Lamb Biryani for An Indian Passover ( & Rosh HaShanah)

 The Layers of Lamb Biryani (Rice, Lamb, Rice, Garnishes) Copyright ©ShulieMadnick

The crown jewel in my mom's culinary arsenal is this luxurious, aromatic lamb biryani. Only the regional biryanis I have had in India lived up to my mom's. The Mumbai biryanis made me think of how my mom, who still several decades later, manages to preserve the flavors and encapsulate the essence of Maharashtrian cuisine in Israel.

This sensational lamb biryani is at the center of the Bene Israel Indian Jewish Community's Passover holiday table. The rice is infused with saffron and then layered with the curry-spiced leg of lamb and garnished with cashews, raisins, crispy onions, and cilantro chips. The juxtaposition of sweet and savory flavors, crunchy and soft textures and many colors create a festive dish that is a Bene Israeli Passover (and Rosh HaShanah) tradition.

Biryani is originally from Persia. It was brought to India by the Arabs and Mongols. Over the centuries, the native Indian communities adapted the dish and made it their own. Although ghee, clarified butter, and yogurt are often used in the dish, Indian Jews replaced those dairy ingredients with vegetable oil to create a kosher rendition.

"Biblical Rituals and Passover Traditions of the Bene Israel, India's Largest Jewish Community," published in Haaretz newspaper in 2016 and re-edited and curated here, explores further the Bene Israelis foods of Passover (in India, the community primarily used goat meat). The article also explores the community's over 2000 year history in India and its unique Passover traditions. 

Author's Notes:

1. Allergen alert: Those with a tree-nut allergy can leave out the cashews or substitute them with peanuts. 

2. Some of the preparations for this dish can be made a couple of days in advance. The entire dish can be fully assembled the day of. This recipe is long, but the steps are not particularly difficult. The end result is well worth the effort. 

3. At times, my mom also makes this biryani with a layer of potatoes at the bottom of the pot. The potatoes get crisp and golden, similar to the potatoes in the Persian tahdig. She then flips the pot into a serving dish for a showy presentation. I might share a simplified version of biryani with potatoes in the future. 

4. I edited this recipe since, in versions published in both the Forward and the Hadassah Magazine, I used garam masala to make the process easier. My masala mix for this biryani contains 13 spices. I make a large batch and save it in the freezer. It can get costly and time-consuming, especially if you don't cook Indian food often. To make life easier and lower the cost, I suggest you buy a ready-made curry mix. Either a chicken/meat masala or a biryani one. Bonus points if you score masala from the State of Maharashtra, which Mumbai is its Capital. The dry masala mix recipe I will share one of these days.

4. In this method, I fully cook the rice and not cook it al dente in water like pasta, then finish it off layered in the pot with the lamb covered in the oven, not over the stove. I will share the al dente method when I share the simplified biryani (or tahdig) with the potato layer at the bottom (see number 2).

5. You can add more cashews, raisins, cilantro leaves and onions, depending on taste. Just make sure to fry them (see directions below).

Lamb Biryani

Lamb Ingredients

2.2 pounds deboned leg of lamb, cut into small/medium-sized cubes
Water to cover
1/4 - 1/2 tsp salt
2 - 3 bay leaves
8 -10 cloves

Lamb Directions:

Cook lamb in a pressure cooker according to the manufacturer’s directions with salt, bay leaves, peppercorns, and water. Or in a large pot, cover the lamb with water, add the salt, bay leaves, peppercorns, and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Then immediately turn down the heat to a low-medium simmering/bubbling. Skim the foam from the top. Half-cover with a lid and let cook for about 1 - 1 1⁄2 hours, or until lamb is tender and falls apart at the touch of a fork. It will stay pink inside. Drain liquid, and discard the bay leaves and peppercorns. Combine the lamb with 1/2 the cooked lamb masala below.

This step can be made up to two days in advance. Refrigerate in a sealed container.

