water. Cover, increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, add the garam masala and set aside.
Wash the rice under running water and put it in a heavy-bottomed pan with the remaining ¾ cup water, cloves, cardamom pods, bay leaf and cinnamon. Cover, increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook until all the water is absorbed and rice is half cooked (about 7 minutes).
Preheat oven to 150ºC (300ºF). Spread half the rice mixture in the bottom of a clear ovenproof dish. With a slotted spoon remove half the chicken from the sauce and layer it over the rice. Spread all the chopped mint and coriander leaves on top. Add a layer of the remaining rice and top with remaining chicken.
Drizzle the sauce all over the rice and chicken, cover tightly with foil, and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and let stand for 5 to 7 minutes before serving.
Garam Masala
Chandra wrote that garam masala is an essential ingredient in most North Indian and Mughlai preparations, and finds the homemade blend superior to commercial versions. Often the blend is sprinkled over dishes just before they are served, but it can also be added in the course of cooking, as in the biryani recipe above.
Chandra notes that you can leave the cardamom pods whole to save time instead of removing the seeds, and that it doesn’t significantly alter the flavor of the masala.
Makes about 4 tablespoons
❖ 1 small nutmeg ❖ 1½ Tbsp. green cardamom pods ❖ 4 sticks (2.5 cm or 1 inch each) cinnamon ❖ 1 Tbsp. whole cloves ❖ 1 tsp. peppercorns ❖ 1 tsp. cumin seeds
Crush the nutmeg coarsely with a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a clean coffee grinder, add the remaining ingredients and grind finely. Store in an airtight container away from heat and light.
Sri Lankan Eggplant and Sweet Pepper Relish
This vegetable relish, made of baked eggplant slices, sautéed onions and sweet peppers and flavored with mustard and curry, is a good accompaniment for biryani. It is based on a recipe from my friend, Sri Lanka-born chef Kusuma Cooray.
Makes 3 or 4 servings
❖ 1 medium eggplant (450 to 500 gr. or 1 to 1¼ pounds), unpeeled, sliced 1-cm (⅜-inch) thick ❖ 3 to 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil ❖ Salt to taste ❖ 1 medium onion, halved and sliced ❖ 1 sweet red pepper, cut in strips ❖ 1 sweet green pepper, cut in strips ❖ cup white vinegar ❖ 2 tsp. Dijon mustard ❖ 1 tsp. paprika ❖ 1 to 1½ tsp. curry powder ❖ ¼ tsp. pure chili powder or cayenne pepper, or more to taste ❖ 1 tablespoon sugar ❖ 2 tablespoons water
Preheat oven to 230ºC (450ºF).
Put eggplant slices on a large, lightly oiled baking sheet in one layer. Sprinkle with 1½ to 2 tablespoons oil, then sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake 10 minutes; turn slices over, sprinkle with salt and bake about 10 more minutes or until tender. Transfer to a plate.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy large skillet.
Add sliced onion and sauté over medium heat, stirring often, about 7 minutes; add red and green peppers and sauté about 6 minutes or until onions brown. Remove onions and peppers to a plate.
Add vinegar, mustard, paprika, curry powder, chili powder, sugar, water and a pinch of salt to the skillet. Stir over low heat until smooth.
Add eggplant slices to skillet and toss quickly but gently over low heat to coat each slice with the seasonings. Taste; sprinkle with salt and more chili powder if desired. Put eggplant slices on a serving plate, overlapping them. Top with sautéed onion and pepper mixture.
You can keep the relish in a closed container in the refrigerator for 3 days.
Serve at room temperature.