I’ve long resisted posting a biryani recipe on the site, primarily because it’s one of those Indian dishes that I’m weirdly intractable about. I’m usually open to experimentation with Indian food, but I’ve long associated biryani with just two or three classic versions made by friends or relatives and often find myself disappointed by anything that doesn’t taste quite like them. And because getting those versions right depends on a mystifying blend of secret ingredients and hard-to-reproduce kitchen skill, I’ve mostly contented myself with thinking of the biryani that I make as sort of an also-ran. Good but certainly not classic.
In fact this biryani recipe couldn’t be less classic. But I’m trying to see that in a more positive light these days. It doesn’t belong to any one tradition of biryani-making but, rather, incorporates elements from many different corners. I love the cilantro and mint that get added to the frying onions in my Tamilian sister-in-law’s recipe, so I use them here. I adore the fried onions in the Bangladeshi version from my friend Suma’s mother, and the fact that the sauce uses no tomatoes. And finally, though I would probably use young kid meat in India (what’s sold there as “mutton”), here in the US where it’s easier to get a hold of good-quality, pasture-raised lamb, I use that instead.
Finally, picking the meat for a good biryani is an art, one that goat butchers in many parts of India are especially well versed in. It’s harder to get that exact blend of rib cuts, brisket, and neck at an American butcher. To that end, I’ve used lamb necks here. They can be a little harder to find, but they yield beautifully to long cooking and are full of delicious collagen and fat. If you cant find them, feel free to use lamb shanks, though ask your butcher if he or she can cut them across the bone for you into 1-inch pieces.
And though this biryani may not be traditional or classic, it is deeply satisfying, with its ribbons of fried onions, that lovely stain of spiced oil gleaming on every grain of rice, and the meat, lush, tender, and savory.
NOTE: It’s no use pretending that biryani making is not an extremely drawn-out and elaborate process. If you can’t find the time to get it all done on one day, you can make the lamb a day (or even two) ahead and then proceed with the recipe when you’re ready to serve it.
LAMB NECK BIRYANI
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp Kashmiri chili powder
1 tsp hot chili powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground mace
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp full-fat yoghurt
Juice of ½ lime
1 tsp onion powder
2.5 lb lamb neck cut into 1-inch pieces by your butcher
2 large red onions, finely diced
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp Kashmiri chili powder
½ tsp hot chili powder
½ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp ground mace
½ bunch cilantro, finely chopped
¼ cup mint leaves, finely chopped
2 small green chillies, slit down the side
1 tsp salt
¼ cup full-fat yoghurt
Ghee for cooking
2.5 cups basmati rice
1 tej patta (Indian bay leaf)
3 pods green cardamom
1 stick cinnamon
1 red onion, finely sliced through the root
Combine all the ingredients for the marinade into a thin paste. In a large non-reactive bowl, mix with the lamb and leave to marinate for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 325F with a rack in the lower third.
In a large casserole with a heavy base, heat 2 tablespoons of ghee over medium-high till shimmering. Add the diced onions and cook, stirring often, till they turn translucent and glossy.
Add the garam masala, coriander powder, Kashmiri and regular chili powder, turmeric, and ground mace. Allow to cook for 5 minutes, stirring often, till aromatic.
Add the chopped cilantro, mint, and green chillies and cook till the herbs have cooked down and are well incorporated into the onions.
Add the yoghurt and lime juice to the pan and turn the heat down to medium. Cook till the oil begins to separate from the mixture.
Add the lamb and all the marinade to the pan. Stir to coat the meat thoroughly with the spices and the onion mixture.
Cover with a tight-fitting lid and place in the oven to cook for 2 hours or until the meat is absolutely tender and the sauce is rich, glossy and thick.
Set the lamb, covered, aside while you proceed with the rice and onions.
Soak the rice before you fry the onions since it needs about half an hour. First wash it in several changes of water till the water runs clear, then leave it to soak while you proceed with the onions.
Heat 2 inches of a neutral oil over high heat in a kadhai or wok until it reaches 350. Add the sliced onions and turn the heat down to medium-high. The temperature of the oil will fall when you add the onions, but this is fine. Make sure that the onions are sizzling steadily but not too violently. They should take about ten minutes to cook and should only very gradually turn an even golden brown. If you see any edges turning too dark, turn down the heat a smidge. When the onions are an even chestnut brown, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain on paper towels.
To cook the rice, heat at least 8 cups of heavily salted water in a large saucepan. When the water comes to a rolling boil, drain the soaking rice and add it to the water along with the whole mace, green cardamom, and cinnamon. Let cook for just 5 minutes (the water may not even come back to a full boil) or until the rice is about half done. Drain into a large strainer.
Using a large spoon, skim off about 4–5 tablespoons of fat from the surface of the cooked lamb and reserve in a small bowl. This will go on top of the rice.
Working carefully, and taking care not to break the delicate grains, layer the rice on top of the lamb in a loose pyramid. Use the handle end of a wooden spoon to poke four holes in the rice making sure that they go all the way to the bottom of the pan. Drizzle the reserved fat over the top of the rice, cover with the lid again and cook on low heat on the stove top for 15–20 minutes, or until the rice is cooked through. Let rest, covered and off the heat, for 10 minutes.
Scatter the fried onions on top of the rice. Use a large rice-serving spoon to gently combine the rice, gravy, and meat.
Serve hot with raita.