Thursday 29 May 2008

Mughlai Biryani and Cauliflower Curry

Many times I have been at an Indian restaurant with E. He decides to have the chicken curry so I know there will be no sharing. I search for a curry that is going to give me a satisfying mixture of vegetables. So many curries have only a couple of vegetables and I want more. So sometimes, reluctantly, I turn to the biryani – a rice and vegetable dish. Occasionally there are biryanis I have repeatedly returned for – I was particularly fond of the one at Café Baloo in Russell Street before it closed its doors for good. But many are disappointingly dull.

Then this weekend I happened upon a gorgeous photo of a biryani at Backyard Pizzeria (thanks to a nice comment from Pam on my blog). Pam had got the recipe from Simran at Bombay Foodie. Simran in Bombay describes her usual curries as ‘homely girls-next-door’, the type who offer comfort rather than glamour. I know the ones. But she had been challenged by Meeta’s recent Bollywood Mingle to make this stunning biryani. You might be forgiven for calling it the Taj Mahal of biryanis.

I always thought biryani was just a matter of mixing together rice and vegetables. But this is a Mughlai Biryani which is a king’s feast comprised of layers of rice and vegetables. Both Pam and Simran baked their layers in a mould and turned it out onto a plate. However, many of the other recipes (some with meat) I have found for Mughlai (or Moghlai) Biryani have suggested you dig through the layers with a large spoon. As I had initially been attracted to the spectacular presentation, I decided I would have a go at the mould but it was just for the two of us. So I decided to make small ones in ramekin dishes – a large platter seemed bound to just fall to bits as soon as a knife looked its way and then my leftovers would merely be the rubble of a ruined masterpiece.

I was interested in Mughlai or Moghlai cuisine but couldn’t find much on the web about it. One site said it came from the kitchens of the ancient Indian aristocracy, came predominantly from the North of India and had a strong Muslim influence. Wikipedia told me that the cuisine comes from the Mughal Empire. As someone with very little knowledge about Indian history, I was quite fascinated by the stories.

The Mughul empire was established in the early 1500s by prince Babur, a descendant of Ghenghis Khan. In the 1600s, the Mughul ruler, Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to her 14th child. In the 1700s the empire covered most of India and parts of present-day Afghanistan but by 1725 it fell into rapid decline. The state religion had been Islam but it was a rule of religious tolerance. The alternative spelling is Mogul which has come into common English usage to describe a powerful business magnate.

Of course it comes as no surprise to find that one of the most attractive Indian dishes I have ever seen comes from a time of majestic architectural achievements. Unfortunately, presentation is not one of my strengths and mine looked more like just-got-out-of-bed-hair than Pam’s sleekly glamourous platter. But it still gave me great delight to have fun with layers and colours and textures.

I served it with a cauliflower in spicy peanut gravy that I made a few days previously. It is a curry I found on Nandita’s Saffron Trail. I was pleased to have all the spices, although I substituted spinach for fenugreek leaves (never having laid eyes on such exotic leaves). The spinach made such little impact that next time I might be tempted to use peas or beans instead.

Unlike the biryani, I found this curry quite visually unappealing but it was actually the more tasty of the two. Quite unlike the curries I usually make, it was sharp and spicy like mustard, which may have been the influence of the curry leaves. I don’t usually cook with them but have had them in my freezer for some time now and still have a few more sprigs left for more challenges.

I have reproduced the recipes below as I made them but I would encourage you to visit the sites they come from for the real thing. My methods are different to Simran and Nandita and my chilli intake is drastically reduced. I didn’t make a proper masala paste for the biryani as I didn’t have the time, nor did I soak black chanae (small brown chickpeas) overnight and cook the next day. But I did make an effort to roast the spices for the curry and grind them in a pestle and mortar which may have been why it had more flavour.

I really want to try more Indian dishes but I find I have to adapt them to feel comfortable with them because I just have such a different range of ingredients and equipment to many of the Indian bloggers. However, it is very satisfying to be finding different spice combinations and ideas, and I look forward to further experimentation, and maybe finding out a little more about Indian culture along the way.

Mughlai Biryani
(adapted from Bombay Foodie)
Serves 3

1 potato, diced
⅔ cup basmati rice, divided
¼ tsp turmeric
1 small onion
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sesame seeds
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 ground cloves
2 tsp oil
1 tomato
⅓ cup water
⅓ cup cooked chickpeas

First put potato in a small saucepan on to cook for about 10-15 minutes or until soft. Then divide rice between two saucepans of salted water. Put turmeric into one of the saucepans. Cook til soft. When potatoes and rice are ready, drain and put aside, keeping in separate bowls.

While they cook, prepare remaining ingredients. Finely chop the onion and place all spices and seeds in a small bowl (Alternatively roast spice seeds and grind then blend all spices and onions in blender to make masala paste as Simran does.)

Heat oil in a frypan and fry onions for a few minutes til starting to soften. Add spices and fry another 1-2 minutes. Add tomato, salt to taste and water. Cook for 3-5 minutes and then add potatoes and chickpeas. Continue to cook for about 5 minutes or until the mixture forms a thick paste. Check seasoning and add salt if necessary

Grease three ramekins. Place a layer of yellow rice, a layer of the potato mixture and a layer of the white rice. Press down firmly. Place in 180 C oven for about 10 minutes.

