Ink on my Apron: Bombay biryani blend from scratch
A good spice blend, as every Indian woman will tell you, is the secret weapon in your pantry and elusive unicorn many a novice home cook will chase relentlessly. It’s the reason my mother, in her close to thirty-five years of living in the Middle East, will still faithfully lug a supply of chilli powder – made from fiery red chillies that are left to dry on my grandmother’s terrace in Kerala before being ground at a local mill – on every trip back to Dubai. It’s the reason every family has a signature garam masala blend, treated as a holy grail of sorts, with a recipe that is guarded fiercely and often entrusted to a sole custodian who may entertain requests for a precious jar but will not part ways with measurements.
It’s also why I was sent off to the UK with a suitcase – packed to the brim with fresh spices and dry aromatics – that earned me more than a few amused looks while setting up shop in my student kitchen. Over the course of a year, some of these initial smirks were swapped for timid requests to open my cabinets just to take a whiff of the heady scent of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and garam masala that seemed to have settled into the wood. In a natural turn, these gave way to some bold enquiries as to who would eventually inherit my stash. Safe to say, once you taste the real stuff, a Schwartz shaker of garam masala or ground turmeric is just not going to make the cut.
A potent bottle of freshly ground spices is the versatile one-shot solution that will see you through many a rainy day. And god knows I’ve reached out to my trusted home blends when I’ve wanted to build up and transform the flavour profile of a simple curry or Indian stew, zhuzh up a cheat pulao, or smear on kebabs with thick Greek yoghurt as an impromptu dry rub.
I’ve always fancied myself as someone who will eventually grow into a make-everything-from-scratch sort of person and to say I was over the moon, when I fiddled around with several recipes to come up with what I think is a pretty darn good cheat recipe for the commercialised Bombay Biryani masala, would be an understatement. So why bother with what some may consider a tedious activity when you can get a generous shop-bought 100gm version for well under AED5? In the spirit of full disclosure, I undertook this noble cause for another recipe I was working on, anticipating that many readers in lesser accessible parts of the world would rightfully write in asking for a substitute.
My first successful endeavour with making my own Bombay biryani blend, saw me thinking on my feet and improvising to achieve a final mix that was just right without letting any one ingredient take centre stage. Before you embark upon this task, acknowledge the unspoken caveat that working with Indian spices is not for the faint-hearted. You can’t be heavy-handed or you’ll risk a resultant blend that’s too pungent, but if you’re overtly cautious you’ll feel let down in much the same way you would if you were to go to your favourite Iranian restaurant and be told you had to choose between chips and saffron Chellow to accompany your Koobideh kebabs.
There’s also an indeterminate sense of pleasure attached to knowing that the cinnamon you’ve used is a fine variety personally handpicked on your last holiday to Sri Lanka and the pepper has been sourced from the family estate in Coorg. The trick, as experts will wax eloquent about, lies in using spices of the best quality.
This deceptively titled biryani blend is actually quite a multi-faceted force to reckon with in the kitchen. Use it as a base for your biryani masala and watch it rise to the occasion as you sauté it with onions, tomatoes, ginger-garlic paste, your meat of preference and potatoes and aloo bukhara (dried sour plums for the uninitiated) – those two all-important elements that really make a Bombay Biryani something special.
If, like me, you’re always in search of new ways to pander to your palate, steer far from tradition and let it be the unlikely star that shines through in a slow-cooked Bombay biryani pulled chicken. Go on to commit what some might dub the ultimate act of culinary hara-kiri as you layer an Indian-Mexican fusion nacho casserole comprising layers of chips, pulled chicken and an ingenious corn mash with chilli powder, salt and pepper and topped off with a generous fistful of cheddar before being popped into the oven.
A spice blend done right is a thing of beauty and joy and can be whatever you want it to be.
Bombay Biryani Masala
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tbsp cumin powder
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp paprika powder
¼ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp chilli flakes
½ tbsp fennel seeds
Pinch of fenugreek seeds
½ tsp salt
7 green cardamoms, split them open and use only the seeds
2-inch cinnamon stick
1 tsp fresh black pepper, ground
1 star anise
1) Use the spice jar fixture of a mixer grinder to grind the ingredients listed under spices into a fine, smooth powder. Remove and keep aside.
2) Next, place all the raw aromatics in the mixer grinder and grind into a fine powder.
3) Place both powders into one bowl and stir well. Press with the back of a spoon to ensure all components are thoroughly combined.
4) Store in a jar.
Tip: The amount of this blend can be used according to preference. You could use the entire quantity stated above to make a serving of biryani (roughly 2 cups of rice and 1kg of meat).
For other dishes such as a slow cooker pulled chicken I added about 2 tablespoons in three stages. A large white onion was sautéed for 8 minutes to which an initial tablespoon of the Bombay Biryani blend was added. Two medium-sized chopped tomatoes were then added and sautéed for 3 minutes. A teaspoon of the Bombay Biryani was added and then sautéed for 5 minutes. Boneless chicken breasts are then added to this mixture and sautéed for 8 minutes. After this, add half a teaspoon more of the Bombay Biryani blend and sauté for 3 minutes, before transferring the entire mixture to a slow cooker with a cup of chicken stock and cooking on a high setting for 3 hours, while stirring every half hour or so. Once done, separate the chicken from the thick gravy and use two forks to “pull” or shred your chicken.
All photos courtesy of Jehan Nizar, Lifestyle Features Writer and Food Blogger at inkonmyapron.com