Follow this step-by-step guide and you’ll have an Indian classic worthy of being served with a flourish
Though found in myriad forms on menus throughout India, the best biryanis are often said to come from Lucknow in the north-west and Hyderabad farther south, though Kolkata sometimes gets a look in, too. None, it must be said, specialises in vegetable biryani – mutton or chicken are more usual – but in a country with more than 400 million vegetarians, it’s definitely a thing.
Prep and soak 45 min
Cook 75 min
500g basmati rice
2 tbsp milk
1 generous pinch saffron
100g chana or masoor dal
4 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper
2 green chillies
50g fresh coriander
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
200g whole-milk yoghurt
2 tbsp lime or lemon juice
10 green beans
2 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
200g wholemeal flour
Vegetable oil, to fry
2 tbsp flaked almonds
1 tbsp sultanas
A few coriander or mint sprigs
Start by soaking the rice in cold water for 45 minutes, then drain and rinse until the water runs clear (soaking cuts the cooking time, which helps with flavour, while rinsing washes off some of the surface starch, so the rice is less likely to clump together later – separate, fluffy grains are the goal with basmati rice).
While the rice is soaking, melt together the butter, milk and saffron in a small pan (or the microwave) and set aside. Put the dal in a medium pan, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Skim any scum from the surface, turn down the heat, leave to simmer for about 30 minutes, or until just tender, then drain.
Peel the garlic and mash it to a rough paste with a little salt, and trim and roughly chop the chillies and coriander.
Put them all in a bowl, mini chopper or mortar, add the ginger and ground spices, and whizz or mash to a paste, adding just enough yoghurt and lemon juice to lubricate the mix.
Stir in the rest of the yoghurt and lemon juice, season and set aside.
Separate the cauliflower into florets. Peel the carrots and cut into 2cm cubes. Peel and deseed the squash, and cut the flesh into small dice. Chop the beans into roughly 2cm lengths (you can use just about any vegetables you like here, though I’d avoid anything too delicate and leafy, because it won’t stand up well to the lengthy cooking).
Put all the veg in a bowl, add the yoghurt mixture, toss to coat and leave to sit.
Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil, add the drained rice, crushed cardamom pods and the bay leaf, and cook for six to eight minutes, until al dente.
Drain well (I toss the rice back into the hot pan afterwards, so any lingering moisture evaporates), then mix with the dal, spices and all.
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/400F/gas mark 6. Put a large casserole dish for which you have a lid (it needs to be big enough to hold all the veg and rice) over a medium-low heat. Add the vegetables and their marinade (if the yoghurt is very thick, add a splash of water to make it more saucy), and cook, stirring often, for five to seven minutes, until the vegetables are starting to soften. Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary.
Gently pile the rice and dal mixture on top of the vegetables, then pour the saffron-infused milk and butter mix over the surface.
Mix the flour with just enough water to make a rough dough, then roll this into a long sausage. Line the rim of the casserole with the dough sausage and press the lid on top to seal.
Put the pot in the oven for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, finely slice the onions and blot the slices on kitchen paper to get rid of any surface moisture. Heat a deep pan a third full of oil until bubbles form around a chopstick (or similar) dipped in. Fry the onion in batches, until golden and crisp, then drain on kitchen paper.
For maximum theatrics, remove the lid from the casserole at the table, scatter the top of the biryani with the crisp onions, flaked almonds, sultanas and roughly chopped coriander or mint, and encourage your guests to dig in. Pickles and chutneys pair very well with biryani, as does a simple kachumber, or cucumber, tomato and onion salad.
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