Wednesday, July 03, 2013

vegan vegetable biryani

Biryani needs no introduction. It's as well known and loved around the world as it is in Singapore. But, versions abound and vary significantly from the original and from each other, and surprisingly, for such a popular dish, many aren't aware that it came from Persia. Its very name is derived from the Persian word berya meaning roasted or fried, a reference to the traditional way of preparing biryani (dum biryani) by 'roasting' the partially cooked rice and meat together over and under hot coals piled on the lid of the dough-sealed pot, during the final step in the proceedings.

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.

Delicious though it undeniably is, I love cooking biryani, much more than I enjoy eating it. The grains, when handled and cooked properly, are a sight to behold  - I measured one of them and it reached a whopping 2 cm or four-fifths of an inch!! Proof below. Each time I make biryani, hubs will utter his usual mantra, "Stop sighing over the grains, get your head out of the pot, and let me eat it already!!" To achieve such mesmerising lengths, buy the best quality basmati rice you can afford, wash the rice very gently and until the water runs almost clear, and, always, but always, soak your rice for at least 30 minutes then drain thoroughly, prior to cooking. In fact, once you've decided to make biryani, wash and soak your rice first, before you do anything else.

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 ;)

There are thousands of biryani recipes out in the wild, wild, WorldWideWeb. What's so great then, about this one? Unlike most Indian recipes, it features a pretty short spice list, but the finished dish is  fragrant without being pungent and the grains are light, fluffy and beautifully golden with saffron and tomato. I think it looks quite beautiful, even more so than a meat biryani as the colour saturated vegetables make the rice look bejewelled. And oh my, don't those grains look as ridiculously pretty as giraffe eyelashes!

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

Cashew Milk

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.


  1. Hi Denise, how are you ? I really miss you and miss blogging too - not updating much, ew..2 months.. will back to blog when my mojo back LOL
    Nasi Briyani is much of work, but always worth it, it's funny how you aware to measure the rice. All the pictures are mouth watering as always..

    1. Hi Fitri :) Wow! You have been so quiet, I thought you went back to Indonesia and were too happy to blog anymore ;) So nice to hear from you again. I hope you are having a warm and cheery summer and not thinking too much of your kampung.

      My children also laughed at me when I measured the rice grain. But it's so loooooooong, I wanted to know how many centimetres :D I really like basmati rice because it's so beautiful...

  2. Wowwwww.... Very beautiful and stunning photographs.. awesome presentation too.. great job dear :)

    1. Thank you Hari, for your lovely comment :) It means a lot to me, coming from a Hyderabadi.

  3. Drop dead gorgeous! This has moved to the top of the list of things I want you to make for me when I, one day, find my way to Singapore... As for the vegan thing, I think you're doing a great job of eating LESS meat rather than cutting it out entirely. Everything doesn't have to be black and white - embrace the more liveable greyscale!

    1. Thanks Rube :) Wouldn't it just be AMAZING if we were neighbours? The shenanigans, ohhhhh, the shenanigans.... in AND out of the kitchen *wink wink* You bet I'd cook this (or anything else your beautiful heart desires)for you!

  4. That's an extremely delectable biryani recipe.....loved the loose grain and perfectly cooked recipe....awesome I am hungry....

  5. i love biryani but my boyfriend not so much. your pictures are making me droool

  6. Wow Wow Denise! This is rice so nice I'll eat it thrice!

    When will I be invited over to your place? Yum! :D

  7. Wow, this main dish meal definitely I will go for second helping. Wish I am invited too.

  8. I love biryani like anything. Yours look delicious. Awesome clicks

  9. Amazing photographs and recipe! I wax lyrical on the beauty of long grained Basmati too. As for going vegan, just cut back on the meat for starters until your boys get used to it and appreciate the yummy world of vegetables and grains ...with dishes like these, how can they not? :)

  10. This looks beautiful!
    Any substitutes for pandan leaves? I'm afraid they might be hard to find around here.

    1. Hi there :) Thank you! If you have a vanilla pod, from which you've scraped out the seeds, you could use the empty split pod in combination with 4-6 makrut lime leaves (Thai citrus leaves. It may sound crazy to put vanilla in savoury rice, but I assure you, the fresh pandan scent is very much like a combination of vanilla, citrus and jasmine. Or combine the vanilla pod with fresh lemongrass if you can't get the lime leaves. Two fat stalks ought to do it.

  11. hi,
    Good recipe to make basmati rice

  12. Oh wow first time here and i feel like nt moving out if this page..i live the measuring grain pic a lot more for the craziness than the beauty of the image:) i love to do so

    lovely pics...

  13. That looks so good. I wish I could reach into my computer screen and eat it! Thanks for sharing such great recipes here!

  14. I came here while looking for something else on Pintrest. What an incredible looking biryani you have made here, whoa my god! Love it Maam. Great photography as well. It is true that we have 2-3 portions, flavorful rice is indeed so nice.

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