Biryani is a quintessential Indian rice-and-meat dish that requires no introduction. A patient dish of layered meat and rice, biryani is a fragrant potpourri of spices, aromatics and herbs. While it has long been considered a royal dish, biryani is now enjoyed by the masses and can be now found on the streets in India.
Given its popularity, the dish is pervasive, with regional permutations spanning across the Indian subcontinent. Sindhi biryani is a spicier variation that is known for its generous use of chopped chillies and dried prunes. Bombay biryani features the use of kewra water, which lends an aromatic note. Hyderabadi biryani involves cooking marinated chicken with parboiled rice in a sealed pot.
The influence of biryani has also reached beyond the borders of India. For millenia, Indian religious missionaries, sailors and traders have been travelling outside the Indian subcontinent, in search of a new life. These early immigrants brought with them cuisines from their hometowns. This has resulted in the proliferation of biryani across the world.
In multicultural countries such as Singapore, a cultural affair of blending and influence began. Years of coexisting with the Chinese, Malays and Eurasians have resulting in a cross-cultural exchange of cooking styles and ingredients. Very soon, a local version of biryani – nasi briyani – emerged and has now become wildly popular amongst the locals.
Govind Rajan of Mr. Biryani, a restaurant specializing in Hyderabadi biryani in Singapore, says, “If you ask me, they don’t call [nasi briyani] biryani in India. They call it like a pulao rice or they call it like a bukhari rice in Andhra Pradesh. What we get in Singapore is an authentic Singapore-style briyani.”
Rajan is referring to the difference in cooking method between nasi briyani and biryani – the former is cooked using an ‘absorption method’ while biryani is often par-boiled before layered with meat and cooked together in a process called dum.
Dum is a process where semi-cooked or raw marinated meat is cooked with rice, in a covered vessel which prevents steam from escaping. The meat in nasi briyani, on the other hand, is cooked separate from the rice, which is cooked via the ‘absorption’ method. The reason for this major difference comes down to different eating habits. Malays enjoy drowning their rice in thick gravies and curries. Cooking the meat separate from the rice allows for an abundant amount of gravy, which would be otherwise be absorbed by the rice if they were to be cooked together.
The owner of Geylang Briyani Stall in Singapore is Shiek A. Hamid. His father came from Chennai and founded the stall in 1964. Over time, the flavor of the stall evolved to the local palate, featuring offerings with a distinct Malay flair such as nasi briyani kambing, fried chicken briyani and ayam masak merah briyani.
A nod to the way briyani is traditionally prepared, Hamid’s nasi briyani is plated as though it has been cooked via the dum process, though they are cooked separately. A layer of rice would be placed on the plate first, followed by the meat and a ladle of gravy, and finally the meat is covered with more rice.
Hamid’s son, Hannan says, “In order to know whether a plate of briyani is a good one, the rice needs to have a fluffy texture and the dishes must be complementary. It should be fine even without dalcha as long as the spices for the chicken or mutton are perfect. One should be able to taste all the spices added into the cooking pot. But the best type of briyani would be mutton briyani for sure.”
The mutton briyani that Hannan is referring to is the stall’s bestseller – nasi briyani kambing, served with a dalcha made of mutton scraps, crunchy cucumber pickles (achar timun) and pickled fruit (acar buah). Kambing, meaning ‘goat’ in Malay, is popular amongst the Indian Muslim community in Singapore. Made with pieces of goat with the bone on, the marrow is considered the best part of the dish. One is encouraged to dig the marrow out of the bone and mix it with the rice for a truly ambrosial experience.
Like biryani in India, the nasi briyani at Geylang Briyani Stall begins with frying onions and spices such as cardamom, cloves and cinnamon in ghee. Raw basmati rice is then tossed and coated in the ghee. The Malays’ penchant for the lemak (or rich and fatty foods) has influenced their take on the biryani. In addition to water, evaporated milk is added to the rice.
