Way back in the distant past, I was the producer of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery – the first time Indian food had had a proper airing on British TV and I also commissioned and edited the book that accompanied the series. I tested every recipe in that book. My copy still falls open at page 154, sticky with spices: the recipe for Lamb Biryani, possibly my favourite out of many possible candidates.
Biryani is a festive dish, nothing like the quick assembly of ready-prepared sauces and packets you can now buy in supermarkets, though many of these products are excellent. You take your time with it and you bear it proudly to the table, a steaming hill of subtle spices garnished perhaps with edible silver, fresh coriander, quartered eggs, crispy onions and toasted almonds. I have made Madhur’s recipe exactly as she prescribed and it has always taken most of an afternoon. If you want to try it for some special occasion, I recommend it.
Here I have made a heavily adapted version which cuts down the time but keeps much of the special flavour. It still involves the biryani signature method of layering tender meat with rice and dribbles of saffron, sealed tightly and put into a slow oven for an hour. Saffron is so expensive that my local Turkish shop, which sells every spice you could imagine, keeps it behind the counter and it comes inside a package designed to look like a gold coin. Genuine saffron is never cheap because each plant only produces three stamens and it takes about a thousand, dried by hand, to make an ounce. But for sure it is the queen of spices: the slightly musty, haunting fragrance is worth its price.
You really need a spice grinder for this recipe but if you don’t have one, prepare for the hard work of pounding the spices in a mortar and pestle.
While I was making this recipe, the concierge in my building knocked at my door with a parcel. He is originally from Pakistan. He raised then closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. ‘Ah! My Mum’s kitchen…!’
350 g lamb leg or shoulder cut into chunks
200g plain yoghurt
Chunk of fresh ginger peeled and grated
4 garlic cloves, crushed
For the spice mix
1 large dried bay leaf
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
5 cardamom pods
Half a cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon chilli flakes
1 teaspoon peppercorns
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Oil for frying
2 onions, cut into fine rings
Pinch of saffron strands
100 ml boiling water to infuse the saffron
1 tablespoon ground almonds
1 tablespoon sultanas
200 ml water or stock
1½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
Basmati rice: fill a measuring jog to the 325 ml level
Knob of butter
Fresh coriander, finely chopped, for garnish
Cover the lamb chunks with the yoghurt, ginger and garlic and let it marinate for at least 30 minutes, ideally an hour or more.
Prepare the spice mix. Put all the spice mix ingredients into the grinder and reduce them to a fine powder. Heat some oil and fry the spice mix for about 2 minutes under a low heat. Remove it with a slotted spoon and set it aside on a plate for the moment. Sweat the sliced onions in the same pan, removing half of them to join the spices, before they turn brown, letting the rest become crisp. You will be using these for garnish later. Drain them on kitchen paper.
Pour 100 ml of boiling water over the saffron strands and let them infuse so that the water takes on a deep red-gold colour. Allow at least an hour for this.
Shake the yoghurt off the meat, heat some more oil in the same pan and sear the meat in it, turning often. It may have an unattractive grey colour at this point. Add the remaining yoghurt marinade, the spices, ground almonds, sultanas, salt and the water or stock. Cover tightly and let it cook under a very low heat until the meat is tender – about 45 minutes. Much of the liquid will have evaporated, leaving about 200 ml of thick, fragrant sauce.
While this is happening, wash the rice vigorously in a sieve, letting cold water gush through it to shake off loose starch. When the water runs clear, the rice is ready for the next stage. Fill a large saucepan with salted water and boil the rice for about 7 minutes. It should be nearly tender but still a little nutty. Drain it.
Preheat the oven to 160 c.
Take a casserole which has a tight-fitting lid, ideally made of cast enamel. Butter the inside copiously. Sprinkle the first layer of rice on the bottom followed by a layer of the lamb with its sauce. Continue layering, ending with a layer of rice. Now carefully dribble the saffron-water, along with the saffron strands, all over the rice. Tuck a layer of buttered foil over the biryani and then drape another one tightly over the rim of the casserole and clap on the lid. Put it in the oven for about an hour.
Bring it to the table sprinkled with the finely chopped fresh coriander and the crispy onions.
A biryani is a meal in itself but you could add a yoghurt and cucumber raita, a fresh tomato salad or a spicy carrot salad if you wish.