Veg Biryani

I’ve had the pleasure of many, very different Veg Biryani dishes, all across India and at various places across North America and Europe. A boring biryani is quite a disappointment. Yeah, I’m a bit of a biryani snob. This is the story of the dish that reset my standards for that typical South Indian meal. If you’re lucky, it’s served on a giant banana leaf, maybe on top of metal Thali plate, maybe not. And if you’re wise and willing, you’ll eat it with your fingers.

The best Veg Biryani I ever had was at a little corner stall in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, South India. Riding in the rickshaw with my trusty backpack, coming from the bus station the night we arrived, I saw this gem of a place with two benches, a few stools, and two grubby tables. The next day we walked down the dusty alley and sat down on a bench with some locals for a big lunch. The fact that all this place served was biryani was a good indicator of what was to come. For about fifty cents we filled up on insanely good biryani and washed it down with a fizzy, fresh lemon soda.

This recipe is my best attempt to recreate that most memorable of biryanis. I’ve made it several times in my kitchen in Amravati and back at home in Berlin, and most recently served it at a dinner party for some friends to whom I first introduced the colorful, brilliant dish. I’ve yet to find banana leaves to keep things as authentic as possible, but the flavors are all there. As always, I recommend grinding your own spices (starting with whole cumin and coriander seeds). The dish works with many different kinds of vegetables (fresh or frozen) and nuts, and as you’ll see from the photos it can also be made with toasted sunflower seeds in place of cashews. Yesterday I was simply too absorbed with the blog to get out to the Asian shop for the right nuts.

Veg Biryani
serves 4 / time: 35 min

2 cups basmati rice
3 cups of water or veg stock

1 cup cauliflower chopped in small florets
1 cup peas and / or green beans
1 cup carrot peeled chopped
1 medium onion chopped / diced
1 medium tomato chopped or 1 tbs tomato paste
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup cashews broken / crumbled
1-2 cloves garlic finely diced or pressed
1/2 in / 1 cm ginger fresh, peeled, finely diced
1/2 tspn brown mustard seeds
1/2 tspn turmeric

2 bay leaves
1 Tbs (8-10 medium) curry leaves
2 green cardamom pods whole
3 cloves
1 tspn coriander ground
1 tspn cumin ground
1/2 tspn black pepper ground
2 green chili peppers or 1/2 tspn red pepper flakes
pinch asafoetida (hing) powder
2 tbs lemon juice + 1/4 cup water
1/2 tspn sugar
1 tspn salt
3-4 Tbs oil
fresh coriander leaves
or fenugreek leaves and paprika to garnish

  1. Bring 3 cups of water to boil and cook rice in a covered pot. Many cooks like to rinse and soak the rice for up to 30 min first; that’s up to you. Rice will be done in 15-20 minutes. When water is gone, turn off heat, fluff rice gently, cover, set aside.
  2. In a large pot heat 3-4 Tbs oil on medium high.
  3. Throw in mustard seeds, black pepper, coriander, cumin, asafoetida.
  4. After mustard seeds start to pop (20-30 seconds) add remaining spices (ginger, garlic, onions, curry leaves, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom, chili, turmeric).
  5. Mix spices and fry for about 1 min and add cut tomato, cauliflower, peas / beans, carrots. Stir frequently and cook on medium high for 4-5 min.
  6. Add lemon juice + 1/4 cup water, sugar, raisins, cashew pieces. Mix well and cover to cook for another 2-3 minutes on medium.
  7. When vegetables are almost done get ready to add cooked rice.
  8. Add half of the basmati rice, stir, mix in rest of rice and cook for 2-3 minutes stirring constantly on medium high. The rice should be bright yellow and the vegetables lightly scorched in places.
  9. Turn off the heat, cover for 5 min while you set the table or prepare plates.
  10. Remove the bay leaves, cloves and cardamom – if you feel like it.
  11. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves or crumbled dried fenugreek leaves, sprinkle with paprika and serve.

Variations: Biryani is often served in South India with a variety of chutney sauces. You can use a spoonful of soy yogurt or coconut milk to give the dish a lighter, creamier flavor or subdue the spice levels.

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