Each spice has a special day to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.
~Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
, The Mistress of Spices

Somehow, this became a three headed post.

Derived from the Persian word beryā(n) (بریان) which means “fried” or “roasted,” biryani is a rice dish crafted from a sensuously transcendent spice medley and basmati rice layered with curried meats (often lamb, mutton or chicken), fish, eggs or vegetables. Biryani was born in the kitchens of ancient Persia, and was later transported by merchants to the Indian subcontinent where the dish developed even further. Whether made in India, South Asia or the Middle East, regional variants are abundant and often without boundaries, such as hyderabadi biryani, ambur biryani, bhatkali biryani, kacchi biryani, awadhi biryani, mughlai biryani, berian biryani, sindhi biryani, khan biryani, memoni biryani, pakistani biryani, sri lankan biryani and the like. That is a short list.

Yes, I have admittedly been cheating on biryani. The farmers’ market spice merchant has been effusively loyal and ever helpful. Yet, I have been shamefully, almost covertly, buying his superb admix which is damned good. So, it only seemed fair to concoct my own biryani blend (with a little help from my friends). Much like curry or ras al hanout, dry roasting and then grinding your own spice brew at home tends to create a more spellbinding and blissful union.

BIRYANI SPICE BLEND

1 T cardamom seeds
1 T coriander seeds
2 t cumin seeds
1 medium cinnamon stick, cut into pieces
6 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1/2 T black peppercorns
2 t fennel seeds
2 t caraway seeds
2 star anise
1/2 t grated nutmeg
1/2 t turmeric

Dry roast spices over moderate heat until fragrant. Discard bay leaves. Cool and reduce to a powder in a spice grinder by pulses or by using a mortar and pestle. Store in an air tight container in a cool, dark place.

Now, on to the main course. Guests will be grateful for the effusive, almost contemplative, scents…

LAMB BIRYANI

Dry roast and grind anise seeds, black peppercorns, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds.

1 t anise seeds, toasted and ground
2 T black peppercorns, toasted and ground
3 T green cardamom pods, cracked, toasted and ground
2 T coriander seeds, toasted and ground
2 t cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks

3 T unsalted butter
1 T canola oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

3 T unsalted butter
1 T canola oil
2 T garam masala
1 t crushed red chile flakes
1⁄2 T turmeric
1 t paprika

6 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 medium tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
4 serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 1 1⁄2″ piece ginger, peeled and minced

2 1/2 lbs trimmed boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
Sea salt
3/4 C plain yogurt

2 1⁄2 C basmati rice
3 T unsalted butter
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1⁄2 T cumin seeds, toasted and ground
4 whole cloves
2 dried bay leaves
Sea salt
2 C water
2 C chicken or vegetable broth

1 C whole milk
1 t saffron threads

Mint leaves, roughly chopped
Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Cashews, lightly sautéed in butter and chopped (optional)

Heat butter and canola oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and then just turning golden. Transfer to a bowl and set aside for later use.

Heat butter and canola oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat until shimmering. Add garam masala, chile flakes, turmeric, paprika, anise, pepper, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, and 1 cinnamon stick, then cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Then add garlic, tomatoes, chiles, and ginger and sauté, stirring, another 2–3 minutes more.

Add lamb, season with salt, and cook until lightly browned, turning, about 5 minutes. Add the cooked onions and yogurt, cover and reduce heat to medium and cook until lamb is tender, about 25 minutes. Place lamb in a glass bowl or dish, tent and set aside. Keep the empty Dutch oven available for the layering step below.

Meanwhile, melt butter over moderately high heat. Add the minced garlic cloves and sauté briefly but do not burn. Add the basmati rice, stirring well to coat. Add cinnamon stick, along with the cumin, cloves, and bay leaves, and season with salt. Add the water and stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low to medium low. Cover and cook until the rice is firm and the liquid reduced, about 10-12 minutes. Set aside off of the heat.

Warm the milk with the saffron threads in a small saucepan.

Transfer half the curried lamb back into the Dutch oven, then top with half the rice. Clothe with layers of the remaining lamb and then rice and finally add the warmed milk with saffron. (Lamb–>rice–>lamb–>rice–>saffron.) Cover and cook over low heat until the rice is tender, about 10 more minutes.

Plate and garnish with mint, cilantro and cashews. Consider serving biryani with coconut curry gravy, daal (lentils), regional vegetable dishes, and/or naan bread.

Pourboire: instead of sautéing in unsalted butter and canola, ghee or ghi–a traditional Indian clarified butter–is often used due to its high smoking point and toasted flavor. A recipe follows:

GHEE

1 lb unsalted butter, roughly cut into pieces

Place butter in medium saucepan over medium high heat and bring to a lively simmer or quiet boil, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and the butter will form a first foam which will disappear. Ghee is done when a second foam forms on top of butter, and the butter turns slightly golden, about 7 minutes. Brown milk solids will naturally fall to the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool for several minutes. Slowly pour into ovenproof container through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth layers. If not using immediately, store in an airtight container and keep free from moisture.

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