When hot, turn out onto a dinner place. I found this quite difficult to do – it seemed that running a knife around the edges didn’t help it keep its shape but using a knife to stop the top layer of rice sticking was helpful. Alternatively, you could just spoon out the biryani or serve it in the ramekin. Simran suggested a garnish of fried onions and serving it with some yoghurt. I served mine with the below cauliflower curry, and a salad of watercress, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes and lime juice.

Cauliflower in spicy peanut gravy
(adapted from Saffron Trail)
Serves 4

1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp sesame seeds
1 small (1 inch) stick of cinnamon
4 cloves
4 cardamom pods
12 black peppercorns
2 sprigs of curry leaves
1 onion, peeled and chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
¼ cup roasted peanuts
1 tsp salt
½ tsp chilli powder (optional, I think I forgot this)
1 tbsp oil
¼ tsp cumin seeds
1 head of cauliflower, broken up into florets
Few handfuls of baby spinach, roughly choppe

Dry roast the spices and curry leaves in a small frypan over low heat until fragrant – this only took me a few minutes. Grind spices til fine (I did this with a pestle and mortar as I don’t have a spice grinder.) Place in food processor with onion, garlic, peanuts, salt, and chilli powder. Add about ½ cup of water to make a masala paste. (NB just noticed that Nandita fried her onions and garlic with salt before blending.)

In a medium-large saucepan, heat the oil and add cumin seeds til they begin to splutter. Then add the masala paste and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the cauliflower and about 1 (or 2) cups of water. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer covered for about 5-10 minutes until the cauliflower just tender. (Nandita suggested simmering 3-5 minutes, boiling until the first whistle, turning off the heat and leaving for 10-15 minutes with the lid on but these instructions confused me a little as I don’t have whistling saucepans so I just simmered the cauliflower til soft.) Check seasoning and add salt if desired.

I served it the first night with rice, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, and corn on the cob. The second night we had it with the biryani as above.

On the stereo:
Twilight Rituals: T.A.C.


  1. "I found this curry quite visually unappealing"

    kudos for saying that. it's something everyone knows but never says out loud. lol.

  2. Fenugreek leaves are the same thing as methi leaves. I think your biryani looks really good too. I just got the cookbook 660 Curries and it has a big selection of both vegetable and legume curries. You may want to check it out.

  3. Both these dishes sound irresistible to me--I adore Indian food, and biryani is at the top of the list. Years ago I tried an "authentic" (though how would I know?) recipe for Chicken Biryani, and it literally took all day to make! Yours seems much more reasonable, and the photo at the top is stunning! The cauli also sounds great.

  4. I love your idea of making it in a ramekin. When I made it, I ended up making too much!

  5. With a dear friend arriving next week and another cauliflower to play with, Johanna, this couldn't have been more timely.

    Gorgeous recipe!

    Now, I wonder if I could find fresh fenugreek leaves anywhere...

  6. thanks Bee - if I managed to make it without the cauliflower falling apart it probably would look better but curries just don't seem to be made to be photogenic generally which is why I loved pam' biryani

    thanks Mary - that book looks very interesting - will look out for it

    thanks Ricki - there is a version of mughlai lamb biryani on Ruth's Once upon a feast that seemed to take her half a day to make - but I adjusted this so I could make it after work

    thanks Simran - inspiring dish - even with trying to reduce it to a dish for two, I ended up filling 3 ramekins and have one serve in the freezer now

    thanks Lucy - the cauli curry is really delish - will be interested to hear if you can find fenugreek leaves - if I had had more time I might have sought out my local indian groceries as they might have them

  7. I only recently started using fenugreek leaves (methi leaves) but I highly recommend you seek them out. I can understand why spinach was a rather inferior substitute. If you have an Indian grocery store nearby, you should have no trouble finding them. I use the dried variety, but if you can get fresh ones, I'd go with those.

    Lovely recipes, both of them.

  8. Perfect, perfect timing! I will be making the biryani for a guest next weekend and she will flip over it (as I'm sure that I will, too!). Thanks so much for posting (how did you know that I was searching for a vegetable biryani recipe???) :)


  9. thanks Lisa - will look out for fenugreek leaves when am next in an Indian grocery

    thanks Vicci - good luck with it if you do it in a mould! Would be interested to hear how you go with this!

  10. Hi joh,
    Hats off to u for trying out this biryani.I always get nervous like hell while trying out any recipe belonging to other cuisines except Indian.Its amazing how u guys are brave enough to actually make it,and that too so wonderful.
    Thanks for ur comments on,and pls feel free to get in touch in case u need any Indian recipe or if u wanna know abt any Indian spice or ingredients.I wud feel blessed to share them wid u

  11. thanks Alka - very kind of you - I might be knocking at your door with questions some time - glad I am not the only one to be nervous about approaching what others take for granted


Thanks for dropping by. I love hearing from you. Please share your thoughts and questions. Annoyingly the spammers are bombarding me so I have turned on the pesky captcha code (refresh to find an easy one if you don't like the first one)