Ink on my Apron: Birria for the Soul
A hearty birria demands that you revel in the elaborate hands-on approach.
Let me start off by saying I’m not the most forgiving person when it comes to less than memorable meals. In fact, I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I am quite the opposite. This revelation has been broken to me by co-workers who I’ve spent many a canteen lunch with, dissecting the flawed attributes of a square of over baked lasagne topped off with a crusty layer of cheese, or friends whose parade I’ve rained on when at the latest It café by telling them that parting with AED50 for a less-than-satisfactory slice of dried out cake is criminal.
Am I a food snob? No, not in the sense of being someone who is easily taken in by the trappings of fine-dining experiences. You will not find me squealing over a steak purely by virtue of it boasting a black truffle butter glaze nor will you find me settling for third-person rave reviews of the miso-marinated black cod at an epic Japanese institution. What I am guilty of possessing, however, is an insatiable streak for honest-to-goodness real food that is big on flavours.
“Do it well and do it with joy”, is pretty much the philosophy I live by as someone who both cooks and enjoys eating out extensively. During my college days in Chennai, I was a loyal patron of a modest “bread-omelette” sandwich stall that could teach the world a thing or two about “cheese pull” (years before it became a fad that took over our lives) and a hole-in-the-wall Malayali “porotta and beef” joint that churned out modest plates of the stuff with such reassuring consistency. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make for enduring memories.
Having said that, ever so rarely there comes along a wildcard loud and brash contender proudly brandishing its shiny “New in Town” badge that lives up to all the hype. I had the pleasure of visiting one such establishment recently. As I walked into said restaurant with my seasoned cynic-tinted glasses and hard-to-please expression in tow, I took a cursory sweep of my surroundings. Was I going to allow my opinion to be swayed by the restaurant’s gorgeous location in one of the most enviable strips in downtown Dubai, complete with gorgeous handwoven rugs laid out on the steps to herald guests’ entry? No, because I’m not a sellout like that – the food would have to do all the talking.
A quick scan of the menu made me grudgingly admit that the choices looked good and not like they were a carelessly curated afterthought by a rookie. Here was someone who clearly understood the global nomad’s deep-seated desire for soul food. Some further quizzing revealed that every item on the menu was a riff of a much-loved dish from the native countries of each of the restaurant’s staff. My eyes zoomed in on the oxtail birria pasta and the rest, as they say, was history.
Ever so rarely, I come across a dish so good that it makes my heart sing and weep simultaneously. But unlike a normal person who is able to sit back, close their eyes and savour the moment, I become obsessed with figuring out how to replicate it. The older I get, the more I find myself morphing into that friend nobody likes eating out with because they think they “can do it at home, and do it better”.
An odd competitive instinct kicked in as forkfuls of my pasta were tasted in slow motion, while trying to guess whether the heat quotient was attributed to a normal dried red chilli or one of those phantom hard-to-procure-in-parts-of-the-world-other-than-Mexico varieties. And then came a slew of questions I was desperate for answers to - what is a birria and what was that je ne sais quoi element oddly reminiscent of a Malayali mutton curry?!
While I should have been more surprised at the addition of anything other than a conventional Italian sauce to pasta, I wasn’t. As an Indian, I am no stranger to the glorious bastardisation of various dishes and turmeric-tinged fusilli with sautéed onions, garlic, peppers, green chillies, and mutton, just so happens to be one of my favourite things!
I returned home like a crazed stalker on a mission and began trawling the length and breadth of the internet. Zeroing in on the perfect copycat recipe can be one of life’s most pleasurable and daunting tasks. It’s safe to say that for every handful of failed conquests, there has been that one stellar find that leaves you delirious.
Finding the birria recipe of my dreams was all kinds of challenging but I also had some good fortune – such as the timing coinciding rather conveniently with the acquisition of my gleaming new Dutch Oven and chancing across a seasonal pop-up from Mexico that sold canned chipotles in adobo sauce!
