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.