I think biryani needs no introduction. If you haven't heard of it before for any reason, I can fairly assume that you wouldn't know about the country named India! Biryani for India is synonymous to what pizza is for Italy or what sushi is for Japan.
The archetypal Indian cuisine is incomplete without the mention of biryani, a concoction of rice, meat or vegetables and spices, artfully assembled and cooked in just right amount of fat. The fat—typically ghee (clarified butter) or a combination of ghee and oil—is what binds all the ingredients together. Too much fat, and the rice has a heavy coating of ghee or oil. Too less of the fat, and the rice grains would get sticky. Ironically, none of these—rice, meat, vegetables or oil—are the harbingers of biryani. The cardinal elements of a biryani are its spices—usually whole and sometimes ground—and floral waters. Bay leaf, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorns, nutmeg, mace, caraway seeds, saffron, rose or kewda water are used in varying proportions in different kinds of biryani in India, not to mention the variations in the kind of rice and meats as well as vegetables.
This recipe is an aromatic blend of mushrooms (khumbi in Hindi) with long grained rice. More inclined towards a meat biryani, I started cooking vegetarian biryani roughly five to six years back. I thank my curiosity and love for food for exploring the history of biryani that helped me dismiss 'vegetable biryani' as an oxymoron. This was nifty when I introduced jackfruit, mushrooms, eggplants, fenugreek leaves, potatoes and even chickpeas and black lentils into my vegetarian husband's biryani experience, who had only eaten assorted vegetables and paneer biryani until we met.
The Mughlai biryani is an age-old food preparation dating back to the reign of Mughals in India. Drawing from the Turkish pilafs and Persian traditions of beriyan (meaning frying) and later adopting the dumpukht style of cooking (slow fire cooking), the esteemed biryani as the world knows today was perhaps formalized in the Mughal bawarchi khanas (kitchens). Although the dumpukht style of making biryani is known to have started much later in Awadh, present day Lucknow.
Several stories are fabled around how biryani was first introduced in the imperial kitchens, and most of them accredit Arjumand Bano Begum, more commonly known as Mumtaz Mahal—empress consort to Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor of India.
There are other styles of biryani as well, like the Mappila biryani of Kerala which is believed to have evolved from a different school of culinary history, associated with Arab traders and the Malabar coast.
Contrary to popular belief, no documentation mandates biryani to include only meat with rice meaning there's no doctrine that discourages using vegetarian ingredients with rice in a biryani. Nilanjan Hajra in Sahapedia eloquently explains the varieties of biryani mentioned in the 17th century Farsi manuscript, Nuskha-i-Shahjahani. The legendary book includes a biryani of paneer as well as fish in addition to biryani of meat, with no strict specification of any particular kind of meat. Considering the experiments done with our beloved biryani or zer beriyan in Farsi and no remarks on a final version, the evolution of biryani with its ingredients seems par for the course, thus justifying my eternal belief that a sabz biryani (vegetable biryani) or khumbi biryani (mushroom biryani) is as much real as a gosht biryani (meat biryani).
The word biryani comes from the Persian word birinj which means rice and birian which means fried before cooking. I understand the Persian rice wasn't biryani, but we remained close to it in our nomenclature even after biryani was perfected in India. The soul of biryani is its rice, birian and its many layers. Layering is what sets a biryani distinctly apart from a pulao. It is the carrier of the flavours and the textures of the dish. It is indispensable in the creation of biryani. Beyond the rice, it's our creativity, our imagination, and our own understandings of biryani, and our relationship with food at large.
Some will also argue that biryani cannot be vegetarian because it relies on elongated slow cooking, and meat fares best in this technique. Going by this argument, a chicken biryani is hoax! It cooks much (much) faster than mutton or beef. There are many vegetables which can be slowly cooked in dum like baby potatoes, small onions, jackfruit, small tender brinjals, carrots, cauliflowers and more. The cuts of the vegetables decide how long the vegetables will take to cook, and this is a universal truth. Remember why all vegetables are cut in similar sizes and shapes in a chorchori? Even when we don't add whole vegetables in a biryani, they can be partly cooked and added to the rice in a similar fashion as pre-cooked meat.
And, don't we have both meat pulaos and biryanis? Then, why are we so hesitant to accept vegetarian biryani?
Food is not a stagnant entity. It evolves and changes with time; it travels with people and gets re-created. If not, we wouldn't have different variations, not just in technique but also in taste, in biryanis across Lucknow, Hyderabad, Calcutta, Cuttack, Dindigul, communities like the Mappilas, to name a few.
What should I know about this recipe before I proceed?
From what I have learned over the years, there are two ways of cooking a biryani: kucchi biryani and pukki biryani. Kucchi biryani style of cooking entails adding layers of uncooked rice and marinated meat or vegetables in a thick bottom pan while pakki biryani requires partially cooking rice and meat or vegetables separately and then bringing them together in a heavy pot. Both methods have slow cooking as a common technique. This mushroom biryani uses the kucchi biryani style of cooking.