Green Masala Ingredients (no tomato):

4 - 6  tbls canola oil
2 - 3 medium/large onions, grated (or processed in a food processor)
4 - 6 garlic cloves
1/2 - 1 inch ginger, cut into pieces (optional)
1 small/medium bundle cilantro, roughly chopped (tough stems discarded)
2 - 4 green chili pepper, or jalapenos, quartered (stems discarded)
1 - 1 1/2  tbls dry masala (or less than 1 tables, depending on taste. Look for a chicken or biryani curry powder. See notes above.) 
1/2 - 1 tsp salt, depending on taste

Masala Directions:

Add the oil and the onions to a medium/large pot and caramelize the onions over low/medium heat until deeply golden, stirring occasionally. While the onions are caramelizing, put the garlic, ginger (optional), cilantro, and chili pepper into the food processor and chop to superfine consistency. Scrape the sides of and whiz again. Once the onions have caramelized, add the green mixture and cook on low/medium heat for few minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in the salt and dry masala (curry powder). Cook for a few minutes longer, while stirring occasionally, taste and adjust, and turn off the heat.

This step can be made up to two days in advance.

Combining Lamb and Masala:

Save 1/2 of the cooked masala in a sealed container in the fridge, once cooled down. To the other 1/2, add the cooked lamb. Cook on low heat for few minutes, while stirring, on the stovetop. Add more masala to coat the lamb well, if needed. 

This step can be made up to two days in advance. Keep refrigerated in a sealed container. 

You can toss vegetables with the reserved masala, add little bit of water and cook. 

Rice Ingredients:

2 cups basmati rice
Few strands of saffron
2 - 4 tbls canola oil (if cooking on a stovetop)
1⁄2 tsp salt, or according to taste
3 cups water, plus extra is needed

Rice Directions:

Cook the rice in a rice cooker according to the manufacturer's directions, adding salt, a few strands of saffron, and water.

If you don't have a rice cooker, begin by rinsing the rice in cold water and draining the rice. In a pan, heat up the oil on medium heat, add the rice and lightly fry. Mix gently, occasionally, while frying the rice. Add salt, a few strands of saffron, and water. Bring to a boil, mix, and turn down the heat immediately to low. Stir and cover with a lid and let the water completely absorb for approximately 20 - 30 minutes. If the grains aren't cooked at the top, drizzle a few drops of water and continue cooking on low for several more minutes until the water is completely absorbed. Turn off the stove and let the rice sit with the lid on for at least 20 minutes. 

Make the rice up to a day before. Keep refrigerated in a sealed container. 

Cilantro Chips:

About 10 cilantro leaves
2 - 4 tablespoons canola oil 

Cilantro Chips Directions:

Rinse and pat dry the cilantro leaves with a paper towel or a clean kitchen towel. Flatten the leaves. Bring oil to medium/high heat and fry the leaves. This takes seconds. Be careful the oil splatters. Remove from the oil with a slotted spatula into a paper toweled plate. Set aside.

Make this the day of.

Plumped Raisins Ingredients:

1⁄4 – 1⁄2 cup golden raisins
Same oil as the cilantro leaves

Plumped Raisins Directions:

Gently toss the raisins into the same oil you fried the cilantro leaves in on medium heat.  Mix and fry until the raisins will plump. This is a quick process. Remove with a slotted spatula into a paper toweled plate. Set aside.

Make the day of. 

Fried Cashews Ingredients:

1/2 cup of raw cashews
Same oil as the cilantro leaves and the raisins (replenish oil if needed)

Fried Cashews Directions:

Toss the cashews into the pan with oil on medium heat, mix and fry until they turn golden. This process is very quick. Remove from pan with a slotted spatula into a paper-lined plate. Set aside. 

Make the day of.

Crispy Onions Ingredients:

1 small onion, peeled, halved, and sliced thinly into half-moons
2 tablespoons canola oil, if needed

Crispy Onions Directions:

Add 2 or tablespoons of oil, if needed, into the same pan we fried the cilantro leaves, raisins, and cashews.  Fry on medium-high heat until the onions turn a deep brown color and become crisp and crunchy. Scoop with a slotted spatula into a paper-lined plate. Set Aside. 

Make the day of. 

Layering and Assembling the Lamb Biryani:

Layer the bottom of a deep, ovenproof pot with 1/2 of the rice. Dot the rice with masala-coated lamb cubes. Sprinkle the lamb with half of the cashews and half of the raisins. Top the lamb with the remaining rice and bake in a preheated 350 F oven, for 30 minutes or until it is hot. 

Garnish the rice's top layer with crispy onions, remaining raisins and cashews, and cilantro chips before serving. 

Passover Recipes & Links Highlights:

Like @foodwanderings to follow along the Passover cooking on Instagram stories this coming week. 

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