I don’t cook with meat substitutes often but sometimes I like to experiment because I know many vegans do enjoy them. Both because they offer tons of healthy protein without the fat usually found in meat, and because they simulate the texture of meat.
The secret to cooking with meat substitutes is to infuse them with tons of flavor– or else they end up tasting like, well, substitutes for the real thing and that defeats the purpose of it all.
For my Chickfree Biryani I used seitan, a wheat-based protein that’s got a really chewy texture and that’s quite popular even with some lacto-vegetarians I know. My memory of seitan was for a long time tainted by a dish I once had at a popular vegetarian restaurant here in the DC area. The dish was called “Kale Infinity” and as the name suggests it was packed with an infinite amount of almost-raw kale and flavorless slices of seitan.
Despite my adamant refusal to waste food, I am ashamed to say I did end up throwing most of that mess into my compost heap.
So when I decided to try my biryani with seitan, I wanted to make sure I put into it as much of a punch as I could pack. Which was not difficult because there are so many dashing and brilliant flavors you can add to a biryani.
For the rice:
1 1/2 cups of long-grain rice like Basmati
2 1/2 cups water or vegetable stock
2 cardamom pods
A bay leaf
Salt to taste
Add the spices to the water, bring it to a boil, then add the rice and bring back to a boil.
Lower the heat, cover, and allow it to cook for 10 minutes. Turn off heat.
For the gravy:
1 8-oz package of seitan
1/2 block of silken tofu
Juice of half a lemon
6 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, miced
1 cup loosely packed coriander leaves and stems
2 green chillies
1/4 red onion, chopped
1 cup tomato puree
1 tbsp garam masala powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp red chilli powder (optional)
1 large onion thinly sliced
1 tbsp canola oil
Salt to taste
Coriander for garnish
Place the tofu, lemon juice, ginger, garlic, chopped onion and coriander leaves in a blender and grind to a fairly smooth paste.
Drain the seitan and place it in a bowl. Pour the tofu-ginger-garlic marinade over it and toss with a spoon till all the pieces are thoroughly coated. Set aside for at least an hour.
Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the sliced onions and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until they are golden-brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes.
Remove half the onions to a bowl and reserve. To the remaining onions, add the garam masala, turmeric and chilli powders and stir well for a few seconds. Add the tomato puree.
Saute until the tomato turns darker and begins to express oil.
Add the seitan along with the marinade, stir together well, bring to a boil. Then lower the heat to low and allow the mixture to simmer for about 15 minutes or until the flavors have merged well. Add salt to taste.
Take the cooked rice and gently spread it on top of the gravy in an even layer.
Close the skillet with a tight-fitting lid, ensure the heat is still turned to low, and allow the biryani to cook another 10 minutes. If you like some additional color in your biryani, mix 2 tbsp of soymilk with a few strands of saffron or a generous pinch of turmeric and sprinkle on top of the rice before putting on the lid.
Turn off the heat and allow the biryani to stand at least 10 minutes before opening. Garnish with the fried onions you had reserved and the coriander leaves. I also love sauteing a few cashew nuts and raisins in a smidgen of oil until the raisins are plumped up and the nuts golden, and then sprinkling them on top of the biryani for a fabulous final touch.