The first biryani I ever made was on Christmas Day. I somehow convinced the majority of my family that glazed ham with pineapple rings and the roast turkey redux were about as edaciously fashionable as microwave cookbooks and jello molds. I thought if a holiday meal was supposed to feel decadent and special, we owed it to ourselves to try something bold and new. They eventually bought it.
At the same time I talked with some of my Indian friends to get advice and plan my holiday menu. Their holiday version of turkey and fixin's, calls for at least three mothers tasked with producing no less than a table full of curries, rice preparations and condiments. Scores of dishes are laid out and everyone eats until it hurts, then a turkey lands on the table, then it's time for sweets. Indians are without a doubt some of the world's best food celebrants.
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Special occasions in India call for biryani, so I set out to make that dish my centerpiece. I got a Dutch oven and layered rice, marinated chicken and herbs until the mixture was close to the top. When I was done, I covered the pot with a lid, sealed with ring of simple bread dough and baked the container for a few hours. Prying off the lid and liberating a massive whoosh of fragrant steam at the table made it feel like Christmas had just started started that second.
I've loved biryani ever since, but I've very rarely encountered one as good as the version I made at home. Many restaurants cheat. They'll take plain rice that's already cooked, and then add cooked meat, hoping to bring the flavors together with a simple stir. It never happens, though. There is something magical that occurs when raw grains of rice are slowly cooked in tandem with savory meats and herbs. They absorb and concentrate those flavors. They ruin Uncle Ben's forever.
That's why the thalapakattu mutton biryani at Chennai Cafe, which I reviewed in this week's paper, is so unique. The young goat meat is cooked with a special short-grained rice called seeraga samba. The cooks fry spices, and then stew meat with the spices to create a rich broth, before they add rice and bake the mixture until the rice soaks it up entirely.
All of the biryanis at Chennai are cooked in a similar way. The rice varies, as do the central ingredient (chicken, shrimp, tomatoes, vegetables) but the components are allays cooked using traditional techniques. They're the same techniques I used when I cooked a biryani and a slew of other curries for my family's holiday dinner. And maybe that's why finding this great Indian restaurant in Plano felt a little bit like Christmas to me.