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What I Make When My Heart Cries For Indian Food

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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.

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.

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My Mother's Bengali Vegetable Biryani

E3900885 9ab2 4550 bc59 ee91ea1123a1  img 5568 Dolphia Nandi

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Serves 6
  • 1 teaspoon black cumin
  • 5 to 6 whole black peppercorns
  • One 1-inch piece cinnamon bark
  • 8 whole green cardamom pods
  • 8 black cloves
  • 1 whole mace (optional)
  • 2 bay leaves, broken into pieces
  • 1 dried red chile, whole
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1/2 cauliflower, cut into florets
  • Salt, to taste
  • 12 French green beans, chopped
  • 3 carrots, peeled and cubed
  • 1 cup green peas
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • One 1 1/2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon teaspoon biryani masala (prepared above)
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 cups white basmati rice, washed and drained
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 whole black cardamom pods
  • 3 medium or 4 small Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 3 cups water, enough to cover the potato
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon kewra water
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon saffron, lightly crushed
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon clarified butter, plus more for brushing
  • 1 tablespoon broken cashews
  • 1 tablespoon golden raisins
  • 2 teaspoons biryani masala
  • 2 teaspoons rose water
  • 1 tablespoon kewra water
  • 1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped
  • Raita, for serving

Tags: biryani, vegetable viryani