Mushrooms inherently have a meat texture, although they do not taste like meat. Dodging between the plant and animal kingdom, mushrooms are consummate as a biryani ingredient, bringing the best of the vegetarian and meat worlds.
I recommend using a variety of mushrooms opposed to a single kind when making a biryani as it helps to generate fuller and flavourful layers characteristic to a biryani. If not many, at least use two different varieties. Oyster, cremini, portobello, chantrelle and enoki mushrooms are great choices for a biryani. I suggest using enoki as one of the two varieties you opt in a biryani. Enoki when cooked becomes clumpy while still retaining its strands, giving the masala a dense and creamy texture.
If you have never made biryani before or consider it a daunting task, here is a tip: always set aside your ingredients and keep everything in your hands' reach before you actually start cooking. I say from experience, it's the time to preset things that is longer in making biryani; the actual cooking involves a tightly covered pot slow cooking its contents! The magic of your biryani lies in your marination and layering. So, get organized and start off!
Can I substitute meat or other vegetables in this recipe?
You can certainly replace mushrooms with a meat or any other vegetable of your choice. Remember that mushrooms and vegetables cook faster than meat. So, you may need to work around the cooking time accordingly.
Additionally, if you're using meat, use more raw onions and less caramelized onions in the marination. Since meat takes a longer time to cook, the onions will get roasted along with meat in due coarse of cooking time.
2 cups of any rice that is not heavily fragrant of its own
3-4 medium sized onions sliced long (julienne cut): 3 and 1/2 onions for caramelization and 1/2 onion raw for marination of mushrooms
10-15 cashew nuts (optional)
1 cup coriander and mint leaves roughly chopped
2 tbsp oil
350-500 grams of mushrooms (A combination of oyster, cremini and enoki mushrooms is used in this recipe)
To marinate mushrooms: 1 cup yogurt, 1 tsp each of turmeric, red chili powder, coriander, 1 inch ginger + 5 garlic pods+1 green chili pounded into a coarse paste, about 1/4 of the caramelized onions and the 1/2 raw sliced onions, salt to taste
Few strands of saffron (1/4 tsp turmeric can be used as a substitute)
Whole spices: 2 bay leaves, 8-10 cloves, 4 green cardamoms, 2 black cardamoms, 2-3 cinnamon sticks, 8-10 peppercorns, 2 star anise (optional), 1 tsp shahi jeera (cumin as substitute)
Wash rice in several changes of water and soak it for at least 30 minutes.
Caramelize onions and fry the nuts:
In a cast iron dutch oven or a pot with heavy lid on medium heat, add oil, cashew nuts and onions.
Sauté the onions until reddish brown. The nuts will turn golden. This should take about 10-15 minutes. Keep aside.
Marinate the mushrooms:
Wash the mushrooms and add yogurt, few caramelized onions, raw onions, turmeric, red chili powder, coriander, cumin, ginger-garlic and green chili paste, few coriander and mint leaves along with salt.
Mix everything using your hands and keep aside for at least 30 minutes.
Prepare the flavoured waters:
Add the saffron to lukewarm water (you can also use milk) and keep aside.
Add half of the whole spices to a sauce pan and then add water. The amount of water should be roughly a little more than double the amount of rice. For 1 cup of rice, take about 2 and 1/2 cups of water. Add a generous amount of salt and let it keep boiling while you cook the mushrooms.
Make the biryani:
In the same Dutch oven or pot that you used to memorialize the onions, add ghee and oil, remaining half of the whole spices and sauté till everything is fragrant.
Add the marinated mushrooms and cook the mushrooms until half done. The mushrooms will ooze a lot of water. So, you'd need to cook until the gravy of the mushrooms appears thick and almost cooked. This should take about 10-12 minutes.
Turn off heat, remove the mushrooms and keep aside.
Switch off the boiling water.
Layer the biryani:
Drain the rice from the water. In the Dutch oven or pot, add a layer of rice in a circular motion through the vessel. This bottom layer will turn crisp and caramelize to give a good crunch to the biryani.
Add a layer of mushrooms, again in a circular motion, covering the layer of rice.
Add some caramelized onions, cashew nuts mint and coriander leaves.
Repeat the layers of rice, mushrooms and onions so that the top layer is rice. Add some onions and cashew nuts on the top layer of rice.
Add the saffron and spice flavoured waters.
Cover and cook on low heat for 20 to 30 minutes or until the rice is soft and cooked completely.
Turn off the heat, open and you will be transformed into a world of fragrances and a whole lot of love! The mushrooms would be tender and meaty, and the caramelized onions and nuts would lend that perfect sweet nuttiness! The saffron would have turned your biryani a hue of yellow and the whole spices would have done their magic by now.
Serve with green chutney or a simple cucumber raita or just some salad. Enjoy!
If you make this recipe, share your creation with me on Instagram! I'd love to know how you liked it.
I like to heat the leftovers next day with splashes of water in a covered pan, and then place two boiled eggs on top! Try it if you like eggs. It's a combination that will win you over in a heartbeat.