I look out of the window from my kitchen, washing unripe jackfruit chunks under ice cold water. Aren't these from a tin? Well, I blame it on COVID I guess. Why do I not heat some water and spare my fingers, I wonder and easily shrug the answer off. The mountain outside is not seen, laden with snow bouncing off crisp daylight, only the winding road around it is visible. I move to the counter and check on the paraphernalia for the biryani, humming with ghazals playing on the husband's iPhone (I wish it was a radio). A slight glance at the window again. The fox is paying us a visit today, it's family capering behind the frozen bushes, perhaps missing our diurnal encounters by the Old Log Church.
Tossing the rice into the roaring water in the pot, I hope I've salted it enough. I'm doubtful though, so a lump goes in. I have a taste—ugh, it's like the ocean in my mouth—and then I feel at peace. I'm not fooling around with salt here. The rice will hardly spend any time in the water before it's ready to be taken out, drained and fluffed, and all that salt will flow with the slushing water. A lot of salt ensures that rice absorbs just the right amount of it. Pasta cooking tips, remember? Enough of techniques, dear reader. I've them pinned below if you're eager.
So, let's go back to the window. I don't think I can cook well without it. Every kitchen I've cooked so far in Canada and India had a window, and what a blessing it is to have light enter through it and bath everything amber bright in the morning and moody gold at dusk. Not to forget the joys of watching the world passing by outside as I cook and almost dance a little when things are going right on the stove or inside the oven. Ruskin Bond sums it up very well in Words from my Window: A Journal, "I need a window to look at the world without; for only then can I look at the world within...Never a dull moment. And the magic mountain looks on, absorbing everything."
Jagjit Singh has sung five ghazals by now, and my onions are a winsome auburn. The wedges of jackfruit are getting rustic with the spices, and the smell is ethereal. You have to make it to believe me, the power of a good kathal (jackfruit) biryani. I don't miss meat at all when there's jackfruit zinged with spices. So good! The yogurt looks a fiery goddess with the seasoning whisked into it, lustrous and smooth, and impatient to be slathered on the roasting jackfruits. I feel like eating it right away, but then, the moment has yet not arrived.
Jackfruit is native to India, originating in the rainforests of Western Ghats. It derives its English name from the Portuguese word Jaca, which was probably a version of a name used in the Malyalam language (in Kerala), chakkapazham or chakka. Portuguese physician and naturalist, Garcia de Orta mentioned this fruit in his 1563 book, Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India as Jaca.
The Malyalam word chakka originates from che-kai, meaning a group of green fruits (kai) joined together. In Hindi, jackfruit is known as kathal, echor in Bengali, panasa in Odia, as kanun in Thailand and nangkain in Malaysia. It's extremely popular in the hot tropical parts of the world, where the trees thrive best. With veganism and vegetarianism going places in the west, jackfruit has made inroads into the meat dominant diets. While raw jackfruit can be made into gravies, pickles, can be fried or made into biryanis, the ripe fruit can be eaten as is, made into payasam, ice creams, jams, pies, cakes, appams and what not!
I believe a well-made biryani is almost like a ghazal; it's all in the details. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who want to cook a biryani but have no patience for attention to its subtle layers. You can't make a biryani like that, if your pulse is on the next train to catch. Do you enjoy poetry or slow music? If you do, you know why. Don't you? How there's a build-up of words and emotions playing with the mind, a rumble and fall, a thousand syllables and notes moving with gentle calm and forbearance. The story of biryani is akin to that. All the elemental ingredients matter, and how you treat them matters even more. It's a labour of love, and I adore it with its concomitant moil. Don't be discouraged by the long list of ingredients and the fair amount of time it takes to prepare. If you have all the ingredients mise en place, the next steps are easy.
Biryani is a culinary art where subtle balances and thorough timing play key roles in deciding the final outcome. As Pamela Timms, the food author I deeply revere, explains in the Mint article,
While learning how to make biryani, I understood why it is one of the finest dishes in the Indian repertoire. As with so many traditional recipes, it’s all in the detail...
Whoever tells you that a vegetarian biryani is hoax, I say graciously thank them for their opinion but don't take it! The word biryani itself is coupled with rice, and rice alone. Read my Khumbi ki Biryani: Mushroom Biryani post to dismiss such claims. Looking for more vegetarian biryani ideas, check out the pointers below.
Having its roots in the Persian words birian (fried before cooking) and birinj, biryani originally most likely was rice cooked with some form of meat. Muslim cooking, and the Mughal imperial kitchen where biryani was conceived in its present day form and perfected, were inherently meat-rich in their repertoire of recipes. In no way this disbands the idea of vegetarianism in biryani, and neither does this imply that Muslims don't eat vegetables!
In fact, food historian Salma Husain says in an interview with The Indian Express about Mughlai food, "The cooks in the royal kitchen were competitive and creative. You’ll find a lot of nuts and dry fruits in their dishes, that is what they got from central Asia. In India, they found vegetables, grains and fresh fruits. That’s how you can see dishes with ingredients such as falsa, banana, melon, mangoes and oranges." Husain further explains that "With each emperor, a new type of cooking was introduced. With Akbar came a lot of Indian dishes, Jehangir lived mostly in Kashmir, so cooking of the birds was introduced as he would hunt a lot near the Dal Lake."
