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 home in Vile Parle, Bombay, 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.
If my cousin Deepa, Akka's daughter who was several years older and already married, happened to be staying with her at the time, there was more fun to have by way of food. Deepa was an innovative cook, and watching her experiment in the kitchen perhaps laid the foundation for the experimenting I was to do on my own, once I started to cook myself. Unlike Akka, who was a tremendous cook but who stuck with traditional recipes handed down by her mother, Deepa, who had married outside the Konkani clan into a Gujarati household, and who was also a great cook, would often fuse recipes from the two cultures she straddled. She also ventured into what appeared, at that time, rather exotic recipes -- everything from a Chicken Paratha to a Mushroom Biryani.
Akka passed away a few years back, and it's been more than a year since I've physically been back in Bombay. But the food I cook in my kitchen often takes me back, like a time machine, to her and to Deepa and into other long-lost corners of the past.
The Mushroom Biryani I have for you today is not particularly inspired by Deepa's version, which I never learned, but you can see why it is a dish I love so much. My version, in addition to being vegetarian, as the name suggests, is also vegan, because I make it without any yogurt, an essential ingredient in biryani. Instead, I use a quick-blended version of "cashew yogurt", which involves blitzing some raw cashews with lemon into a smooth paste. This yogurt stands in admirably for its non-vegan counterpart, and tastes better because it adds richness to this otherwise spare recipe.
So here's the recipe for an easy, low-fat, vegan 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, or make a memory of your own.
- 1 ½ cups basmati rice. Soak the rice for 30 minutes and then wash thoroughly to remove as much of the starch as you can.
- 1 tsp shahjeera or caraway seeds (use cumin as a substitute if you can't find these)
- 3 pods of green cardamom
- 2 bay leaves
- For the sauce:
- 16 oz cremini mushrooms or button mushrooms, quartered
- ½ cup raw cashews
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp shahjeera or caraway seeds
- ¼ cup dill or mint, chopped
- ¼ cup coriander leaves, chopped
- 2 heaping tbsp biryani masala
- 2 tbsp ginger garlic paste
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- ½ tsp cayenne or paprika
- ½ cup fried onions (use the kind you find in the supermarket, like French's, or at the Indian store, or make your own. I spray sliced onions with some cooking spray and roast them in the toaster oven at 350 degrees until they are brown, about 30 minutes.
- Salt to taste
- A pinch of saffron strands soaked in ¼ cup nondairy milk
- Blend the raw cashews with 1 cup of water and the lemon juice. Set aside.
- In a saucepan, place 2 cups of water, cardamom, bay leaves, shahjeera. 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 8 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the shahjeera seeds ir cumin seeds and, when they start to change color, add the mint and coriander leaves. Stir to mix.
- Add the ginger garlic paste and saute another couple of minutes, stirring frequently to ensure they do not stick to the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle on some salt and pepper to season.
- Add the turmeric, cayenne or paprika, biryani masala, half of the fried onions, and the blended cashew-lemon paste. Stir well to mix and let it cook for a minute. Add salt.
- Add the mushrooms to the saucepan and stir to coat with the spices. If the mixture looks too dry, add ½ cup of water or vegetable stock. Let the sauce come to a boil.
- Turn off the heat. Spread the cooked rice on top of the sauce in an even layer. Sprinkle on the remaining fried onions and the saffron with the milk.
- Cover with a tight lid. If the lid you have doesn't fit snugly, you can cover with a sheet of aluminum foil and then place the lid on top to make it as airtight as possible.
- Turn the heat to high for about three minutes, then lower it to the lowest setting, and let the biryani cook, undisturbed, for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it stand for at least 10 minutes, uncovered, before serving.
- Biryanis go beautifully with raitas. Try my soy-free Cucumber Raita.