Lifestyle / Food And Drink
Just say the word “biryani” in a room full of South Africans, and the nostalgia is palpable. It’s a meal that takes you back to granny’s kitchen, to mom’s Tupperware full of padkos, to weddings, family reunions and occasions which aren’t even occasions, they’re just “because Aunty said so”.
It’s a meal that’s not just a meal. It’s history, it’s culture, it’s family, it’s art – and it’s love. Every aunty has her method; the way her mom made it, and her grandmother, and her great-grandmother… Of course, there are some tweaks along the way. A little extra ginger? Butter or ghee? Vege-tables instead of lentils? Freshly ground, homemade spices, or pre-packed?
Chicken, mutton, or veg? Like a painter delicately mix-ing her palette for the perfect colour, mastering the biryani takes years of practice and meticulous attention to detail. The onions must be fried “just so” – and each spice and ingredient expertly layered to create the ultimate masterpiece.
In South Africa, an Indian wedding isn’t a wedding unless there’s biryani. But woe betides the man who dares to offer his opinion on who makes it best – his mother or his new bride. It will not end well! For many Indian women, the go-to resource (besides mom) for recipes is Zuleikha Mayat’s Indian Delights. First published in 1964, the book was a project by Mayat’s influential Women’s Cultural Group (WCG).
They put the book together based on recipe contributions from the community and it has now become an institution and best-seller in South Africa. Almost every Indian bride receives a copy for her wedding, the proceeds of which (from the very first publication) have been used to uplift the poor and needy.
According to an excerpt from Indian Delights, “Biryani is the royal dish among all the exotic rice dishes of India, and remains the dish to serve on all best auspicious.”
“When Indians entertain, we do it in numbers,” explains Aunty Punji Naidoo from Port Elizabeth. “We’re very inclusive, not exclusive.” Biryani is a meal that incorporates all the best flavours, and “goes far”. Aunty Punji says she had a wedding of “just” 500 people.
“There can be up to 1 000 people at weddings, so the meal needs to stretch.” The dinner would usually include a starter of Veda or Baja, biryani as a main, and sambals and pickles, plus a sweet treat at the end. Whether you’re using chicken, mutton, veggies, or adding potatoes, eggs, lentils or gadra (borlotti) beans, the key ingredient in biryani is love.
This is the view of Aunty Muligar Reddy from Durban. The first time she cooked biryani on mass was for an end-of-year celebration at her children’s school.
She made enough to feed around 450 pupils. While she believes the spices and the methods are important – “the main ingredient is love”. “Cooking is a pleasure for me,” says Aunty Muligar. “Before I start cooking, I always pray: ‘God let this be delicious’.”
South African flair
While the exact origins of biryani are not entirely clear, typical South African biryani differs from the traditional Indian version with the addition of lentils, potatoes, and boiled eggs. The type of rice, the ratio of spices, and meat is at the discretion of the cook. “Some will also leave out the lentils as they can make you a bit gassy,” says Aunty Punji.
Ask any aunty for her Biryani recipe, and you’ll get a long list of very specific instructions, with very imprecise measurements. Biryani is made with a pinch of this and a “spoon or two” of that. But it’s the method that makes all the difference. Each aunty has perfected “her way”.
“I like to roast my spices gently in the oven before grinding them,” says Aunty Zaida Jamal from Port Elizabeth. She balances out her flavours expertly – her years of practise have taught her to measure by sight, smell and taste.“Every woman’s biryani will be slightly different,” she explains. “Even the spices will differ in strength and flavour, depending on the batch.”
Biryani. Photo: iStock
I was invited to Aunty Zaida’s family home to taste my first biryani. Spices roasted and ground, lentils cooked, chicken marinated overnight, the prep done, Aunty Zaida melted a healthy portion of ghee in a pot on the stove. She gently lowered in the marinated chicken pieces.
“Make sure you spread them out and keep the pieces whole,” she said. Next, she layered in large quarters of fried and spiced potatoes, two separately flavoured layers of rice, peas and, finally, some hard-boiled eggs. The grand finale included a drizzle of saffron and colouring which turned the rice a soft golden colour. A lid was added, and 30 minutes later, as it was lifted, the most fragrant, spicy and more-ish steam filled the kitchen. “
“Good for the skin and the stomach,” laughed Aunty Zaida. Mouths watering, we tucked into the multi-layered, multi-flavoured love-filled goodness.
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