How to make the perfect vegetable biryani

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Biryani, the Indian rice dish, is, like so many classics, disputed territory. Traditionally credited to the Mughal court that ruled over much of modern-day India from the 16th century until the British Raj, its popularity in the southern states has given some credence to the idea that it was brought there by Arab traders. Whatever the truth, the dish is now popular nationwide, and the two most famous iterations come from Lucknow, in the north-west, often said to be more delicate, and Hyderabad, further south, which trades in spicier fare. Neither, it must be admitted, specialise in vegetable biryani; mutton is the most common variety, although chicken is also popular – Rajyasree Sen, writing in the Wall Street Journal, cautions visitors not to be “fooled by people who pass off vegetable pulao as biryani. There’s no such thing. It’s as much an oxymoron as chicken steak.” Yet vegetable biryani certainly is a thing among India’s 500 million vegetarians – and if Madhur Jaffrey says it’s a thing, it’s a thing, OK? But … how do you make it?

The rice

Whether veg or non-veg, a biryani is first and foremost a rice dish that stands or falls on the fluffiness of its rice: every grain should be separate and perfectly cooked. Shabnam Minwalla recommends a simple quality control procedure: “When you’re confronted with a plateful of biryani, toss some on the floor and examine the grains. If even two grains stick together, your biryani has failed the test.”

Soaking, as recommended by Meera Sodha’s Fresh India, and Monir Mohammed and Martin Gray’s Mother India, as well as Dishoom, helps to soften the rice, which means water can penetrate it more easily during cooking, while rinsing it washes off some of the sticky surface starch.

The rice requires some cooking before the biryani is assembled, although cook it completely, as the recipe in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg recommends, and it will be overdone in the finished dish. Leaving it al dente, as Sodha and Dishoom suggest, is a far better idea. In general, I favour the absorption method for the fluffiest rice, but in this case simple boiling is fine as long as you drain it well, as it will fluff up in the oven.

Frying the rice with a masala paste, as Kaushy Patel does in her book Prashad, leaves it a little oily for the panel’s liking, and testers fail to pick up the flavour of the spice-infused water that Mohammed’s rice has been simmered in. Simply popping in a couple of aromatics, such as bay and my own favourite, cardamom pods, will impart a subtle fragrance with less effort.

The vegetables

The choice of vegetables is largely up to you and what you have available. I try recipes using potatoes, sweet potatoes, beetroot (highly recommended: Sodha’s recipe is a visual knock-out), carrot, cauliflower, peppers, peas, tomatoes and mushrooms, but although I would recommend aiming for a good mix of texture and flavour, they all work. My testers find the potatoes a bit bland, and complain that the long cooking time has left the peas looking a bit like they have come out of a tin (fusspots), so I’ve chosen cauliflower for textural interest, squash for sweetness and green beans for crunch and colour. Feel free to make substitutions according to season and taste.

Dishoom offers a more exotic possibility in the form of jackfruit, widely used in Indian cooking, and increasingly used in vegetarian dishes over here for its meaty texture. It can be found fresh in Oriental and Asian grocers (make sure you get the green, unripe type), or bought tinned online, and makes a great addition to the biryani if you would like it to be more substantial. I haven’t included it in the recipe below simply because it’s less easy to get hold of in this country than, say, a cauliflower, but if you do find it, I would highly recommend giving it a try.

Sodha bakes her vegetables before adding them to the biryani, which concentrates the flavour beautifully, and Prashad deep-fries them all (yes, even the peppers) but testers prefer those, such as the Mother India and Dishoom versions, that are cooked in a yoghurt sauce, giving them a more curry-like consistency. According to Lizzie Collingham’s (fascinating) book Curry: A Biography, marinating meat in yoghurt is a Persian technique that came to India with the Mughals, and, although vegetables have no need of its tenderising properties, they can still benefit from its tangy flavour and richness. (If you would prefer a vegan biryani, Sodha’s recipe includes a coconut milk and coriander sauce that makes an excellent replacement for the yoghurt.)

Sodha and Fearnley-Whittingstall both use caramelised onions, which add a lovely sweetness to their dishes, but no one can resist the crispy fried onions served with the Mother India recipe, both for their intense flavour and the textural contrast they offer to the soft vegetables and fluffy rice.

Pulses and paneer

Anything with a pulse floats my boat (insert jokes below the line). Sodha’s chickpeas are great, but the chewiness of Prashad’s masoor dal is even better, although I have used chana dal because that’s what I keep for everyday use. As before, use what you have to hand, although I would steer clear of red lentils or anything else with a tendency to dissolve into mush in the pan.

