What I Make When My Heart Cries For Indian Food

January 14, 2016

I grew up eating biryani. And while every region of India has its own special way of making it, the addition of potatoes is purely Bengali.

Mom used to prepare goat biryani on special occasions and chicken biryani for those not-so-special days when we still wanted to eat something fancy. She only prepared vegetarian biryani when my more traditional grandma or cousin visited.

Photo by Dolphia Nandi

They didn’t visit that often, but it was at least several times a year. My grandma became strictly vegetarian after my grandfather passed away (it’s a religious mandate for widows in India to abstain from eating meat). Even though Bengalis are known for their fish recipes, Ma always prepares a vegetarian meal—vegetable biryani and paneer curry—whenever my grandmother visits.

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Vegetarian biryani is a perfect one-pot meal and is always shared among family members. Mom would bring the whole pot to the table, where we would eat with conversation and laughter.

The first time I prepared mom’s vegetable biryani recipe after moving to the U.S. was in January 2012, when I made it to celebrate my first job offer with my friends. Since then, whenever my heart cries for Indian cuisine I opt for this recipe rather than trying it from local Indian restaurants. Unlike the kind you would get from a restaurant, my homemade version is less spicy and greasy.

Photo by Dolphia Nandi

Bengali biryani is nothing more than boiled potatoes covered in layers of partially cooked white basmati rice and cooked vegetables, topped with caramelized onions, dried fruit, and freshly ground spices.

And while it sounds intimidating to many, with a few simple steps, you can make it at home—and better than any local Indian restaurant.

Start with very fresh vegetables from a local farmers market and always prepare fresh ground spices at home. Biryani tastes best when prepared with clarified butter, which is how mom makes it, but it’s just as easily made with vegetable oil and butter instead. I use long grain white basmati rice, some of which I infuse with saffron milk. After it’s cooked, it's garnished with fresh herbs and served with a yogurt sauce known as raita.

Photo by Dolphia Nandi

I have tried many different brands of store-bought biryani powder, but nothing beats my mom’s secret biryani spice recipe, made with only a few ingredients. While it keeps well, I prefer to make a small batch of biryani powder every time, as it’s enough to make and tastes best when freshly prepared.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Terri
  • Suzanne Haughwout Bonilla
    Suzanne Haughwout Bonilla
  • Natasha
  • Nomaste
  • Jona @AssortedBites
    Jona @AssortedBites


Terri January 4, 2017
Dolphia - thank you for sharing your recipe of Biryani - I love Indian food and in the dead of winter my entire home smells of curry! While I have made Indian food, I have never heard of Kewra water - where might I find or what might I use as an alternative? Thank you again for sharing your Bengali traditions, they are wonderful! Terri
Nomaste January 5, 2017
Terri, you can find kewra water (rose water) at any indian ethnic grocery store. Heres how you find one near you.
Terri January 6, 2017
Ahh...rosewater...I have that! Thanks so much for the fab reference - I do so appreciate - happy eating! Terri
Whiteantlers January 13, 2017
Kewra water is NOT rose water! Rose water is one ingredient in this recipe, kewra water is another. It's from the pandanus plant and it's a floral water. Most East Indian grocery stores will have it in stock. Dolphia, stop trying to fool people! This is your recipe. Be honest and educate instead of lying.
Terri January 13, 2017
Thank you Whiteantlers for your kind assistance. After re-reading th recipe I noted that it required rose water and kewra - I thought it odd to differentiate if it were the same; I did some research and found that it is as you say a floral water. Thank you again for letting me know.
Nomaste January 19, 2017
Whiteantlers, it wasn't Dolphia who was 'lying' or 'trying' to fool anyone, in fact it was my misinformation about ingredient that was passed on to Terri, hence leading to the confusion. Thank you for correcting me as well, I appreciate it. On a side note, I'd politely request you to please not personally attack anyone for label or judge them for something they didn't know or unintentionally did, even though you meant to address that to an unsuspecting reader, and should have been directed at me instead. Food brings us together, so let's stand that way too.

much love from a fellow foodie. Have a great day!
Marie C. February 20, 2017
Nomaste: Thank you for putting people straight that they think they know everything.. A great comment!!
Suzanne H. January 4, 2017
I think some of the ingredients might be difficult to obtain.
Natasha January 18, 2016
I normally don't even read the blog that goes with most recipes, but i really enjoyed yours. I've never had Indian food before, but this looks so nice I may have to try it
Dolphia N. January 18, 2016
Thank you Natasha!
Nomaste January 18, 2016
This is very well written. I love the storied connection to the meal. I've never really considered vegetable biryani as an option because the meat one is all I've ever had. I'm going to try this!
Dolphia N. January 18, 2016
Jona @. January 16, 2016
Would love to make this, sounds comforting :)
Dolphia N. January 18, 2016