A birria, I learned, is a Mexican dish originating from the state of Jalisco. The spicy red stew usually enlists the use of goat meat or mutton but there are versions occasionally made from beef or chicken, and it features as the pièce de resistance at celebratory occasions ranging from weddings and baptisms to Christmas and Easter. While preparation techniques vary greatly, the dish is often served with corn tortillas, onion, and lime.
I also discovered that while birria is a mainstay of Mexican culture – what with birrerias or street carts devoted to dispensing birria – it is of particular significance in Jalisco and its capital Guadalajara. The final recipe I have shared has been conceived after the careful comparison and tweaking of several versions, paired with my own instinct and creative license. The step for roasting the tomatoes and onions with thyme and garlic, for example, just happens to be born from a separate personal experiment. Being someone who has an aversion to tangy food and souring agents, I’ve also gone easy on the apple cider vinegar and skipped using fresh lemon juice altogether, opting instead to serve wedges on the side as a garnish.
Roasted tomato and onion and dry-roasted aromatics
As is the case with Indian cuisine, process - I come to realise - is everything when it comes to mastering a satisfying birria. There can be no cutting of corners - on the contrary, a hearty birria demands that you revel in the elaborate hands-on approach. Right from dry roasting the aromatics to roasting the tomatoes and onions for the adobo sauce and then searing the meat till it acquires a satisfying golden glaze and finally allowing the mixture to do its own thing in a slow cooker, Dutch Oven, or heavy-bottomed pan – this recipe isn’t for the reluctant cook or those who are pressed for time. If, however, you are someone who can think of no pleasure better than being allowed to potter about in your kitchen over a lazy weekend, or treating your friends to some non-generic dinner party food that will leave them both purring in delight and breaking into a slight sweat (yes, those chipotles mean business), prepare to be rewarded for your effort.
Pureed adobo paste
2 tomatoes, medium-sized
½ large white onion
Olive Oil to drizzle
3 tbsp garlic, finely chopped
Pinch of thyme
4 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground pepper
4-inch cinnamon stick
3-4 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce plus 2 tsp adobo sauce
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
500 gm mutton, boneless
Salt and pepper to season
1 cup chicken stock
4 bay leaves
1) Preheat oven to 190 degrees C. Halve 2 large tomatoes and scoop out seeds with a spoon. Line a baking tray with silver foil and brush with olive oil. Lay the tomatoes and onion on it. Drizzle the olive oil over them and sprinkle with 3 tbsp finely chopped garlic and thyme. Roast for 40 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 200 degrees C and roast until caramelised for about 20 minutes more. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
2) Dry roast all the aromatics over a low flame for about 5-6 minutes or until they release a lovely smell.
3) Bring out a mixer grinder and place the roasted vegetables, the dry roasted aromatics and all the ingredients listed for the adobo sauce and puree until smooth.
4) Season the mutton with salt and pepper. Pour 3 tbsp of olive oil into the Dutch Oven and allow it to heat over a medium flame. Place the mutton into the oil (you will hear a crackle), and sear until golden brown. Pour the adobo mix over it, followed by the chicken stock and 4 bay leaves.
5) Cover the Dutch oven with its lid and place in the preheated oven (temperature should now be 150 degrees C) for 2 ½ to 3 hours or until the meat flakes easily; giving it a stir every 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and shred the meat with a couple of forks (it should be tender enough to flake easily).
6) Birria can be served plain with a squeeze of lemon and some sliced onions or tossed with pasta of choice with a generous shaving of mild cheddar or pecorino. Alternatively, use as a filling for tortillas.
*Note – I cooked my birria in a Dutch Oven, but you can also do the same in a slow cooker on the lowest setting and monitor till the meat achieves that fall-off-the-bone texture. Alternatively, cook on the hob in a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid on a very low flame and monitor over the course of 2-3 hours till the meat becomes tender and easy to shred. In both cases, keep stirring every half hour to ensure it doesn’t burn.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at inkonmyapron.com.