The dekchi sits snugly on the fire. Her lid sealed firmly by flour dough. A few lazy charcoal pieces idle on the lid. I see glimpses of glowing ember through the lazy ash. Vivid luminous orange against the backdrop of a dull grey.
The ancient bawarchi paces around. Patience to this day is not one of his virtues. Fiercely proud of his Avadhi roots, he frets and fusses and scowls at his assistants to stoke the dying fire. They don’t mind. They love him.
A nod. The boys briskly lift the dekchi off the fire in one clean move. Another nod. This time a signal for the ceremonial breaking of the dough. That moment of truth. That one instant that makes him, despite his decades of training and experience, nervous and clammy. Dum cooking is an art, a yogic equilibrium of components, a balance so delicate that the most gentle whiff of breeze can get the house of cards tumbling down.
The lid is carefully slid, just a wee bit for the maestro to have a peek. And an explosion of fragrance greets the air. Hypnotic. Seductive. The genie trapped inside the dekchi is released to diffuse into the balmy surroundings.
Heads turn. The bawarchi smiles. He knows it’s worked yet again.
This is the story of Biryani. A melange of rice, meat and spices, cooked in dum over a slow fire, a symphony orchestrated by the maestro – pearls of rice, succulent cuts of meat, an ensemble of spices handed down generations, fried onion that’s caramelised to decadence, dollops of ghee and a splash of milk, tempting strands of golden saffron playing bo-peep amidst the rice and an indulgence of kewra, rose water and ittar. All cooked to luxuriant perfection.
Here’s my version of it – the Kolkata Chicken Biryani, adapted by the family of the rulers of Avadh exiled to Kolkata by the imperialists. Far away from their homeland, trapped in abject penury, they discovered fried potatoes did help as a substitute of meat. The tradition still continues, we still look for potatoes in our Kolkata Chicken Biryani amidst the meat and rice.
Kolkata Chicken Biryani
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 5 - 6 chicken biryani cut pieces
- 1/2 cup curd whipped
- 3 tbsps onion paste
- 1/2 tbsp ginger garlic paste
- 1 tsp turemeric powder
- 1 tsp red chili powder
- 1 tsp coriander powder
- 5 - 6 green chilies slit
- 2 tbsps oil
- 3 tbsps ghee
- salt to taste
For my special Kolkata biriyani masala
- 5 - 6 Kebab chini
- 2 one inch cinnamon stick
- 1 black cardamom
- 5-6 green cardamom
- 5-6 cloves
- 1 star anise
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg preferably freshly grated
- 1 floret mace
- 2 tsp black pepper corn
- 3 - 4 Boiled eggs
- 5 - 6 Potato halves fried till golden
- 3 tbsps Fried onion
- 1 tsp saffron
- 1/2 cup milk
- few drops keora water
- Flour dough to seal the cooking pot
- To make the biriyani masala, dry roast all the ingredients (under the heading For my special Kolkata biriyani masala) till they release their fragrant aroma. Cool and grind to a fine powder. Keep aside.
- Marinate the chicken pieces with onion paste, ginger-garlic paste, whipped curd, turmeric powder, red chili powder, a hint of salt and 1 tbsp of biryani masala. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- In the meantime, soak the basmati rice for 20 odd minutes. Drain the water.
- Cook the rice now in boiling water, just a few drops of oil added to the water, till about 70% done. Drain the water. Spread the cooked rice on a flat dish and keep aside.
- Heat oil in frying pan, shake off the marinate and lightly sear the chicken high flame. Add the marinade now and cook over a low flame till about 70% done. If its getting a bit too dry, splash a little water in between.
- Soak the saffron strands in warm milk. Keep aside.
- Now to assemble the biriyani, take a deep bottomed pan, grease with ghee. Spread a layer of rice, place chicken pieces along with the gravy. Throw in green chilies, fried onions, a boiled egg and fried potato halves. And a generous sprinkle of ghee.
- Follow this with yet another layer of rice and on it, the remaining cooked chicken with the gravy, green chilies, fried onions, a boiled egg and the fried potato halves. Again a luxuriant dollop of ghee.
- Finally another layer of rice. Gently pour over the saffron infused milk, keora water and the remaining ghee. Cover the lid and seal firmly with flour dough.
- Place the pan on another flat frying pan and cook over low flame for 15-20 minutes.
- A standing time of 10 odd minutes and the biriyani ready to serve.