This vegetable biryani recipe is a decadent treat

This vegetable biryani recipe is a decadent treat

Last weekend, while meandering through the farmers market, a young lady came up to me, tugged on my sleeve and whispered in my ear, “Please! Do a biryani class or teach us how to make one!”

I was surprised — I thought biryani was too complicated for most people. Maybe it still is, but pandemic nesting has certainly expanded our cooking skills. In any case, I am thrilled to share with you a road map to a biryani, a luxurious layered rice dish created by Persian and Indian gourmands during the decadent Mughal era of India.

First, the hallmark of a biryani, which is usually consumed on weekend lunches or late-night celebratory dinners, is that every component is cooked separately and brought together at the end.

In a country where recipes for the same food changes every few miles, there are umpteen variations of biryani. Often garnished with fried onions, the north Indian ones are usually decadent, with meat and rich with ghee, aromatic spices, caramelized onions, nuts and dried fruit. South Indian biryanis are redolent of coconut, curry leaves, black pepper and cardamom, which grow wild in that region.

Biryani usually starts with marinated meat, chicken, vegetables, or beans slow cooked with warm spices, onions, garlic, ginger to make a base masala. Tomatoes, yogurt or coconut can be added next. On the lighter side, one can forgo the onion masala and make a vibrant fragrant green herb masala, like a salsa verde or pesto (minus the cheese) for quick cooking seafood or vegetable biryanis.

Rice is usually prepared separately and can be cooked in stock or water — saffron and/or warm spices, such as a large stick of cinnamon, mace flowers or bay leaves, can be added. I usually cook the rice with oil rather than ghee or butter, as the oil facilitates the flakiness of the rice and prevents it from getting sticky. It is best to make the rice last, as freshly cooked hot rice is placed over the base masala topped with nuts and dry fruits, tightly sealed, and allowed to rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes for all the flavors to meld.

Here is a recipe for a simple garbanzo and vegetable biryani that can be easily adapted to the addition of meat.


Vegetable masala

½ cup garbanzo or any other large bean of your choice

½ cup ghee

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon each, crushed black peppercorns and green cardamom seeds

2 cups minced red onions

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons red chile powder

1 red or yellow bell pepper, cubed

1 cup diced fresh tomatoes

2 tablespoons minced or grated fresh ginger

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon garam masala

2 cups of sugar snap peas, sliced in half diagonally

½ bunch asparagus

6 to 8 dried apricots, sliced

¼ cup sliced toasted almonds

Small handful fried onions (optional)

Small handful fresh herbs, such as cilantro or mint

Saffron rice

1½ cups long-grain basmati

Generous pinch saffron threads

Zest of 1 orange

1 long stick cinnamon

3 to 4 black cardamom pods

1½ teaspoons salt

Instructions: To make vegetable masala: Rinse the beans 2 to 3 times in tap water then soak them for at least 6 hours or overnight. Drain. Combine with 3 cups of water and bring them to a boil. If any scum rises to the top, using a slotted spoon, discard it. Cover and simmer for an hour or more until the beans are tender. Set them aside.

In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stockpot, warm the ghee and fry the crushed spices for 2 to 3 seconds. Immediately add the onions and cook on high heat for 4 to 5 minutes until they are sweaty and translucent. Lower the heat and continue browning the onions until they are golden in color.

Add the minced garlic and cook for a few more seconds. Then add the drained beans, chile powder, bell pepper, tomatoes and ginger. Lower the heat and continue cooking until the peppers and tomatoes soften and the masala is fairly dry, then add the salt and garam masala.

Discard the bottom 2 inches of the asparagus, then cut into tiny wheels, leaving the spears intact.

Add the sugar snap peas and the asparagus to the masala, cook for a minute or two and turn the heat off. If the saffron rice is ready, pour it over the vegetable mixture, place the apricots and almonds on top and place a lid and let the biryani rest for 20 minutes before adding the herbs and fried onions. Fluff, fold and serve the biryani.

To make saffron rice: Rinse the rice 2 to 3 times in tap water then soak for 2 to 3 hours (or soak overnight in the refrigerator). Drain. Separately soak the saffron in 2 tablespoons water for a few hours or overnight.

In a stockpot, combine the drained rice with 3 cups water, saffron (with water), orange zest, cinnamon stick, black cardamom pods and salt and bring the mixture to a boil.

Immediately cover the stockpot and simmer the rice for 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the heat off and pour it over the hot vegetable masala.

Notes & variations

To add meat to this biryani, add 8 to 10 ounces of cubed bone-in or boneless lamb, beef or chicken (use dark meat so it does not dry out) after the onions are golden, and cook for a few more minutes before adding the rest of the ingredients. Or replace the beans with the meat. If doing so, use stock to cook the rice.

Instead of tomatoes, add a cup of plain yogurt or coconut milk and cook it slowly until the masala is mostly dry.

Any nuts or dry fruit will work, including dried raisins, dates, pistachios, pecans and cashews.

Fried onions are purely optional and can be purchased at any Indian grocer.

Serves 4 to 6

From chef Anita Jaisinghani

Anita Jaisinghani is the chef-owner of Pondicheri restaurant in Houston. Her website is Her first cookbook, “Masala” (Ten Speed Press), publishes in August. Email: [email protected]