Perhaps varieties of vegetarian biryanis would have also matured in the Mughal kitchens if later emperors like Aurangzeb had taken greater interest in the finer arts including cuisine.
The most famous iterations of biryani come from Awadh, present day Lucknow and Hyderabad, and either places do not have vegetarian biryani in their long-established culinary art. Does this mean biryani is reserved for meat? While some will ridicule a vegetarian biryani to be a rip-off and some will argue that only pulao is vegetarian, I don't understand the staunch incredulity for it. Whether you like it or not, vegetarian biryani is real, irrespective that it's perhaps an improvisation of the primal non-veg versions. It's as kosher as the the egg or paneer biryanis and vegetarian kebabs, koftas and quormas! So don't fret, and go make this kathal/jackfruit biryani and add a prodigious vegetarian dish to your recipe collection.
What are some tips to make any biryani good?
Biryani is a rice-based dish. The meat, vegetable or legume are its inner layers. Every grain of rice must be perfectly cooked and separate. To ensure this, always rinse and soak rice for at least half an hour before you start cooking. Rinsing helps remove some of the sticky surface starch and soaking makes the it softer, so water can pierce through it easily during cooking.
When cooking by the pakki biryani method, where the rice is pre-cooked, never cook the rice 100% as this will lead to lumpy and sticky rice in the end. Just remember how we make pasta al dente. Do the same for biryani rice. In the kacchi biryani method, rice is not cooked before hand—only rinsed and soaked before adding to the pot with other ingredients and is cooked along with them.
Always add rinsed and soaked rice to a pot of water on roaring boil, not the other way around. This helps to elongate the grain of rice, giving it a fuller fluffier look.
Add aromatics like bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and star anise to the water in which you boil the rice and salt it generously! Most of this water will go into the drain, so don't worry about the salt quotient.
Caramelized onions are irreplaceable in any kind of biryani. So, make a good batch! Green chilies, ginger and garlic are key notes that you cannot miss.
Don't overwhelm or underwhelm your biryani with whole spices. Be gentle, but creative. Use some of it in the water to boil rice, and for the rest that you use with the meat or vegetables, you can either dry roast and make a blend for a riot of flavours or simply coarse grind to keep it delicate, or even keep them whole.
A few sprigs of mint or coriander, or both and a touch of some nuts adds a hue in the end. Awadhi versions usually do not have herbs in them, and spices alone do the magic.
You must use a heavy bottom pan to make biryani, and one that has a lid that can be sealed to not let steam escape when you layer the rice and veggies/meat and do the final cooking.
What are some tips to make a vegetarian biryani?
There's no rule of thumb for the vegetables you may use. Feel free to experiment with one or a combination of cauliflower, peas, potatoes, beans, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, yams, mushrooms and jackfruits. You can also add paneer if you like.
If you love meaty textures, I highly recommend jackfruit and mushrooms.
Since we don't marinate vegetables for a long time like meat (no tenderization of meat is involved), there are different ways of pre-cooking the vegetables. You can bake them or fry them, or cook them with yogurt or a nut paste (or both) to give the vegetables a more gravy-like consistency. You can marinate the vegetables in yogurt, and the benefit is a slight tanginess. This is how I make mushroom biryani at times.
Some recipes may call upon tomatoes instead of yogurt, though it's a far cry from the traditional biryanis, righteous in merit and taste nonetheless. Many versions of the famous Dindigul Biryani use tomatoes and taste heavenly!
To make it vegan, you can use coconut milk instead of yogurt. You can also add soya chunks, chickpeas or black lentils to give a thicker gravy like consistency and add lime juice for tanginess.
What about this recipe?
This recipe is a keeper. It brings together Awadhi and Hyderbadi styles of making biryani, and is neither too spicy nor too bland. It isn't greasy and doesn't leave you with a feeling of being too full, and is amazing enough to get yourself a second serving!
In this recipe, I add a part of the aromatics in the water to boil the rice. I dry roast the rest and make a biryani masala, typical in the Hyderbadi method. The dry roasting gives the dish its quintessential spicy layers. Following the Dum Pukht style of Awadh, this recipe uses very few herbs, again classic Awadhi style. I have used only a handful of mint for mild flavour.
A popular cooking technique in the Lucknow gharanas is to whisk spices in yogurt and adding into the gravy. This ensures that the spices don't burn on the hot pan, and while the yogurt gets cooked, the spices cook along with it. I use the same trick for my vegetarian pakki biryanis where the vegetables are pre-cooked and not previously marinated.
