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My Favorite Foods: Shah Jahan Biryani
Shah Jahan Biryani
Fit for an Emperor, the Splendid Biriyani
I first made this elegant imperial dish about fifteen years ago as I was exploring Indian cuisine with Julie Sahni's CLASSIC INDIAN COOKING. Published in 1980 this cookbook offers insight into the intricate cuisine from all the regions of India.
I had always enjoyed Indian cuisine and was glad to have lived for many years near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada where there is a large Indian population and even a part of the city that is almost exclusively Indian. The shops are wonderful. The bakeries offer an artistic array of pastries that are colorful and tasty. There is nothing quite like walking into a sari store where you are met with jewel like colors in every shade imaginable and helped by soft spoken women who cut the beautiful sheer fabrics with one bold stroke of the scissors.
My respect for Indian cuisine grew by leaps and bounds once I started reading Sahni's cookbook and trying the recipes. The techniques are the most intricate of any cuisine I have ever cooked. For many dishes the first onion, spice and vegetable mixture is cooked down until it is completely dry. Then more liquid and meat and spices are added and it is cooked down again. Then maybe some yoghurt or broth is added along with fresh herbs and it is cooked again. The layering of flavors is like a symphony instead of tune. It is a mystery to me how anyone ever developed some of the recipes because they are not straight forward. You can't read these recipes and know what they will taste like until you have gained some experience.
A very simple dish is also one of my favorites, Matar Paneer or peas and cheese. The cheese in this case is paneer a soft, unsalted, fresh white milk cheese. It reminds me a little of tofu but it is creamier. The technique in this case is very straightforward and easy. The paneer is cut in cubes and left to drain and dry out. It is then fried in ghee (clarified butter) until lightly browned and put aside. Onion and ginger are then fried until lightly browned followed by an addition of garlic, a host of spices and tomatoes and water. This sauce is cooked and then pureed and the peas and fried cheese are added and simmered. The dish is finished with garam masala and fresh cilantro. Exquisite.
I recommend making your own garam masala as I have never tasted any of the store bought spice mixes that come anywhere near the deliciousness of Sahni's recipes. Garan Masala is a mixture of toasted spices. My favorite recipe for garam masala is this one from CLASSIC INDIAN COOKING:
3 T. black or 2 T. green cardamon pods
3 cinnamon sticks, 3" long
1 T. whole cloves
1/4 Cup black peppercorns
1/2 Cup cumin seeds
1/2 Cup coriander seeds
Open the cardomon pods discarding the skins and saving the seeds. Crush the cinnamon sticks with a rolling pin or mallot. Combine all the spices in a skillet and roast them until they release their fragrance. Use a spice or coffee grinder to make a fine grind. This can be stored for years. I divide it into portions and put it in the freezer keeping out just a small jar for use.
And now at last to the Shah Jahan Biriyani. The following is an excerpt from Julie Sahni's cookbook to describe the dish.
Biriyani , an elaborate pilaf with breathtaking garnishes and decorations, is another wondrous Moghul creation. It takes a little extra time and trouble to prepare, but once you make it, yo will agree that the results are well worth the effort. Biriyani is prepared by layering partially cooked rice and partially or fully cooked meat in a casserole and adding different flavorings, such as saffron, kewra essence [screw pine essence], and mint. The entire dish is then steamed. . . Then the pilaf is arranged decoratively on a platter and garnished with fried onions and sauteed nuts [and raisins]. Biriyani is traditionally decorated with silver foil (vark ).
This particular biriyani is named after the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan, who built the magnificent Taj Mahal. This dish like that architectural marvel, is stunningly beautiful. p. 192
For Sahni's recipe one first makes Shahi Korma or Royal Braised Lamb with Fragrant Spices, cubes of lamb cooked dry with browned onions, ginger and spices with the addition of yoghurt at the end. Second one makes Yakhni Chawal or Fragrant Rice, a basmati rice cooked in homemade broth. Minced green chilis and chopped mint are soaked in cold milk and saffron is soaked in hot milk. Almonds and cashews are toasted in oil. Raisins are fried in oil until the puff up. The raisins develop a beautiful flavor and texture when treated this way. Sliced onions are fried to a beautiful rich brown and set aside for the garnish. Then a quarter of the rice, half of the mint chili and half of the meat is layered into a casserole, followed by the same again. Then the remaining half of the rice is layered on and the saffron milk is sprinkled over the top. The casserole is then baked to tender perfection. To serve, the top layer of rice is carefully removed and the remaining meat and rice is mixed together. The meat and rice is mounded on a decorative platter and carefully covered with the reserved top layer of saffron rice. The browned onions, nuts, raisins and silver foil are then arranged on the smoothed saffron rice to create a gorgeous and fragrant treat.
This may sound complicated but I can assure you, each step is simple and if you take your time and enjoy yourself it is a very doable dish. I had decided this morning to write about this dish but couldn't find a photograph I liked. So I made Shah Jahan Biriyani today and it was fun. I'll take a photograph shortly and there we'll have it!