Probably because I'm horribly greedy, for new ways of thinking as well as for food, I'm trying veganism for January (thanks, Veganuary). This was no problem until I referenced biryani in my last blog post. Suddenly rice and lamb was all I could think about, and so the gauntlet was thrown, can you make biryani vegan? And is there any point in even trying? I spent a weekend investigating.
Hang on, if there's no meat or dairy in it, what makes this a biryani?
In essence biryani combines rice with layers of highly spiced meat, fish or poultry. The most common types include lamb/ mutton or chicken, with styles and spicing varying across South, Central and West Asia. Given the huge area that covers, you can imagine how technical this biryani research could get, should one be so inclined. I'll side step the politics for now though, with these pictures to show some of the similarities and differences.
I'm going to hazard that three elements make a biryani distinct from other dishes.
Biryani should be an opulent experience. Heady clouds of basmati and spice-scented steam wafting out from under the lid and a confetti of over-the-top textures and colours.
I've found heated arguments over whether pilau/pulao/pilaf and biryani are the same thing. In my experience, they're really not. Pilau is quite a lot plainer, and involves cooking the rice and meat together in a stock (yakhni). Biryani meanwhile, involves layering the distinct parts of the dish together.
Some styles of biryani involve cooking the meat and rice together from raw, others see them put together when part done. Some semblance of co-cooking needs to happen though, for the whole thing to come together.
Biryani: starting life as pilau
Since we're missing the meat fat and ghee/butter in this recipe, the rice is going to need both quite a lot of oil, and something else to flavour it. I'd tread carefully and avoid a highly flavoured oil, since there's so much else going on. Coconut was my choice because its rich but not overpowering. Some cookbooks I found mention pilau to be the starting point of a biryani, that is, rice is cooked in stock first and then layered with a meat sauce. This ended up being my starting point as it allowed me to infuse extra flavour into the rice. I used my mum's recipe for chicken pilau to make the stock (minus the chicken).
Vegetarian but without vegetables?
Meat-free biryani is obviously not without precedent. Unfortunately, my experiences of vegetable biryanis have been joyless affairs that seem to universally involve tipping a bag of frozen mixed vegetables into a masala sauce, and then cooking the whole lot until you have some sad rice littered with wrinkled, grey peas and pasty carrots. This is nonsensical, considering the proportion of people in South Asia that don't eat meat, so I expect I'm just being horribly ignorant.
In anticipation of my enlightenment I avoided the issue of overcooking vegetables by forgoing them entirely in favour of dal, inspired by Madhur Jaffri's recipe for one-pot lentils and rice with potatoes. Dal can be grainy though, so you have to make it quite rich to prevent it all soaking away to nothing but a chalky sediment layer. My solution for this was making a fairly rich recipe with onions, tomatoes and coconut milk thickening the sauce.
Frills and fripperies
Adornments make this dish special. Oven-roasted crisp potatoes for extra body in the layers, Persian-inspired chopped pistachios and coriander, and caramelised carrots and dried cranberries pilfered from Afghani kabuli pilau. Chopped green chillis and fried onions are biryani classics. I baked some dried pomegranate seeds with the potatoes and they turned out to be a key addition, so if you can get ahold of anar dana make sure you add it. Finally, saffron wouldn't go amiss but its expensive, so maybe save that for your birthday and splash some orange food colouring on instead if you like the look.
This quantity will serve six people as a main with some pickles and salad on the side, I'm a recovering yogurt addict so if you find a good alternative (I haven't) then that too. You don't have to stick to the recipe that strictly - its most forgiving - I'd use the principles for a guide then swap in your preferred dal/stock/extras.
For the rice
2 whole black cardamoms
1 onion, unpeeled, quartered
2 bay leaves
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp black cumin seeds
3cm cassia bark
salt to taste
2 mugs basmati rice (soaked)
For the dal
200g toor dal (soaked)
2 tsps mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 onion, chopped
2cm ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 small tomatoes, diced
1 tbsp tomato puree
3 green chillis, chopped finely
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
4 tbsps methi (I used dried but fresh is nicer if you can get it)
1 can coconut milk
2 tsps tamarind paste
salt to taste
For the potatoes
3 large waxy potatoes, peeled and chopped into 2cm cubes
2 tbsps anar dana, ground in the food processor until chopped but still course
Small handful dried cranberries, chopped
1 carrot, chopped into matchsticks, fried with a little oil and sugar
Small handful coarsely chopped pistachios
1 onion, sliced and fried
1 small bunch coriander, finely chopped
2 green chillis, finely chopped
1. Get the stock cooking first by caramelising the quartered onion, with some oil. When browning add the salt and spices, fry a bit more and then cover with cold water and simmer until you need it. It should the colour of an americano by the time its done.
2. Parboil the potatoes in salted water, then drain and toss with oil (you could use a flavoured one like mustard here) and ground anar dana. Leave aside on a baking sheet, ready to roast later.
3. Add about a tablespoon of oil to a large saucepan and fry the mustard seeds until they pop. Add the cumin seeds and then the onion and cook until soft. Then add the ginger, garlic and chopped green chilli, and continue to fry for a minute.
4. Next pour in the chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and enough water to keep it from catching while you cook it on a low heat. Add more oil if you need it.
5. When the tomatoes and onions have collapsed and are well combined, add in the coconut milk, lentils, turmeric, methi and tamarind paste. Salt to taste and then cover and simmer until the lentils are cooked. You can expedite this by using a pressure cooker but I don't really understand them.
6. When the dal is nearly cooked, put the potatoes into the oven at around 200 degrees celcius and cook until crispy outside and soft inside. Watch the anar dana doesn't burn, if it starts to caramelise turn the heat down.
7. Strain the stock and put it back in the saucepan. Add the rice and boil until nearly cooked but still firm. Drain and set the stock aside (you don't need it anymore but its pretty good to drink in a mug).
8. The time for layering has arrived. Assemble your components around the stove. Grab a big pot with a heavy base and a lid, and add quite a lot of oil into the bottom (for that crispy Persian tahdig crust).
9. Scoop a third of of the rice into the bottom of the pot, then add the dal, potatoes, and a little of each of the cranberries, fried onions, carrots, coriander, chillis and nuts. Repeat this process twice, until you've used up all the ingredients, you can also add food colouring or saffron now, for a full-on biryani effect. When finished sprinkle the top with some extra oil and water mixed together (1tbsp oil and a third of a cup of water).
10. Put the lid on the rice and cook on a low heat until the grains are soft, at which point your biryani is ready. You can place the saucepan into a large frying pan or skillet to spread the heat more evenly if you aren't using a heavy-based pan.
So what's the verdict? Can you make biryani vegan? The short answer is yes, but you have to go all out or there's no point in trying. At the same time, I wouldn't try shoehorning a regular recipe to make it fit a vegan diet. This recipe is a departure from, say using a meat replacement product instead of lamb, but I wanted it to be a dish in its own right, rather than a slightly disappointing imitation. You can make biryani vegan, but you can't make lamb biryani vegan however hard you try.