While Indians accent their biryani with kewra water, an extract of screwpine or pandan flowers, many hawker vendors selling nasi briyani in Singapore use the knotted leaves of the pandan, a plant that grows bountifully in the region. The pandan and a few stalks of lemongrass are often added to the rice as it cooks, and the rice may or may not be perfumed with rosewater at the end.
The yellow-tinged rice of biryani is iconic, a simple result of dabbing the rice with yellow colouring and mixing it just enough to yield a mixture of orange, yellow and white rice. Many Malays opt for a homemade, natural option of turmeric root-infused water to stain the rice. The result? Rice that is fragrant, rich but not heavy and accented with little bursts of crunch and sweetness from fried shallots and raisins.
Fusion may be a dirty word these days, but one has to admit that most of the food we eat in this age borrows facets from diverse culinary cultures across the world. There is no one national cuisine that can be completely isolated and self-contained. And when the clever assimilation of different food cultures produces such exciting results, who cares?
Nasi Briyani Kambing
For the lamb:
4 onions (3 thinly sliced, 1 cut roughly)
350g ghee or oil
1kg lamb shanks (marinated overnight in 20g biryani spice mix and 200g Greek yogurt)
2 green chillies
40g ginger garlic paste
30g raw cashews
5 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons cumin
2 black cardamom
2 star anise
1 teaspoon clove
1 bunch mint
1 teaspoon rosewater
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
For the rice:
4 tablespoons ghee or oil from frying the onions
1 cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom
2 star anise
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon minced ginger
500g basmati rice, rinsed and drained
240g evaporated milk
4 pandan leaves, knotted
2 lemongrass, white part only, bruised
4 teaspoons salt
20g turmeric root (or yellow food colouring)
Remaining crispy onions from cooking the lamb
4 tablespoons mint leaves
Combine the onions and ghee in a cold pan. Set over high heat and cook until the onions turn a rich golden brown. Meanwhile, set a strainer over a pot or big bowl.
Pour the contents of the pan through the sieve. Allow the onions to drain and cool. Reserve the ghee or oil from frying the onions.
Heat a pan with 4 tablespoons of ghee, leftover from frying the onions. Wipe the yogurt marinade off the lamb shanks (do not discard marinade) and sear well on all sides on high heat.
Set the lamb shanks aside. Now, grind the chillies, ginger garlic paste and cashews to a fine paste in a blender or pestle and mortar. Heat a large pot with 4 tablespoons of onion-infused ghee. When shimmering, add the spices and fry briefly till fragrant.
Add the chilli mixture to the pot and cook for 3 minutes, for the spice paste to lose its raw edge.
Add all the yogurt marinade to the pot, along with the lamb shanks and half of the fried onions. Top up with water to cover.
Add the mint and rosewater. Season with salt and sugar. Bring to a boil and simmer 3-4 hours or until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender.
When the lamb shanks are about done, prepare the rice. Heat a pan with the ghee until shimmering and add the spices, ginger and garlic. Fry until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
Pour the contents of the pan into a ricecooker. Add the rice, evaporated milk, pandan, lemongrass and salt. Cook as per instructions on your ricecooker.
Pound or blend the turmeric root into a paste and mix with 100g boiling water to infuse. Strain and pour over the rice. You can also use yellow food colouring in place of this turmeric water to stain the rice – food colouring is very strong, so use it sparingly!
Add the rest of the crispy onions and the chopped mint to the rice. Toss to combine.
When the lamb is tender, lift it from the pot and shred it into big chunks with a pair of tongs or two forks.
Return the bones to the pot and reduce the braising liquid until a thick gravy forms.
Return the shredded lamb to the pot and gently reheat with the gravy.
Serve the lamb with the rice, alongside condiments such as achar (pickles), raw red onions and sliced green chillies.
You can also plate the dish dum-style by placing a scoop of rice on a plate, adding the lamb and the gravy on top of the rice, and topping it all with more rice to cover the lamb.