“Dinner is ready!” Mum would call out. Making my way to the dining room as a child, I knew what she’d been cooking and then, sitting with the family, in anticipation of eating that home-cooked meal, she’d begin to serve steaming hot rice over my plate. Using a steel flat serving spoon – an Indian spoon mainly for rice – she’d carefully serve me a portion.
I can still hear the sound of her bangles clinking away as she’d make a little dip in the centre of my mountain of rice – just enough to pour some warm spiced dahl in the centre to soak up all the goodness. Topped with homemade ghee (or "toop", as we call it), I’d watch it melt into the warm lentils making its way on to the rice, while hearing Mum’s voice telling me to begin my meal. Using my fingers, I’d mix in the soft rice while it was still warm, taking in my first helping of this soupy dish – that first bite that still reminds me of home; a meal to soothe and offer a sense of comfort.
It’s just a humble dish known as varan bhaat from my city of Mumbai, or, simply put, it’s rice and dahl. And, as much as Indian food is all about spices, techniques and complex flavours, there are simple yet utterly satisfying dishes, easy for any of us to make, that I’m not sure ever take centre stage and, to my mind, they should. My childhood was all about varan (spiced lentils) and bhaat (rice) topped with ghee, and to this day remains a favourite, along with pulao dishes (one-pot recipes), that makes any day of the week so much better.
Rice is also cooked during celebratory occasions too, symbolising abundance and good fortune. In our home, my mother in the kitchen preparing a chicken biryani or lamb pulao would mark a special family event, something we always looked forward to. Rice is also used very commonly in breads and to make desserts in regional Indian recipes, too.
Inherently, I have always been an instinctive cook, tasting and trying as I go, learning what I have from family and friends and the culture of my country. When it comes to cooking rice, I steadfastly follow my mother’s rule, adding double the amount of water to the ratio of rice. From there, I can make endless dishes, quick-fix meals for weekday dinners or create the basis of grander meals, perfect for dinner parties or other special occasions. Here is my method for cooking perfect rice, plus a foolproof biriyani recipe perfect for a crowd.
BASIC RICE RECIPE
Here’s a simple way to cook rice so that it has fluffy, separate grains that will soak in all the flavours of the curries. I like to use good-quality basmati rice, which is a long-grain variety.
MAKES ENOUGH FOR 4 PEOPLE
- 300g basmati rice
- Salt, to taste
- Rinse the rice three times under cold running water to get rid of any excess starch.
- Bring 600ml water to a boil in a small pan. Add the rice, along with the salt, and stir. As it starts to boil, lower the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it rest for five minutes until all the water has evaporated.
- Using a fork, fluff up the rice and serve warm.
MALaYALI KOZHI BIRYANI (Southern Indian Chicken Biryani)
This recipe comes from a Malayali family and was taken from scrappy pieces of paper, handwritten with no specific measurements by the lady of a house on the outskirts of Mumbai 15 years ago. It’s one I’ve always loved and I still cook it when I have guests. Unlike the regular ingredients found in most biryanis, such as saffron or mint, here it’s black pepper, fennel and coconut milk that make this dish so flavoursome. The original recipe mentions a traditional local short grain rice that isn’t readily available in the UK, so I’ve replaced it with basmati instead. You are looking for a fluffy biryani of separated grains with the masala coating the chicken pieces. Serve while still warm and let its aromas fill the air – your guests will find it irresistible.
- 850g chicken on the bone, skinned and jointed into small pieces (ask your butcher to do this)
- 1 heaped tbsp ginger paste (made from a 6cm piece of fresh root ginger)
- ½ tbsp garlic paste (made from 4 garlic cloves)
- 4 green bird’s eye chillies, ground to a paste
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 4 green cardamom pods
- 2 onions (280g total weight), thinly sliced
- 10-15 fresh curry leaves
- ½ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder or mild paprika
- 1 tsp ground fennel
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 100ml coconut milk
- Salt, to taste
FOR THE RICE:
- 500g basmati rice
- 2 bay leaves
- 5cm cassia bark, broken in half
TO LAYER THE BIRYANI:
- 2 tbsp melted butter
- 4 tbsp coconut milk
- ½ tsp garam masala
- 3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
FOR THE GARNISH:
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 red onions (about 230g total weight), thinly sliced
- Pinch of sugar
- 1 tbsp roughly chopped cashew nuts
- 1 tbsp raisins
- Put the chicken in a large bowl. Add half the ginger paste, half the garlic paste and half the chilli paste along with the turmeric. Mix well and marinate for a few hours or preferably overnight.
- Place a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat and add the oil. When hot, add the black pepper and green cardamom pods, and let them sizzle for a few seconds. Add the onions, along with a pinch of salt, and fry over a medium heat for around 10 minutes. Stir frequently, making sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Add the remaining garlic, ginger and chilli pastes and fry for around one minute, stirring well.
- Add the marinated chicken pieces, curry leaves, chilli powder, ground fennel and coriander, then turn the heat up a little and fry for five minutes to seal the meat, stirring and mixing well. Add 100ml water, bring to the boil and simmer over a low heat. Season to taste, cover and cook the chicken for 18 minutes on a low heat, stirring halfway through. Add the coconut milk and simmer for a further five to seven minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to rest.
- Soak the rice for 15 minutes in cold water. Heat 1.5l fresh water in a large saucepan with the bay leaves and cassia bark. Drain the rice before adding it to the saucepan and cook over a medium heat for 18–20 minutes until done but still with a slight bite.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4.
- Place a tablespoon of butter in a lidded casserole dish and layer the biryani as follows: start with a quarter of the rice, then add a tablespoon of coconut milk, followed by a third of the chicken along with a little gravy, a pinch of the garam masala and some fresh coriander. Continue layering in this order, making sure to finish with rice as the last layer. Top with the remaining butter and coconut milk.
- Cover the casserole dish with greaseproof paper and fit with a tight lid. Place in the oven and cook for 18 to 20 minutes until the rice has absorbed all the flavours, and the grains are separated. Turn off the heat and leave to rest for 10 minutes in the oven.
- To finish the biryani, place a frying pan over a medium heat and add two tablespoons of the oil. When hot, add the red onions and fry for 10 minutes with a pinch of sugar until they begin to colour. Remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Add the remaining oil and fry the cashew nuts and raisins, until the nuts turn light brown and the raisins puff up.
- Discard all the whole spices from the baking dish and serve the biryani topped with the fried onions, nuts and raisins.