This lamb biryani is the epitome of Awadhi cuisine from Lucknow. Lucknavi biryani has wonderfully complex flavours, and can be a work of art when presented well. My favourite Indian dish, by a long way.

Were I a condemned man, and offered my last meal, this would be my choice. When we have birthdays at home this is the dish of preference. Although, in recent times, the Lucknow leg of lamb is coming closer.

Biryani is just wonderful. Not stir-fried rice with a few bits of meat added late, typical of that sold as biryani by curry houses. Getting biryani right is an art, a science and a food lover’s dream.

Biryani was popular in the kitchens of the Mughal Emperors who ruled between the early 16th century CE to the early 18th century and it remains a much-loved dish in India today. The recipe was spread across India by merchants and other travellers many centuries ago, which is why there are so many regional variants of this dish.

This is not the easiest dish in this cookbook. If you are cooking Indian food for the first time, this is not a good choice. It is complicated, and there are several things happening at once. You have to juggle several things .

For a novice with this cuisine add at least one hour to the cooking time to allow you to do one thing at a time. The rice will wait whilst you cook the lamb. Pre-prepare the eggs and garnish. If you are experienced at this cuisine, then it is not too hard. Chopping and preparation before you start cooking is well advised.

For a Lucknow biryani, the meat is cooked in water with spices. The resulting stock (yakhni) is used to cook the rice. Both the cooked (pukki) elements, rice and meat, are then layered together in a deep pot, sealed and baked, (the dum pukht method). This is a quite different technique to other biryanis which will feature in this book. Sealing the pot with aluminium foil is a reasonable compromise to traditional flour-based sealing.

There are two special ingredients. Beresta are thinly-sliced crispy fried shallots. They are flavourful and add crunch to the recipe. Dishes made with beresta get an aromatic, sweet and smoky taste. Beresta is often used as garnish. It is available from most Indian grocers, or can be easily made yourself. Kewra is an extract that is distilled from pandanus flowers. It is a transparent liquid, almost like rose-water. Pandanus trees grow almost everywhere India, yet kewra is mainly a Northern Indian flavouring that is not used anywhere else. Your Indian grocer will have this.

Biryani is a complete meal in itself, suitable for all occasions, whether it is a hearty meal on a lazy Sunday afternoon or a grand, scrumptious indulgence at an Eid dinner.

Serve with a kachumber to balance the flavours.

the recipe

prep 1 hour
cook 2 hours
soak 30 minutes
total 3 hours
servings 6 servings
calories 630 kcal

ingredients

  • 800 g lamb leg cut into 5cm cubes
  • 400 g basmati rice

for the stock

for the rice

  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • ½ stick cinnamon
  • 1 black cardamom pod broken open
  • 1 star anise
  • ½ tsp salt

for the lamb

to assemble

  • ½ tsp saffron threads
  • 100 ml milk
  • 1 red chilli finely sliced
  • 2 dried figs finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp raisins
  • 2 tsp pandanus essence (kewra)
  • 1 tbsp dried fried shallots (beresta)
  • 1 tbsp ghee

to serve

instructions

  1. Wash rice in several changes of water until the water is clear. Cover the rice with cold water and set aside to soak for 30 minutes.

  2. Place saffron threads into a cup with warm milk, stir gently and set aside to infuse for 30 minutes.

for the stock

  1. Place the lamb, the lamb bones and all the ingredients for the stock into a pan with 1½ litres of cold water. Mix well, bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until the lamb is almost cooked.

  2. Remove the lamb from the stock using a slotted spoon, ensuring any spices are returned to the stock. Remove any large pieces of fat from the meat and put these back into the stock. Set lamb pieces aside, and continue to simmer the stock, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until it has reduced volume to two-thirds. (about 4 cups or 1 litre).
  3. Remove from heat and strain. Reserve the stock and discard the spices and lamb bones.

for the rice

  1. Put the ghee in a pot with a tight lid, and bring to moderate heat.

  2. Drain the rice and carefully add to the ghee. Mix well to ensure each grain is coated with ghee. Fry, stirring frequently, for two minutes, or until rice starts to stick to the sides of the pot. Add the cinnamon stick, the black cardamom and the star anise, and mix well.

  3. Add 750ml of stock to the rice. Be careful as the pot will be very hot and the stock may boil over quickly. Stir, cover pot, and reduce heat to very low.

  4. Cook on low heat for ten minutes, and then turn off the heat. Quickly uncover pot, fluff the rice with a fork, and then re-cover the pot. Leave until ready to start assembling the dish.

for the lamb

  1. Preheat oven to 175C.
  2. Prepare the onion garnish by heating ½ tablespoon of ghee in a small frying pan. When hot, add the finely sliced brown onion, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until onions have browned well and starting to caramelise. Remove from heat, and set aside on kitchen paper to remove excess ghee. This onion will become crisp by the time you use it for garnish.
  3. Whisk together the yoghurt and dried shallots. Set aside.

  4. Place 24 raw cashews in a grinder, and blend to a paste with 100ml of cold water. Set aside.
  5. In a large oven-proof pan with a tight-fitting lid, heat the ghee over a medium heat, then add the bay leaf, cardamom pods, cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves, kashmiri chilli powder, mace and nutmeg. Fry for two minutes, stirring continuously until spices swell and become aromatic. Add the ginger, garlic and red chillies. Mix well and cook for five minutes or until raw garlic smell has gone.

  6. Increase the heat, and add the lamb, stirring frequently and cook for five minutes, or until the lamb has browned.

  7. Reduce the heat, add the cashew paste and mix well. Now add the yoghurt, one tablespoon at a time, mixing well and bring up to a simmer.

  8. Add 250ml of the reserved stock, mix well and simmer very gently, uncovered, for 10 minutes or until the sauce is very thick and clinging to the meat. Remove from heat.

to assemble

  1. Ensure the lamb is evenly spread over the bottom of the pan, and there is no sauce stuck to the bottom of the pan.

  2. Sprinkle the chopped chilli, figs and raisins evenly over the lamb.
  3. Turn the rice over the top of the lamb and spread evenly. Do not mix, as biryani is a layered dish. Pour the saffron and milk over the top of the rice, making sure they are spread out well. Sprinkle with kewra and fried shallots. Break the ghee into small pieces and dot around the top of the dish.
  4. Seal the pot well, and place into oven for 30 minutes.
  5. Whilst the dish is in the oven, prick the bottom of the eggs with a pin, then place into a small pan with cold water. Quickly bring the pan up to a simmer, then cook the eggs for seven minutes. Remove from heat, drain the hot water, then cover the eggs with cold water. Peel the eggs when cool enough to handle. Set aside.

to serve

  1. Place a warmed serving dish over the cooking pot, and carefully invert. Gently scrape any remaining biryani from this pot. Quarter the eggs and distribute over the dish. Sprinkle with the reserved browned onions and sliced red chilli. Serve

notes

  • 400g of uncooked rice is approximately 2 metric cups.
  • Beresta are thinly-sliced crispy fried shallots and are available from most Indian grocers. The Chinese variant is a suitable substitute.
  • Kewra is an extract that is distilled from pandanus flowers. A good Indian grocer will have this.
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