Adventures in Biryani Land

April 25, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

Adventures in Biryani Land 1
I have come to accept that my mother is a culinary rockstar and I will never quite measure up. Think Yoda (wearing a sari). Back in the day when immigrant mothers held steadfast to making food from their home countries, my Pakistani mother was exposing my brother and I to her own brand of multiculturalism by making everything from souffles to egg rolls to enchiladas. Although she made food from all over the world, there was no denying that my mother’s specialty was down-home, Pakistani comfort food. And while living “down-home,” I was certainly comforted by her food. So much so that I I never bothered to learn how to cook.
Enter law school, five hundred miles away with a tiny kitchen that also served as my entryway, dining room and living room. The oven only went up to 300 degrees, the freezer was the size of a shoebox, and the hot water only worked between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. All of that didn’t matter because all I cooked were packages of Ramen and Hot Pockets. The dish I missed most while pathetically eating my ramen? My mother’s chicken biryani. Biryani is the quintessential Pakistani rice dish served everywhere from weddings to quiet family dinners. The secret to a fabulous biryani rests in every family’s ultra-secret spice blend and precisely-timed baking process. Needless to say, the two-inch, foil “spice” packet that came with the ramen was not going to help me.

Adventures in Biryani Land 2
I confess, I researched biryani on the internet. I couldn’t call my mom and hear her charmingly accented, “You, I told so.” So, instead of turning to the expert I knew and should have trusted, I turned to the “experts” on the web. Things went horribly downhill from there. One of the first articles I read focused on some new-age concept that I had to make the dish “my own” and for some crazy reason, I took that advice to heart. Over the next few months, I made biryani ad nauseum and each time, I attempted to make it “my own.” Once, I added pineapple to give it the hint of sweetness I was sure it needed. I’m certain one or two ancestors rolled over in their graves. Another time, I used Rice-A-Roni instead of basmati rice. What? i was trying to make it my own and the Rice-A-Roni came from my own pantry. After months of being unable to recreate my mother’s biryani, I simply gave up. I was going to be a Superman-cape-wearing attorney who was going to save the world. There was no room in the phone booth to make biryani.
Fast forward to 2010. I’m married to an awesome, bass-playing, uber-intelligent Pakistani man… who loves Pakistani food. Time to sink or swim. Pineapples and Rice-A-Roni be damned, I called my mother for guidance. And I continued calling her at five-minute intervals while boiling the rice, making the spice blend, cooking the chicken, layering the rice and chicken mixture and baking the entire concoction. When I pulled the dish out of the oven, both I and my phone bill breathed a sigh of relief. Things looked and smelled almost as great as they did 20-some odd years ago in my mother’s yellow-checkered, 1970’s kitchen.
Is the chicken biryani a dish worthy of a master chef? I don’t know but it’s certainly worthy of my mom, the only master chef in my world!
Some general tips in case, you too find yourself miles from home, wanting to impress a significant other with your biryani-making prowess:
1) Use quality basmati rice. Not jasmine rice, not sushi rice and certainly not Rice-A-Roni.
2) Toast your whole spices and grind them in a spice grinder to make your spice blend. Take two deep breaths and accept that you will not be able to use the grinder to grind whole coffee beans ever again.
3) If you want to make the dish “your own,” substitute the chicken with beef, lamb or even vegetables. Don’t use pineapples. They are not your friend.
4) Find quality saffron, soak it in a tablespoon or so of water and pour it on the layered-concoction before baking. That awesome smell wafting from your oven is the reason why saffron is more expensive than gold.
5) Call your mom. I bet she’d be glad to hear from you.

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