Not my mum, my friend Nandini’s mum Nali’s biryani. Nandini’s father Jey said they used to eat duck biryani in Chennai in the South of India where they both grew up. In Australia Nali would make it with lamb and it was a celebration dish. Nandini would ask for it to be cooked every birthday or any other day she felt like celebrating with biryani. It was ‘Mums biryani’ that Nan made for my birthday.
Ducks and rice fields are a happy pairing throughout Asia. Ducks are really good pest control for rice paddys, they don’t need much other feeding apart from scraps, and they do love a watery field to play in. So it didn’t surprise to me to hear that a duck and basmati rice dish is common in a region where rice is a major food crop.
Biryani has come from the Persians whom I consider to be the Kings of rice dishes although it is a hard call considering I have had amazing Lebanese and Afghani rice dishes and of course ‘mums biryani’ is up there with the best. They all differ subtly yet greatly. The Persians soak, boil then steam the rice coaxing a unique lightness into the dish which matches the delicate flavours of saffron, cinnamon, rose petals, pistachios and almonds. The Indian biryani is a masala of onions cooked for an eternity, with sweet spices, chilli, ginger, garlic, tomato, yoghurt and fresh coriander resulting in rice heaven. The subtle spicing is so enticing, I have never smelt something so delicious coming from my oven.
Mums Biryani (Nali’s biryani handed down to Nandini)
5 medium onions, sliced
150g garlic, pureed
150g ginger, pureed (I grate the garlic and ginger on a fine microplane and it becomes a puree)
4 green chillies, finely chopped
2 cinnamon sticks
6 green cardamom pods
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
5 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 cups yoghurt
2 small bunches coriander
1 k duck legs (4 large ones)
salt and pepper
500g (2 1/2 cups) basmati rice
1 pinch saffron in 1 cup hot water
Fry the onions in an oven proof pot with a lid over a low to medium heat for about 25 minutes or until soft and golden brown.
Add the garlic and the ginger purees and fry a few minutes, stirring, then add the green chilli and spices and keep frying. Add the tomatoes, yoghurt and coriander and fry another 2 minutes. This is the Masala.
Heat oven to 180. Render the duck legs, season with salt and pepper and add to the masala. Cover with the lid and cook in the oven 1 1/2 hours.
Soak the rice in water with 1 tablespoon of salt for 1 hour. Rinse and add to boiling water for 2 minutes only then drain in a colander and refresh with cold water.
Once the duck is done take the meat off the bone (not essential) and return to masala. Put the rice in a thick layer on top of the masala and add the saffron water and an extra 1/2 cup of water. Cover with the lid and return to oven for 1/2- 3/4 hour. Check rice is done but still a tiny bit firm, replace the lid and let the biryani sit for 15 minutes. Gently stir the masala through the rice if serving in the oven pot or spoon onto a platter and serve sprinkled with coriander. Serve with raita and your favourite Indian pickles or chutneys. Nandini’s raita has coriander, tomato, lemon juice, salt and finely chopped onion and garlic which mirror and enhance the flavours of the biryani.