Monday, December 6, 2010


A biryani requires saffron. A spice I hardly use but had the pleasure of using when I made this. 

In using saffron i realized that crushing the saffron threads to a powder before soaking them in some hot water is a must if you want the intense crimson liquid to bloom to its fullest and to speckle the rice as if it had caught bits and pieces of golden sunlight here and there making the biryani rice quite attractive. 

The second time I made biryani I had not crushed the saffron to a powder and all I got was a yellow hue that made the biryani rice look as if i had cooked the rice in tumeric tinted water. Which is ok if I was making tumeric rice of course....but not if it was a biryani. 

Ghee or clarified butter adds so much flavour as well giving it the distinctive biryani taste. This too I had discovered when I had omitted using ghee the second time around.

Now I know why rules are meant to be broken. It convinces you that they shouldn't be.

Unlike the true Indian biryani where the rice and meat is layered and cooked in one pot, with the lid sealed tightly to the pot with a flour and water dough in order to retain as much moisture as possible within, I had instead cooked them seperately because I didn't trust myself.

You could of course layer the meat and rice after both have been cooked seperately, sprinkle some fried onions, chopped coriander leaves, squirts of lime juice in between each layer and let the mixed dish sit over a slow flame, covered, for an extra 5 minutes to infuse the flavours and serve thus.

If you had a three tiered tiffin carrier a simple salad of sliced cucumbers and pineapple could be included and you would have a complete biryani meal. 

The recipe ~

The biryani rice ~ from Delicious magazine

Vegetable oil
4-5 shallots, sliced thinly
 11/2 cups basmati rice
3 T ghee
1 tsp cumin seeds
5 cardamom pods
5-6 cloves
1 inch cinnamon stick
2 dried bay leaves
1/3 cup sultanas
1/3 cup cashews (optional)
A pinch of saffron thread

Fry the finely sliced shallots until golden and crispy. Drain of kitchen paper and keep aside.

Wash the rice at least three times until the water is clear and to rid of excess starch. Drain over a fine sieve. Keep aside.
Heat a medium deep pot. Melt the ghee, Saute the cumin, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, sultanas, cashews (if using) and a teaspoon of salt for a few seconds. Add washed rice and stir until the rice is evenly coated by the ghee. Add 2 cups (500 ml) of boiling water. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile pound the saffron until a powder, scoop into a small bowl and add a teaspoon of hot water.

Uncover the rice pot after 15 minutes and dribble the saffron water over the rice. Cover again and let the rice cook over a very allow heat for about 2-3 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep half covered to allow the rice to dry a little. Sprinkle the fried shallots over the rice once transferred to a platter.

The meat biryani ~adapted from Indian Cooking by Lalita Ahmed

½ kg beef fillet, sliced thickly or into 1 inch cubes
3 yellow onions
1 bay leaf
1 inch cinnamon stick
4 cardomoms
6 cloves
1 inch ginger, pounded
2-3 cloves garlic
1//2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp chilli powder
½ cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cashews, roasted and ground finely
A pinch of saffron thread, pounded and soaked in 1 T of hot water to release the colour
A sprig of coriander leaves, chopped
About 1 cup of water
3 -4 T ghee

To finish :

1/4 cup of crispy fried shallots,
Some chopped coriander leaves

Heat a medium deep pot. Melt the ghee, add the sliced onions and sauté until golden brown. Then add the bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Saute until fragrant for about 30 seconds. 

Then add the meat, ginger, garlic, turmeric, the ground spices, chiili powder and yogurt. Stir to incorporate the spices all over the meat. Cover and cook until dry and the oil seperates from the mixture.

Add water, ground cashews and continue cooking for 40-50 minutes or until the meat is tender. There should be 4-5 tablespoons of thick sauce. Add the chopped coriander leaves and saffron liquid and stir to mix in. Taste for salt and adjust if necessary.

Before serving sprinkle the fried shallots over the dish and some chopped coriander leaves

Friday, December 3, 2010


                                                                 Mom, dad, my brother and I at age 10

I pretty much grew up with little memory of comfort food. As a child I don't remember food being used as a means to appease, to cajole or to numb.

But if I close my eyes and think hard enough, the nearest thing to comfort food would probably be a thick, dark and sweet soy sauce. The Indonesian kind. And that was not even a dish. It was a condiment. 

