Life In Food With Violet Oon: Quest for the best briyani

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SINGAPORE - Imagine turning 100 years old. It is a milestone that a young nation like Singapore has yet to reach, but that is what one of Singapore's stalwart restaurants did in April last year.

The Islamic Restaurant, anchored since its founding in North Bridge Road, is famed for its briyani (also spelt "biryani") curried chicken and mutton, served from a gigantic cauldron where the meat and spiced basmati rice are arranged in alternate layers, a style denoted by the name "dum".

This version of briyani is, to me, among the most elegant and alluring ways to enjoy the pleasures of rice.

Could it be sentiment? Perhaps. When I was a child growing up in the 1950s, Sunday lunch at the Islamic was a tradition enjoyed by the glitterati of Singapore society, particularly the Peranakans whose tastebuds were attuned to spice, rice and all manner of aromatics.

Malay aristocrats, royal households across what was then Malaya and the Sultan of Brunei all flocked to the Islamic for their fix of briyani. This dish became so associated with luxury and elegance in local Malay society that it morphed into the version often served at Malay weddings.

For myself, the dream has always been to cook my own perfect nasi briyani, as remembered from my childhood. I have learnt from Indian and Iranian chefs and home cooks alike. The style of cooking briyani most probably originated in Persia, which is today Iran.

It was the discovery of Mr Jeya Seelan, the Spice Man of Yishun and the young third-generation scion of Jeya Spices in FairPrice Xtra Parkway Parade, that allowed me to reach the finish line in my quest for the best in briyani.

There, I discovered a small spice gondola, an Ali Baba emporium stocked with all the usual suspects as well as ingredients exotic to Singapore, like dried Iranian limes.

With recipes and hints shared by Mr Seelan, the Islamic Restaurant's Mr Kalil A. Wahab and my friend Kim Marlett nee Tay - who learnt how to bake the whole pot of briyani in the oven instead of over a stove fire from her years spent as an oil wife in Iran in the late 1970s - I finally perfected my own home-cooked briyani.

These encounters with a 100-year-old Singapore restaurant, a young gatekeeper of an ancient spice tradition and a new-old way of cooking have inspired me to face what seems to be a difficult year ahead.

Amid the ongoing onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is our connection to our past which promises hope for the future, and these ties that bind us often lie in the food of our forefathers.

I am fortified by the stories of how people have travelled the world as heroes, conquerors and refugees, surviving all manner of setbacks and attacks, and still held the food of their homelands so dear that they brought it with them wherever they found a place to rest.

This tie is not surprising because, after all, is not food the essence of life?

Chicken briyani in the Hyderabad style

ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Chicken marinade

Ingredients

800g chicken, boneless, ready-cut into finger-length chunks

50g briyani powder mix

15g ground ginger

15g ground garlic

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

2 green chillies, sliced

4 Tbs yogurt

1 tsp fine salt

Method

1. Mix all the ingredients in a mixing bowl, cover and refrigerate four hours to overnight.

Saffron milk

Ingredients

1 to 2g saffron

4 Tbs full cream milk

Method

1. Heat the milk, put into a bowl and add the saffron.

2. Leave for at least 30 minutes.

Birista (deep-fried onions)

Ingredients

500g Bombay onions, sliced

3 cups iced water

2 cups vegetable oil

Method

1. Soak onions in iced water in the fridge for 30 minutes to one hour.

2. Drain. When dry, continue to dry on paper towels for two hours.

3. The secret is to put the onions and oil into a wok or pot at the same time, turn on high heat and fry till onions are golden brown and crispy. Slow-frying from cold oil allows the onions to dry out completely and become crispy instead of ending up soggy and overbrowned.

4. Drain on paper towels. When cooled, store in an airtight container.

Briyani chicken curry

Ingredients

Marinated chicken

10g sliced coriander leaves

10g sliced mint

5g briyani powder

4 Tbs yogurt

200g tomatoes

60g birista (deep-fried onions)

2 Tbs ghee

Method

1. Mix the chicken with the coriander leaves, mint leaves, briyani spice mix, yogurt, tomatoes, birista and 2 Tbs of ghee.

Briyani rice

Ingredients

500g basmati rice

11/2 litres of water

2 cinnamon sticks

2 Indian bay leaves

1/4 mace

2 star anise

4 cardamom pods

5 cloves

1 Tbs oil

1 to 2 Tbs salt

Method

1. Wash rice well with three changes of water. Drain and soak in fresh water for half an hour.

2. Boil 11/2 litres of water with remaining ingredients for five minutes. Drain rice and add to the boiling water.

3. Boil on rolling heat for five to seven minutes till the rice is 70 per cent cooked (test by breaking the rice between your fingers). It should be still a little hard inside.

4. Drain over a sieve.

Cooking rice

There are many correct and authentic methods of cooking rice. Chinese, North Asians and South-east Asians, as well as most of the Indian sub- continent, boil long- or short-grain rice in water till the water evaporates and the rice is completely cooked. For briyani rice, as well as rice in much of the Middle East, basmati rice is often parboiled till it is half or three-quarters cooked in a large pot of water, similar to the way Teochew porridge is cooked. It is then drained and steamed till fully cooked. This allows the rice to be cooked in gigantic pots.

Compose the briyani

This is known as the "dum" briyani style where the meat with spices is layered with the half-cooked rice. Some recipes call for cooking the meat mix first while others start with uncooked meat. With chicken that is boneless, composing the dum briyani layers with uncooked meat results in chicken cooked perfectly a la minute.

Method

1. Spread 4 Tbs of ghee over the bottom of a large clay pot.

2. Put the chicken mixture on top.

3. Spread hot rice over the chicken.

4. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of boiling rice water over the rice.

5. Sprinkle saffron milk and saffron strands over the rice.

6. Spoon 2 Tbs of ghee over the rice.

7. Sprinkle 1 Tbs briyani powder along with 5 Tbs of birista, and some coriander leaves and mint leaves.

8. Cover the clay pot tightly with foil, followed by the lid and bake at the bottom rung of the pre-heated oven at 180 deg C for 45 minutes.

In Singapore, chicken briyani is usually accompanied by a fresh cucumber pickle and curry gravy.

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