Sodha puts paneer in her biryani. Cheese is always welcome, even post-fondue, and this makes an great optional extra if, as with the jackfruit, you would like to bulk the dish out a bit.

Spices and aromatics

Garlic, ginger and green chillies are the holy trinity here, forming the base of every biryani I try (with the exception of the River Cottage one, which uses red chillies for reasons best known to itself). Sodha also sticks in a great big bunch of fresh coriander, which I love, both for its gorgeously aromatic flavour and the wonderfully green colour it lends her dish. If you are less enamoured, feel free to leave it out – I suspect it’s probably not traditional in any case, although I’m sure someone will be able to confirm or deny this.

Spicewise, biryani tends to be a fairly delicate dish: sweet garam masala is common, along with a little turmeric for colour, cumin and a bit of chilli powder. Fearnley-Whittinstall adds ground coriander and cinnamon, but I’m going to keep it fairly simple. However, I do like the saffron used in both his and the Dishoom recipe, which makes the dish feel gratifyingly regal, as well as taste wonderful. Dishoom infuses butter and cream with it and then pours it over the top of the rice before cooking, which adds an extra touch of decadence, although I think in a non-restaurant context, milk will do the same job just fine.

Sodha, Dishoom and Fearnley-Whittingstall all season their curries with citrus juice, which, in Dishoom’s case, accentuates the tangy flavour of the yoghurt in a very pleasing manner.

Baking and serving

Although it’s perfectly possible to make a great biryani on the stove, as the Prashad recipe proves, it’s easier for the amateur to get good results in the oven, where the heat will be distributed more evenly, reducing the risk of the base layer sticking. The cooking vessel should be tightly sealed to prevent the escape of the steam that’s essential for fluffing up the rice in the proper fashion. Some recipes do this by wrapping the dish in foil, but it’s just as easy to seal it with pastry, as Dishoom recommends, and it looks somewhat more dramatic when cracked open at the table. (You could also go down the Sodha route and add a pastry top, especially if you don’t happen to have a lidded dish of the correct size.)

Once open, I like to scatter the biryani with flaked almonds and sultanas, as the River Cottage recipe suggests, in a nod to its Mughal heritage as well as to the fact that, with the vegetables lurking beneath, it can look a little underwhelming without a garnish. Leave them off if you have traumatic memories of sultana-studded curries of yore, but do include a few sprigs of fresh coriander or mint for colour. Serve with raita and salad.

Serves 6

500g basmati rice
100g chana or masoor dal
2 tbsp grated ginger
4 cloves of garlic, mashed to a paste with a little salt
2 green chillies, finely sliced
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
200g whole-milk yoghurt
2 tbsp lime or lemon juice
50g fresh coriander, finely chopped (optional)
300g cauliflower, separated into florets
2 carrots, cut into 2cm chunks
300g squash, cut into small cubes
10 green beans, cut into 2cm lengths
25g butter, melted
2 tbsp milk, warmed
Generous pinch of saffron
2 cardamom pods, crushed
1 bay leaf
200g wholemeal flour
2 onions, finely sliced and dried in kitchen paper
vegetable oil, to fry
2 tbsp flaked almonds, to serve
1 tbsp sultanas, to serve
Few sprigs of coriander or mint, to serve

Soak the rice in water for 45 minutes, then drain and rinse until the water runs clear. Meanwhile, put the dal in a large pan of water and bring to the boil, skim and then turn down the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes or until just tender, then drain.

While the lentils are cooking, mix the ginger, garlic, chillies and dry spices together with the yoghurt, lemon juice and chopped coriander and season well. Whizz with a hand blender or in a food processor if you have one, then toss with the vegetables. Leave to marinate. Mix together the melted butter, milk and saffron.

Drain the rice and cook in a pan of boiling, salted water with the cardamom and bay leaf for 6-8 minutes until al dente, then drain well and mix with the dal. Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.

Put a lidded casserole dish over a medium-low heat and cook the vegetables and their marinade (if your yoghurt is very thick, add a splash of water to make a sauce) for 5-7 minutes until starting to soften. Check the seasoning. Gently pile the rice on top and pour over the saffron-infused milk.

Mix together the flour with just enough cold water to make a dough. Line the rim of the casserole dish with it and then put the lid on top to make an airtight seal. Bake for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a deep pan a third full of oil until bubbles form around a chopstick or similar dipped in, then fry the onion in batches until golden and crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.

Serve the biryani with the crispy onions, flaked almonds, sultanas and coriander or mint scattered on top.

Biryani: the world’s greatest rice dish? Is a biryani without meat still worthy of the name? And for those of us who do eat it on occasion, which meaty recipes do you recommend trying?