Mama's Lamb Biryani
Every culture has its celebration food and for a lot of South Asia, it is definitely the biryani. It is a labor of love. Layers of fragrant basmati rice, marinated and rich meat, lightly fried onions, a special biryani spice mix, loads of mint and cilantro leaves, and gorgeously floral saffron. I know I sound like one of those ridiculous food people (which I am) but trust me - when done correctly, there is nothing as special as this one pot wonder.
Biryani can be traced all the way back to the Moghul era in India, between the 16th and 19th centuries. Like anything that is that old, it has countless regional variations and within each region, each family has their special way of making biryani. Outside of the Indian subcontinent, you will find similar dishes layering rice, meat, and spices in the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of Russia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and really, anywhere that has a sizable and historical Muslim population. It's generally a celebration dish, served at big events like weddings or birthdays but people often make simpler and less rich versions for family gatherings and smaller parties. If you're putting in the effort to make a biryani, invite your favorite people over and share - there is nothing better!
As you can probably tell from my ode to biryani, it is a recipe with a lot of components and therefore, a lot of steps. Until this recently, I never attempted to make or learn biryani because all of these many components and steps made it seem insurmountable. Its symphony of flavors, which requires attention to detail and a great palette, was something only my mother could create. I don't want to claim that I can now make a biryani as good as my mom's but I watching her cook this made it much more achievable. It does have multiple steps and some exotic ingredients but none of the steps are difficult and with some practice, a good biryani that will floor your guests is certainly within reach.
My mom is a superwoman and made this a day after landing from a 26-hour journey home from her trip to India and decided to go all out with some tender cuts of lamb. I recommend you make a biryani with chicken your first few times, as a chicken is more affordable than lamb, and then level up to lamb. This is best served with a simple cucumber and onion raita, the recipe for which is also included below.
for the marinade
8 lamb shoulder chops, bone-in
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 tbsp water or buttermilk
1 head of garlic cloves
3-4 inch piece of ginger, chopped
2 tbsp coconut milk or unsweetened coconut flakes
8-10 cashews or almonds
3-4 green chilis (fewer, if you do not like spicy)
10-12 black peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 cup oil
2 cups basmati rice
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 large onion, thinly sliced
5 green cardamom pods
1/2 stick of cinnamon
1 star anise
8-10 stalks mint leaves
1 tsp good saffron threads
2 tbsp milk
1 medium potato, thinly sliced
for the raita
2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 English cucumber, diced
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
salt to taste
1 green chili, optional
Make the marinade. Take all the ingredients listed under “For the Marinade”, except the lamb and turmeric, and soak for 30 mins. This will soften the nuts and help create a finer paste. Then blend everything to a smooth paste and pour over the lamb chunks. Sprinkle the turmeric and mix well. Let the meat marinate for at least 4 hours but preferably overnight.
When you’re ready to cook, take a heavy bottomed pot (like this one) and heat on medium-high heat. Add two tablespoons of oil and let it heat for 2-3 mins and add half of the sliced red onion. Keeping a close watch, fry the onions until they are crispy and brown, about 4 mins. Drain the onions on a piece of paper towel and brown the second batch. Do not crowd the pan - the goal is to get onions that are crispy, not mushy. If necessary, break it up into a third batch.
Once the onions are done, turn up the heat a bit more and add another two tablespoons of oil into the same pot. Let the oil heat through for a few minutes and add the marinated meat. Cook for 5 minutes to seal the meat. Salt the meat and mix well. Lower the heat to medium and let the meat keep cooking.
In the meantime, take the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, and star anise and dry roast for 2-3 minutes on a pan. Grind the whole spices in a spice grinder. Add half of this spice mix to pot with the lamb and mix well. Cover the pot with a lid, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook for 45 mins. Check the meat every 15 mins or so, to make sure it’s not too dry and getting stuck to the bottom of the pot. If it is getting stuck, add a little water to loosen it up.
While the meat cooks, make your rice. Make a small satchel with cheesecloth for the fennel seeds. Bring 3 cups of water to boil and salt generously. Add the rice basmati rice and fennel satchel. Cook the rice until it’s about two thirds cooked, about 7-8 mins. Remove the fennel satchel and drain any excess water. Set the rice aside.
Next, take the two tablespoons of milk in a small glass bowl and heat in the microwave for 30 seconds. Once warm, add the saffron threads, mix well, and set aside to let the saffron release its color and aroma.
By this point, the meat will be cooked and you are ready to layer (the final step!). Remove the meat into a bowl from the pot and set aside. In the same pot, drizzle a thin layer of oil, about a teaspoon and layer the thin slices of potatoes into a single layer. Next, add a layer of the lamb, a layer of rice, a drizzle of the saffron milk, a sprinkle of the ground spices (from earlier), a squeeze of lemon, a layer of mint leaves, and a layer of the fried onions. Repeat this process two more times (three total layers). Place a lid on the pot and turn on the burner on low heat and cook for 15 minutes.
While the biryani finishes, make the raita by mixing everything under the “For the raita” section. Remove the biryani from the heat and finish with a final sprinkle of fresh mint.
Serve the biryani by going all the way to the bottom of the pot to get as many layers as possible and some crispy potato slices! Mix in some raita and eat!