Dhruv Mittal, the chef-patron at both DUM Biryani House in Soho and the more recently opened Lucknow 49 in Mayfair, is a man on a mission. He is besotted with biryani, the noble and historic dish of rice cooked with meat that has graced the tables of the Nawabs of Lucknow, the Nizams of Hyderabad and the Sultans of Delhi.
Nobody is sure exactly how the dish made its way to India. It is closely related to pilaf, the Persian rice dish whose popularity once extended from Spain (paella is similarly related) to South Asia (pilao or pulao), but it has some key differences, as Mittal points out: “The major one is that pilafs are one-pot dishes, in which meat and rice are cooked together in stock.”
To make biryani, the meat and rice are cooked separately to start with, then layered in a dish and cooked together only at the end, with the dish tightly sealed to preserve all the aromas and stop it from becoming dry. This technique of sealing the cooking pot is called ‘dum’: making a snake of a flour and water dough and using it to clamp together the rim of the pot and the lid. Biryani also tends to be the centrepiece of a meal, with pilao usually served as a side dish. Biryanis are also usually spicier than their one-pot cousins.
There are several distinct types of biryani from the various great Mughal cities of India. Mittal was born in Hyderabad, in central southern India, where biryani is perhaps the city’s most popular dish, invented, he says, by Asaf Jah.
“He was the creator of the Hyderabad state. He mixed the classic Mughal biryani eaten in Delhi with southern flavours, including Andhra red chillies, making it the spiciest biryani in India,” he says. “There’s even a seafood biryani from the Malabar Coast, made with squid, prawns and maybe pomfret, spiced with mustard seeds and curry leaves.”
Lucknow 49, however, serves an Awadhi biryani: in the 18th and 19th centuries, Lucknow, in the north of the country, was the seat of power of the Nawabs of Awadh, and the city flowered as a centre of arts, architecture, literature and cuisine.
“Because of the delicate palates of these artists and intellectuals,” explains Mittal, “the biryani in Lucknow was only mildly spiced, with tender meat and very aromatic.”
His highly fragrant version includes both kewra – screwpine (also known as pandan), both as a water and as an essential oil – and sprigs of dried vetiver, a tropical grass native to India, with a smoky, sweet aroma that is much-prized by the perfume industry. A few drops of rosewater would perform a similar function.
The art of making a biryani lies in the cooking and layering of the meat and rice: in Mittal’s version, the rice is cooked to about 80% and the meat is fully cooked, with just enough gravy to steam the rice until fluffy. “It’s important how you serve it, too,” he warns. “Start from one side and cut straight down with the side of a serving spoon. Work slowly across the dish: if you try to mix it up, the grains of rice will break and you won’t get the layered effect.
“Biryani is the perfect dish for a big family occasion. In fact, I’ve been to Indian weddings where the queue for the biryani is longer than the queue to see the bride and groom.”
Awadhi goat biryani
Ingredients (serves eight)
For the marinade
1kg diced goat shoulder, on the bone
2 tbsp ginger/garlic paste
Juice of a lemon
1 tbsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp raw papaya paste
1 tbsp kewra water (screwpine essence)
For the rice
1kg extra-long basmati rice, or sela (golden basmati) rice
2 tbsp salt
2 bay leaves
8 green cardamom pods
240ml full-fat milk
10 sprigs vetiver root
For the biryani
2 finely-sliced red onions
175ml clarified butter or ghee
2 bay leaves
8cm stick of cinnamon
8 green cardamom pods
20 black peppercorns
240ml full-fat yoghurt
0.25g saffron (steeped in 50ml tepid water)
150g plain flour
75ml water (or enough to make an elastic dough)
2 drops of screwpine essential oil (optional)
1. Mix the goat meat thoroughly with the ginger/garlic paste, lemon, chilli, papaya paste and kewra water, and leave covered in the fridge for at least 2 hours to marinate, making sure it is at room temperature again before cooking. Rinse the rice in a sieve until the water runs clear. Soak in cold water for 40 minutes.
2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring 2.5 litres of cold water to the boil and add the salt, bay leaves, cardamom, cloves, milk and vetiver. Stir in the rice and cook until 80% done, until the grains just break between your fingers. Strain and allow the rice to cool.
3. In a large saucepan, add the ghee, bay leaves, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and black pepper on a medium heat and stir-fry until the spices start to sizzle.
4. Add the onions and sauté until golden brown. Take out about a quarter of the onion mixture and reserve.
5. Add in the goat, stir, then turn down the heat a little and cook, stirring often, for 10 to 15 minutes until the meat starts to brown. Pour in 500ml of cold water, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 40-45 minutes until the meat is soft and falling from the bone.
6. Add the yoghurt, mix thoroughly, then sauté for another 10 minutes on a high heat. Pour in 250ml of water, bring to the boil, then turn off the heat. Season to taste with salt.
7. To build the biryani, spread the rice on top of the goat mixture and make a thumb-sized hole in the middle of the rice. Pour the saffron water into this hole and put the pan on a very low heat.
8. Mix the flour with enough water to make a smooth, elastic dough, then roll it into a sausage and stretch it around the rim of the saucepan, leaving no gaps.
9. Sprinkle the reserved onion mixture around the top of the rice and press the lid firmly on top, making sure the biryani is completely sealed. Continue to cook on a very low heat for 20 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave to rest for another 10 minutes. Remove the lid and the pastry seal, dribble with the screwpine oil (if using) and serve.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the November issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.