The other day, as the fragrance of my easy and quick Mushroom Biryani filled the kitchen, I was back for a moment in my aunt’s kitchen in Bombay.
Akka, my dad’s sister in whose Vile Parle home I spent many wonderful summers as a girl, was at the stove, frying up the onions for her mutton biryani in a small Indian wok, known as a kadhai. My cousin Tai was sitting on the cold, red, cement-tiled floor at an adoli, a cutting implement often used in Indian homes instead of a knife, cutting coriander leaves into lacy fronds with a deftness I have never mastered. A plane closing in to land at the Santa Cruz airport just a couple of miles away drowned out, for a moment, the sounds of gods alternately battling and pontificating on my uncle’s favorite Sunday morning television show, Mahabharat.
Akka passed away last year, and it’s been a long time since I’ve physically been in my hometown, Bombay. But the food I cook in my kitchen often takes me back, like a time machine, to her and into other long-lost corners of the past.
The smell of cumin sputtering in oil reminds me of the swell of excitement I felt the first time I visited Delhi along with other students in my class at journalism school. We were about to start the most exciting trip of our lifetimes thus far. We were going to meet leaders of top political parties, visit the pink-marble building of the Indian parliament, and explore the capital city. I don’t remember many details of the central government dorm we were staying at, after a day and night’s train journey from Pune, but the overpowering scent of burnt cumin floating atop a dal that we were served for dinner is seared forever in my memory.
The scent of turmeric in a curry reminds me of the lunch I ate at the US Embassy in London, along with journalists from around the world on a fellowship. The curry we were served was nice enough although really heavy on the turmeric. But what was even more memorable was the American diplomat who shared our table. He had somehow gotten a dab of butter on his forehead and as the meal progressed the butter slowly melted and ran down his face and his nose, even as he talked vigorously, completely oblivious to the butter and to the inadvertent entertainment he was providing the rest of us (we weren’t being cruel– we just didn’t know how to tell him).
Rolling a paratha reminds me of the first recipe I ever cooked for Desi– an Aloo Paratha. Each time I make parathas now, he reminds me, to this day, that he nearly starved that afternoon as he waited for me to turn out one that was fit to eat.
Among all the things food is, it is a wonderful reminder of the paths our lives have taken. Its effect is certainly not strong enough to shape lives– unless you happened to choose a career in food, perhaps– but it often becomes a delicious marker for life’s milestones. The best part is, it doesn’t even really have to be delicious to be memorable, although that doesn’t hurt.
What are the foods that mark the milestones of your life? I’d love to hear.
I adapted my recipe today from the Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s version of a low-fat fish biryani. I love biryanis– who doesn’t?– but as anyone who’s made one knows, it is not the stuff of weeknights. When I saw Kapoor’s recipe I was thrilled because it appeared really easy to put together. You just mix everything in a pot, no separate sauteing for each ingredient required, and there’s definitely no grinding and blending involved. It doesn’t get any better for my time-strapped kitchen.
I made a few changes, besides the fish which I substituted with the mushrooms. I also subbed the yogurt– an ingredient that adds a little extra something to any biryani– with coconut milk. And for good measure, I threw in a few handfuls of green salad leafies that had been sitting around in my fridge and weren’t looking too, ahem, lively. You can add other vegetables to this recipe as well, like bell peppers or carrots– anything that doesn’t take ages to cook. If it does, precook it before adding it to the biryani.
One of the best things about this recipe is, it has no added fat (there is some fat in coconut milk and in the fried onions, if you choose to use those, but no added oil). So in addition to being delicious and easy to make, this biryani is also good for you. And how can you argue with that?
So here’s the recipe for an easy, low-fat Mushroom Biryani, a flavorful, delicious, and vegan treat for any weeknight or weekend meal. It is good enough to mark one of life’s milestones.
- 1 cup Basmati rice. Soak the rice for 30 minutes and then wash thoroughly to remove as much of the starch as you can.
- 3 cloves
- 3 pods of green cardamom
- 2 1-inch pieces of cinnamon
- 1-2 bay leaves
- For the sauce:
- 4 cups chopped mushrooms. Quarter the really large ones and halve the smaller ones.
- 2 cups of quick-cooking leafy greens (don't use kale or collard which take a long time to cook. Spinach, lettuce, chard are all good).
- 1 cup coconut milk
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced
- 1 heaping tbsp garam masala or biryani masala. If using biryani masala, you may want to cut back on the cayenne because these masalas can sometimes be really spicy.
- 1 tbsp ginger paste
- 1 tbsp garlic paste
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- ½ tsp cayenne or paprika
- 2 tsp ground black pepper
- ½ cup coriander leaves, minced
- ¼ cup dill or mint, minced
- Salt to taste
- ½ cup fried onions (optional, but these are always a key ingredient in biryanis because they give great flavor. You can use French's or the ones you can buy in a packet at the Indian grocery store)Method:
- In a saucepan, place 1 cup of water, the cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaves. Add salt to taste.
- Pour in the drained rice and place over a medium fire. When the water starts to boil, cover the saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and then turn down the heat to the lowest setting.
- Let the rice steam for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Mix all the remaining ingredients together in a heavy-bottomed pan with a tight-fitting lid. Turn on the heat and saute until the mushrooms are almost cooked.
- Pour the cooked rice over the mushroom mixture and spread into an even layer.
- Sprinkle the top with a little coconut milk, if you desire
- Cover and let the biryani cook on a low flame for about 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let the biryani sit for another 15-20 minutes for the flavors to merge.