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Pause for thought

Mutton Biryani

'So we plunged the hand to the mid-wrist deep
In a cinnamon stew of the fat-tailed sheep,
And he who never hath tasted the food,
By Allah! he knoweth not bad from good. '-Rudyard Kipling The Ballad of the King’s Jest

A biryani is the closest thing to a one dish dinner in Indian cuisine. With a salad of chopped fresh tomatoes, cucumber, onions and green chillies, moistened by some yogurt, it makes a hearty meal. And heartwarming too, in this time of Ramzan, when people often share a huge plate of biryani on breaking their daily fast.

Mutton Biryani

Yesterday, on a public thoroughfare, I saw the boss of an enterprise, calling his employees and collegues to eat from a communal plate in a large circle.He  fed them himself ,quite unselfconciously, if they were in the midst of work. Other colleagues continue to feed the men working, while exhorting them to leave it for a while and join in the meal.The gesture was one of such warmth, and inclusion, as an observer I found  it was completely moving.

A good mutton biryani needs a number of spices. Outside the Shivaji Market here, there is a vendor of small packs of mixed whole spices just for biryani. So people who cannot afford to buy so many expensive spices in larger amounts, can buy just enough to make that special dinner.


1.You do need 10 friends or family to help you eat this.

2..In a blender make a paste of the following

  • 50 gms fresh ginger
  • 1 large pod of garlic, peeled.
  • 6 green chillies chopped
  • (250 gms of sliced raw papaya)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tsp chilli powder

Marinate 1 and 1/2 kg of mutton ( cut into fairly large pieces),along with the bones, in the paste for an hour or more while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

3.Wash and soak 3/4 kg of rice for 30 minutes. Drain well.  Measure and add water equivalent to one and a half times the amount of rice. Bring to the boil and cover tightly.Cook for exactly 15 minutes. Remove from fire.

4. 50 gms almonds blanch, peel and slice in slivers or make a paste

  • 250 gms ghee or vegetable oil
  • 1 kg onions sliced fine .
  • 1 1/2 kg potatoes, washed, peeled and quartered.
  • 5 pieces of whole cinnamon about 2" in length
  • 1 tsp cardomom
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 tsp peppercorns
  • 1 tsp jeera
  • 1 tsp shah jeera/ black cumin
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 1/2 tsp saffron, roasted and soaked in the juice of 1 lime.
  • 1 tbsp of chopped fresh mint leaves.
  • 1/2 kg tomatoes
  • 400 gms dahi/yogurt
  • 250 gms raisins or chopped dried apricots

5. Fry the onions in ghee till brown and crisp. Remove and crush three quarters of the onions, reserving the rest for garnish.

6. In the same ghee fry quartered potatoes till half done.Remove.

7. Now fry all the whole spices for a few seconds. Do not let them burn. Add the yogurt , the powdered spices and chopped mint (reserving a bit for the top) and mix well. Take off the heat.

8. Add the saffron lime juice, reserving a bit for the top layer of rice.Now add the mutton to the crushed onions, the spices , the yogurt ,saffron ,almond paste  and chopped apricots (or raisins). Mix well.

9. In a well greased pot put a layer of the all marinated mutton. Add a layer of peeled and chopped tomatoes,and then a layer of potatoes.

10.Now cover these layers with the parboiled rice.Level the rice and then sprinkle the reserved saffron and lime juice,a tbsp of chopped mint, 2 chopped green chillies and the rest of the fried onions on top. Pour over the left over ghee. ( Some people add a mixture of yellow food colouring mixed in 2 tablespoons of water to get the characteristic yellow colour).

11.Cover tightly with a heavy lid or put a weight on top of a flat lid so that no steam escapes.Make a paste of 250 gms of wheat flour and water and seal the lid to the pot with this paste.

12. Cook on low heat for 2 hours or for 1/2 an hour in  an oven at 400 degrees. Reduce heat to 275 degrees and cook for another hour.

Remove the wheat paste seal just before serving and dig deep into the dish while spreading out the rice and mutton.

It sounds complicated but it really is not. If you do not have some of the fussier ingredients go ahead anyway. In a biryani you never notice whats missing. You always feel blessed by what you have.