2 cups of Basmati or any other long grain rice
2 tins of unripe jackfruit (or 2 cups unripe jackfruit cut into chunks)
For the biryani masala: 1 bay leaf, 1-inch cinnamon stick, 4-5 green cardamoms, 1 black cardamom, 1 mace, 4-5 cloves, 2 star anise, 1 tsp cumin, 2 tsp coriander, 1 tsp fennel, 1 tsp peppercorns Note: After grinding, we will use 2 tsp of this masala. Keep the rest for future use.
For boiling the rice: 1/4 tsp caraway seeds or cumin, 1 bay leaf, 1-inch cinnamon, 2 cloves, 1 black cardamom, 2-3 tbsp salt
3-4 tbsp oil
1 tbsp ghee (or vegan butter or use extra oil rather)
2 large red onions, 1 finely chopped and 1 julienne cut
2 tbsp ginger and garlic paste
1/2 cup yogurt
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chili powder
2-3 green chilies, slit vertically
1/2 cup mint leaves, few torn or chopped
1/2 cup milk (of any kind)
1 tsp saffron strands
1 tbsp flaked almonds
7-8 roasted cashews
Salt to taste
Wash rice in several changes of water and soak it for at least 30 minutes.
Prepare the biryani masala:
Dry roast all the spices listed for the biryani masala. Cool and grind in a spice mixer. Keep aside. Note: Roasting the masala gives a nice spicy kick. If you want to tone it down, simply grind the whole spices, and don't dry roast them.
Caramelize onions and soak the saffron:
Heat a pan on medium heat and add oil. Add the julienne cut onions to it and fry until brown and crisp. It will take about 20 minutes. Keep aside.
Soak the saffron strands in lukewarm milk. Keep aside.
Cook the rice:
Add about 4-5 cups of water along with the whole spices (mentioned for boiling rice) to a pot and bring it to a boil. Generously add salt and when the water is in a roaring boil, add the rice to it. Note: I usually pack the whole spices (except caraway seeds/cumin) in a drawstring and that it to water, so I don't have to pick them out later. But, this is purely for convenience.
Add a few drops of ghee or vegan butter to the pot and gently stir.
Cook the rice until it's 70% done and then turn off the heat. It will take about 7 minutes. Basically, ensure that the rice still isn't completely tender and cooked.
Drain the rice, keeping some of the water in a separate bowl. Use a fork to fluff the rice on a plate. Take out the spices, except the caraway seeds/cumin.
Cook the jackfruit:
Heat a pan or wok on medium heat and add oil. Next, add the chopped onions. Fry till the onions are pink and then add ginger-garlic paste. Once the mixture turns brown, add turmeric and red chili powder.
Once turmeric and red chili are cooked (in about 5 mins), add the jackfruit chunks. Lightly roast the jackfruit with the spice coated onions till everything is well combined. Reduce the heat slightly.
Beat 2 heaped tsp of the biryani masala into the yogurt with some salt and pour it into the pan. Mix to coat the spiced yogurt onto the jackfruit. Let it simmer for about 4-5 minutes and then add the slit chilies and salt. Mix again, cover and cook till the gravy appears slightly thick and the jackfruit is tender. You can also add some hot water to adjust consistency. Once happy, turn off the heat.
Layer the biryani:
Grease a heavy bottom pot or Dutch oven with oil or ghee, add a layer of the semi-cooked rice in a circular motion through the vessel. This bottom layer will turn crisp and caramelize to give a good crunch to the biryani. You can start with a layer of jackfruit instead if you prefer.
Add a layer of the jackfruit gravy, again in a circular motion, covering the layer of rice.
Add another layer of rice on top and some caramelized onions and some mint leaves. Repeat the layers of rice, jackfruit and onions so that the top layer is rice.
Using the back of a ladle, make a hole in the center of the layers and add some of the saffron milk and some of the drained water from the rice into it, and the rest on the top layer. Add some ghee/vegan butter, chopped almonds, roasted cashews and caramelized onions. Sprinkle some mint leaves.
Seal the top of the pot with aluminum foil and place the lid over it, ensuring the steam stays inside. Cook on very low heat for 20-25 minutes and then turn off heat.
Let the pot sit on the counter for the next 7 minutes before you open it.
Top the biryani with few fresh mint leaves before serving.
When you open the pot, you will be engulfed in a world of utmost delight. It makes you so hungry that you can't wait to lay your hands on a plate, grab a serving spoon, take some raita (yogurt whisked with cumin powder, salt and sliced onions) and dive into it!
I find it very hard to photograph it because I want to eat it as soon as I smell the waft of fragrances floating at the tip of the biryani.
Gathering around the table and sharing some mirth is one of my most favourite feelings in this world, and a biryani is a stellar dish to dine with your loved ones. The degh or the pot sits at the center of the table, and as everyone has a ladle or two heaped onto their plates, conversations begin. Glasses tinkle, pickles and salads are passed around and the bowls of sides—raitas, salans and chutneys—are emptied and refilled amidst laughter and jest. Perfect for any celebration or a hearty get-together, biryanis are always a special reminder of what food really means in a familial and social setting.
If you make this treat, tag me on Instagram and share your love! I'll be glad to hear from you!