There is no singular definition of biryani. To think that the dish is just seasoned rice with either meat or vegetables is a gross over-simplification, if not an outright mistake. Aside from the vast differences between southern and northern Indian cuisine, no two cooks make it the same way, and in truth, no cook makes it the same way each time, either. Born into royalty around the 16th century, it shares many qualities with humble pulao or pulav, AKA pilaf, but is distinctly, clearly an elevated form of the concept.
Biryani is an entree, the main event of a meal unveiled with great fanfare, whereas pulao is merely a side, even if it contains a complete protein. Speaking for itself with more complex and stronger spices, a proper biryani commands all the attention of the eater, acting as both dinner and entertainment in one. Rice is always at the foundation, but everything else is up for debate.
Given all the disagreements about what a biryani should be, developing a proper recipe is a near impossible task. As an American, I can never claim that my take on the time-honored tradition is even remotely accurate, authentic, or worthy of being called the “best.” I can only offer inspiration to try biryani, of any sort at all, to enjoy a taste of the single most popular food across the entire Indian subcontinent. Honor the source, but don’t forget to have fun with it and cater to your own tastes. That’s how food continues to evolve in our interconnected world, right?
Hyderabadi chicken biryani seemed to me the easiest, most recognizable overseas, and widely loved variation to start with. While it does demand low and slow cooking, it’s layered with spices in a simple, logical way that’s more manageable than most. Rose water and saffron create the signature, luxurious flavor, perfumed with floral notes that mingle and fuse with the spices for a full aromatic experience. Par-cooked rice meets marinated proteins to end with a perfectly cooked, tender bite all the way through.
In a move that should surprise precisely no one, my take is a clear break with tradition. Coconut oil provides a dairy-free equivalent to ghee, while vegan yogurt of any variety, be it oat, soy, almond, coconut, or other, is a seamless swap. For the meat of the matter, finely sliced Sugimoto koshin shiitake imitates the shredded texture of stewed chicken. Their inherently, unmistakably umami flavor only adds to the illusion. I prefer the koshin variety here for their expansive, flat caps that create a similarly meaty sensation when shredded, creating a more satisfying experience overall.
Much of this recipe is just a waiting game. Soaking the shiitake in water overnight to properly rehydrate them and bring out the full range of umami within is essential, as is the slow marinating process in the dairy-free yogurt mixture. While most people credit this step with creating more tender meat, there’s more happening here that also applies to plants. The acidic properties make it a great carrier for other seasonings, helping all those great spices to infuse deep within the mushrooms. Edible art like that can’t be rushed.
What makes a great biryani?
While taste is subjective, there are certain unifying characteristics of a good biryani that remain consistent across the globe:
- Basmati rice is a non-negotiable. No other variety has the same delicate fragrance and texture. Each grain should remain separate and fluffy but simultaneously moist and sticky. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you taste it.
- Seasonings should be balanced, moderately spiced and nuanced with bites of sweetness, saltiness, herbaceousness, and tartness. No one taste should stand out above the rest; the ultimate goal is flavor harmony.
- Kokumi, or the sensation of richness, often associated with fat, is essential. That’s why it’s traditionally lavished with ghee for that lingering feeling of extravagance. Yes, you can reduce the amount of oil and still enjoy a great biryani… But it won’t be the best biryani.
How can you serve biryani?
Think of biryani as the original bowl-in-one. No one will walk away from the table hungry if that’s the only dish on it. That said, it’s nice to have small accompaniments such as:
Homemade biryani is a physical manifestation of love. It takes time, effort, reasonable cooking skills, and a well-stocked spice rack to pull off such a feat. Sharing biryani with someone makes a clear, unmistakable statement, whether those feelings are spoken or not. Saying “I love you” is redundant when biryani is on the table.
- 1 Cup Unsweetened, Plain Vegan Yogurt
- 2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
- 6 Cloves Garlic, Minced
- 1 1/2 Inches Fresh Ginger, Minced
- 1 Jalapeño, Finely Diced (with Seeds)
- 1 Teaspoon Kashmiri Chilli Powder or Paprika
- 1 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
- 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
- 1 (2.47-Ounce) Package Sugimoto Koshin Shiitake, Soaked Overnight
- 5 Whole Cloves
- 1 (1 1/2-Inch) Cinnamon Stick
- 4 Whole Pods Green Cardamom
- 1 Star Anise
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 1/2 Teaspoon Whole Caraway Seeds
Rice and Assembly:
- 2 Cups Basmati Rice, Soaked for 1 Hour
- 1 Teaspoon Salt
- 1/2 Cup Melted Coconut Oil
- 1 1/2 Cups Crispy Fried Onions*
- 1/4 Cup Fresh Mint, Roughly Chopped
- 1/4 Teaspoon Saffron, Soaked in 1/4 Cup Warm Water
- 2 Teaspoons Rosewater
- 1/2 Cup Vegan Chicken-Flavored Stock or Vegetable Stock
- 1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
- 1/4 Cup Shelled and Toasted Pistachios
To Garnish (Optional):
- Dried Rose Petals
- Fresh Mint Leaves
- Begin by mixing the yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, jalapeño, kashimir chili or paprika, coriander, and salt in a medium bowl. Cut the stems off of the soaked shiitake, reserving them for another recipe. Slice the caps as thinly as possible and add them to the yogurt marinade. Toss gently to thoroughly coat all of the mushroom slices. Cover and let sit at room temperature for one hour. This can also be done up to 24 hours advance if stored in an airtight container in the fridge.
- Once the shiitake are done marinating, place the whole spices in a large saucepan over high heat. Toast, stirring and shaking the pan, for one minute, until aromatic. Add in the shiitake along with any excess marinade. Turn down the heat to low and cook gently, stirring periodically, for 10 - 15 minutes. The sauce should cling thickly to the mushrooms, browning lightly in some places.
- Meanwhile, prepare the rice. Drain the soaked rice and rinse until the water runs clear. Transfer to a small saucepan and add enough fresh water to cover by about 1 inch. Add the salt and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes, until the rice is tender but still firm. Drain thoroughly.
- Now it's time to assemble the biryani! Start by pouring in half of the coconut oil to a large saucepan, tilting the pan to thoroughly coast the bottom. Add a third of the rice, spreading it out in an even layer. Drizzle a third of the saffron water and rosewater all over. Then, cover with half of the mushrooms, half of the fried onions, and half of the mint. Repeat this pattern, ending with a layer of rice on top. Drizzle the remaining coconut oil all over, followed by the stock mixed with the nutritional yeast.
- Cover and cook over very low heat for 15 minutes. Let stand to steam for another 15 minutes.
- Transfer the hot biryani to a serving platter and top with pistachios. Finish with additional fresh mint and dried rose petals, if desired. Enjoy!
*To make crispy fried onions from scratch, thinly slice 3 large yellow onions. Toss lightly in 1/4 cup of cornstarch to coat, shaking off any excess. Heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil in a saucepan with high walls over medium heat until it reaches 350 degrees. Add the onions and fry for 2 - 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a cooling rack lined with paper towels. Let cool before using.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 319Total Fat: 20gSaturated Fat: 13gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 5gCholesterol: 11mgSodium: 695mgCarbohydrates: 25gFiber: 2gSugar: 5gProtein: 7g
All nutritional information presented within this site are intended for informational purposes only. I am not a certified nutritionist and any nutritional information on BitterSweetBlog.com should only be used as a general guideline. This information is provided as a courtesy and there is no guarantee that the information will be completely accurate. Even though I try to provide accurate nutritional information to the best of my ability, these figures should still be considered estimations.