Late last year, in the Shaheen Bagh plaza of New Delhi, a protest broke out. It was a challenge to the Citizen Amendment Act passed by the government of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, which made religion a criteria for earning citizenship, allowing a path for Hindus and Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists, but not Muslims. The early days of the demonstration mixed the democratic spirit of Tahrir Square with the camp-out culture of Occupy Wall Street. Protesters who stayed a while needed to eat. And what they ate was biryani, a quintessential Indian rice-and-meat dish. “It’s very much a symbol of syncretic culture, because a version of it was brought in by Muslim rulers,” says the writer and New York Times contributor Aatish Taseer, 39, who grew up in Delhi and found that the protests made him see the dish in a new way. “I suddenly felt very protective of this thing that I associate with the kind of India that I love.”
The finished dish is drier than an Indian curry, but shares similarly bold flavours, which Taseer offsets with Greek yoghurt.
Taseer, who hosted the recent two-part Al Jazeera documentary “In Search of India’s Soul,” has been eating biryani since well before he was an internationally recognised voice on India, the author of three novels and two books of nonfiction (plus one translation from Urdu to English). His family’s in-home cook used to prepare it for him when Taseer was a child. “Of all the things he would make, biryani was one of my favourites,” Taseer says. “When I was 18 and on my way to college at Amherst, I thought ‘I could do without pretty much everything else except this.’ So I got him to teach it to me.”
Taseer still has the notebook with the original recipe, inked in his teenage scrawl. He’s referred to it over the years when he needed a culinary showstopper; biryani is not something one throws together in 20 minutes after work on a Wednesday. It’s a patient dish, a fragrant ginger-turmeric-cinnamon potpourri that was long associated with celebratory feasts until it recently became a political symbol. “If you cook it too fast, it can get out of control before you even know it,” Taseer says. He tends to nurse his for three hours with a tequila cocktail in hand and the classical station WQXR on the radio. “With biryani, in its purest or finest iteration, it’s sometimes cooking all night on a very low heat. What I really recommend is to slow things right down.”
If you don’t live near a South Asian grocer, the Indian spices are readily available online.
Aatish’s Chicken Biryani
5 medium tomatoes, puréed
5 or 6 cloves of garlic, grated
1. Add ghee to a large stovetop pot or Dutch oven and coat the bottom. On medium heat, add onions, garlic and ginger. Stir. Then add cloves, black cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaf. Stir again. Cook until fragrant, less than a minute.
2. Once onions have browned, add red chilli, turmeric and salt. Cook until it’s mixed. Add chicken and cook for about 10 minutes, until it loses its raw colour. Add tomato purée, followed immediately by garam masala and biryani powder. Simmer for 10 minutes more at low heat.
3. Add rice, turn the heat up to medium-high and cook for 10 minutes covered. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook uncovered until the liquid evaporates and the rice is cooked through, but not mushy or gluey, about 10 minutes. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes. Serve with plain Greek yoghurt, mango pickle and a glass of rosé.
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