It used to be my desert island dish - if you were allowed just one dish that you had to eat again and again, what would it be? - well mine was Mutton Biryani. Nowadays, I hesitate - the love persists but the conscience protests!
So Hyderabad is the go-to place for biryani. Forget any other kind. Definitely forget the apologies for biryani that you sometimes get in restaurants in the UK - a uniformly coloured mix of rice and meat. Biryani has to surprise you, be variegated, enchant you with its varying contents. In Hyderabad it was always Paradise one went to for biryanis. Paradise the cinema in Secunderabad, which gave its name to the bus stop, near where Nausheen lived. The small little cafe has now become a huge multi-storey business, packing hot biryanis for people to collect on the way to the airport for eating that night in Delhi or Bombay or wherever, and a fairly large restaurant too. There are other places in Hyderabad now, but the mystique of Paradise Biryani is still gripping.
There is no point cooking tiny amounts of biryani - waste of effort. Cook for a large number and then freeze the rest. Or give it to a neighbour and make a friend for life! The quantities below are for 2 kilos of chicken pieces. I make it with more meat than normal (you can get double biryani - ie twice the weight of meat to dry rice, but I make it roughly treble).
2 Kg skinless chicken pieces on the bone - thighs, drumsticks, niblets
750 gms basmati rice - washed, then left soaking in water.
Cinnamon sticks - about 3 inch pieces
Cardamom seeds - about 20, bashed up if you wish
Cloves - about 10, bashed up
Shahjeera (black cumin) - about two teaspoons
Bay leaves - 3 or 4 if fresh, two or three if dry
Yogurt - stirred, about one a half cups
Ghee - quite a lot!
Onions - about 6 or 7, cut into semicircles
Ginger and garlic paste - about 1 and a half tablespoons
Green chillies - 2 or 3 hottish ones
Lemon - the juice of a large whole lemon
Salt - about 2 teaspoons
First fry all the onions in ghee - making sure you spread them out not pile them up, doing it in batches - until they are beautifully caramelised, dark brown. Put them aside.
Put all the spices and half the onions into the yogurt, and mix it all in with the chicken in the morning, then put it in the fridge and forget about it till two hours before dinner.
Put the marinated chicken into a large saucepan or kadai - cover and cook on medium fire until the chicken is cooked - about an hour maybe. It will have a fair bit of juice around it. Leave it covered and hot.
Use a large wide saucepan (best is an ultra large paella pan) with a well fitting lid, or a large wide casserole dish with a well fitting dish. In either case, if in doubt about the lid's fit, use foil to seal any possible gaps. Or dough if you are being authentic. Heat the pan in the oven - make sure its hot before filling it. Get the oven hot to about 180 degrees C.
Get another large sauce pan (no lid needed) and cook the rice in a lot of water until it is about 50 to 60% ready. This is really the only tricky part of a biryani. Too soft and it goes nearer mushy, too hard and it remains too grainy. You can only guess this and learn it from practice. When the rice has just turned (to this 50% ish point), drain it, chucking the water.
Now, in the pan which was heating in the oven, spread the chicken with all its juice, sprinkle a few of the fried onions on top, then spread a layer of rice on top of it and sprinkle the rest of the onions on top. Then spread a few teaspoons of ghee on the rice (if the pan is narrower, you can have two layers of chicken, rice, chicken and rice). You could also mix a few strands of saffron in warm milk and roughly sprinkle a bit here and there on top.
Put the lid on tight and put it in the oven for about half an hour to forty minutes. DO NOT open to check. You have to take a chance. Bring to the table as is, and open it there. That's all part of the wow factor!