Further proof of its origin is the fact that it was the Mughals who brought it to India and today, the ambrosial Hyderabadi version is perhaps the most renowned in India and in this region. The Singaporean take on biryani is a hybrid influenced by both the Indian and Arab diasporas and features very local inflections like pandan, lemongrass, evaporated milk and even coconut milk, in place of yoghurt.
Hubs loves chicken or mutton biryani, but I wanted something different and had a hankering for red peppers, of all things. With a chorus of groans from the men of the house, and accusations of being a closet hippie, ringing in my ears, I resolutely bypassed the butcher and made a beeline for the vegetable seller. Those accusations are not entirely untrue; I do harbour dreams of going vegetarian, possibly vegan when my boys no longer depend on me for their meals, and it's just hubs and I, in our near empty nest. I'm no noble minded animal rights crusader, but I will admit those graphic videos all over the internet, waiting to jump out at you and scare you meatless, are very disturbing; they make me want to be a veg head.
The truth is I do enjoy a good rib eye steak, and cheese makes me weak in the knees. BUT, cleaning and preparing raw meat when cooking, turns my stomach enough to make me happy with a largely vegetarian diet, that includes the occasional tuna sashimi treat or KFC fix. Hubs still needs convincing about trading in his rib-eye for grilled tofu slabs. In any case, he did enjoy this vegan friendly take on his favourite rice dish, as it was garnished with a generous shower of his favourite nut, crisp, buttery cashews. Hmmm... Confucius say, a journey of a thousand miles, begins with a first step ;)
This easy lemon pickle from a previous post makes a very agreeable accompaniment as the pumpkin, red pepper, green beans and onions all add plenty of natural sweetness to the rice. If you prefer subtle hits of citrus in each mouthful of biryani, rather than a sharp, assertive punch of lemon, slice the lemon chunks into slivers and serve alongside the biryani. I enjoyed my plate with big, sunny bursts of unsliced pickle and washed it all down with this refreshing lime drink, but a mug of hot frothy teh tarik is equally good, for those with sturdier stomachs.
Hubby's favourite side when enjoying meaty biryani, roti Mariam, a lip smackingly delicious crisp and blistery fried bread, also makes a magnificent accompaniment here. I couldn't be more pleased about how gorgeous and scrumptious my veg biryani turned out. So besotted was I by its visual splendour (those colours, those bewitching colours!) I forgot to turn off the heat on time and damned near burned the bottom of the rice. Mind you don't follow suit.....
vegan vegetable biryani
prep 45 mins cook 35 mins serves 3 - 4
60 g (1/2 cup) unroasted cashews
200 ml (1 cup) water
Split cashews and soak in water for 6 hours. Drain cashews and combine with 1 cup water in a blender. Process until very smooth. Set aside until needed.
2 medium onions, sliced into thick rounds and separated into rings
1 tsp cumin seeds, rubbed between finger tips to release aroma
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 light green chillies, sliced (the dark green ones tend to be bitter with indigestible skins)
2 tbsp concentrated tomato paste
150 g green beans, topped and tailed, cut or snapped into short lengths
1 red pepper, peeled (with a vegetable peeler) and cut into stamp sized squares
1/2 a small pumpkin, thickly peeled, cored and cut into stubby batons (like short, very chunky fries)
1 tsp salt
100 ml (1/2 cup) cashew milk (or coconut milk)
2 large pinches saffron strands, crushed between finger tips
3 tbsp very hot water (or milk)
6 green cardamom pods
2 small sticks cinnamon
4 pandan leaves, knotted
400 ml (2 cups) vegetable stock (or 1 vegetable stock cube dissolved in very hot water)
130 ml (2/3 cup) cashew milk (or coconut milk)
1 tsp salt
300 g (2 cups) basmati rice, washed thoroughly, soaked for 30 minutes, thoroughly drained in a sieve
Coriander leaves (cilantro)
Roasted cashew nuts
Lemon pickle, acar or your favourite pickle
Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil until moderately hot. Fry the onion rings until fragrant and lightly browned. Remove from pan, draining off all the oil and set onion rings aside. To the same pan, add the cumin seeds. Stir for half a minute, making sure it doesn't burn.
Add the garlic and green chillies and stir for 3 - 4 minutes or until limp. Stir in the tomato paste until it darkens and separates from oil. Add green beans and stir for 1 minute before adding the red pepper and pumpkin. Stir for just about 1 minute more or just until vegetables are heated through but still crunchy. Do not cook beyond this stage as vegetables will steam over the rice later. Stir in milk and salt and quickly turn off heat. Set vegetables aside.
Sprinkle crushed saffron strands over the hot water or milk and leave to soak until a deep golden yellow.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a separate medium heavy based pot that's wider than it is high. When moderately hot, add the cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks and pandan leaves and stir for about half a minute or until fragrant, taking care not to burn the cardamom pods. Be careful as the pods may explode if they overheat.
Gently pour in the stock and cashew milk (so it doesn't splutter) and stir in the salt. Bring to a boil then gently tip in the thoroughly drained rice. Shake the pan gently to submerge the rice and cook over moderately high heat until liquid is absorbed by rice and steam holes appear on top.
Lower to minimum heat immediately and sprinkle saffron liquid and strands over the rice in streaks. Put the fried onion rings and vegetables along with every bit of the spice paste over the rice in an even layer and cover pan tightly. Cook for 10 minutes over gentle heat without opening pot.
Turn off heat and leave pot covered and undisturbed for 20 minutes. When ready to serve, gently fluff up rice and mix lightly with vegetables so rice remains streaked with colour rather than turning a uniform orange.
Dish out rice and garnish with coriander and cashews. Serve with lemon pickle or your favourite achar, on the side.