Nevertheless that is what brings me back to my childhood, the foodie way. Mom mixed it into white rice with filleted fried fish. I savoured every grain of rice and the pieces of fish that clung to it. 

That and Wood's Peppermint Cough Syrup. Oh boy did I love that stuff. I relished the minty, the sweet and the slight bitterness in it. I secretly devoured spoonfuls of the caramel-like panacea clean off the spoon when I wasn't sick. And occasionally toothpaste. I loved that too. (I know....)

Before you go off thinking that I had a deprived and warped childhood...don't. It wouldn't be fair to my parents. We lived comfortably. We enjoyed our meals. But food wasn't the centre of our universe. It wasn't a topic for conversations. Eating was not a form of escapism under stressful conditions or an obsession that my parents encouraged even on a subconscious level. In short, food wasn't at the top of our least not mine. 

I was too busy frolicking and living an extended childhood. I don't think I ever wanted to grow up. When I remember picnics it is the activity rather than the food that lingers on in my mind.

I never did want to give up the feel of cold, perky water caressing my ankles as I stood squealing in the stream, or the sound of rustling leaves around me, or of the rain that pelted down like bullets, or of the laughing wind that l imagined lifted me and my umbrella a few inches off the ground one sweep at a time, or the abandoned drains that my brother and I crawled through, or our L-shaped house that stood patiently on the hill, or the tree that humoured me or the excitement I partook in the adventures of The Famous Five. Comfort, for me, was in the living. Not in the food.

I'm glad there were no barriers in my childhood at the time. We were free to roam and lose ourselves in our 'wilderness'.  Food wasn't the living force. The world was.

But the world, as I know it now, no  longer opens its arms in welcome, safety and comfort to our children. And buildings have sprouted in places where once there was vegetation. So for my children and theirs, comfort, I suppose, has to be found in food.

Like a  Cappuccino Brownie Cheesecake. For some reason I feel like one right now. Or perhaps I'll have that after a large plate of spicy, hot and confusing Mamak Fried Noodles. I'll admit that these are insanely comforting.....but only because I'm not up to climbing up trees or crawling through drains anymore.

                   Surviving the 'wilderness', aged 6

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I am not a foodie in the holiest sense of the word. I never knew foodie, the word, or the people, were nouns or a religion until I started this blog. When I meet friends I would rather talk about life, it's joys, it's pains, dissect it, chew it, get hysterical and finally try to digest it without getting constipated.  But one day when I was bored enough I looked it up. And this is how a foodie is described on

A foodie is someone who has an ardent and refined interest in be a foodie is not only to like food, but to be interested in it..............Generally, you have to know what you like, why you like it, recognize why some foods are better than others.......

It's those first thirteen and last eight words that disturb me. Refined? Nor do I know why some food tastes better than others. All I know is that  it tastes darn gooder . 

Apart from the fact that What The Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell is a wonderful book about creeping into the heads of others, and looking at life through the windows of their eyes, it also gave some very educational passages on taste in one of its chapters.  Suffice to say I now have educated tastebuds.

This may sound redundant but I now know, with enough indignation, that the five known fundamental tastes in the human palate is salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. 

Umami  is described so well here. " the proteiny, full bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother's milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato. ....."Umami adds body...... If you add it to a soup it makes the soup seems like its thicker - it gives it a sensory heft. It turns the soup from water into a food." " 

I've also learnt that " you can't isolate the elements of an iconic, high amplitude flavour like Coca Cola or Pepsi. But you can with one of those private label colas that you get in the supermarket. "

 The private label colas may be "kind of spiky", and you can usually pick out the tastes "a big fat cinnamon note sitting on top of everything", or you may find yourself conscious of a clove note .... " a sensory attribute that you can single out and ultimately tire of." In other words it doesn't taste as smooth, as balanced and as gorgeous. As the real thing.

A passage in this book describes (positively) and quite sensually Heinz Ketchup. "It begins at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moves along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?" 

In high amplitude food "all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt." You can't isolate them. It makes you wonder why it tastes so good. Because you can't isolate them.

You just know its better. Because it tastes darn gooder. 

Sometimes I wonder if I've learnt anything.


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