Noticing that my precious tub of sea salt felt lighter than expected, I had casually asked my mum if she knew the whereabouts of suspects crystalline in structure, wonderfully exfoliating to the touch.
“Oh, I used a bunch to brine your chicken as you suggested.” I beamed with joy. After hours of hand-wringing and loud huffing, she had finally seen the benefits of proper brining meat; and I also tried my best not to shriek. So I shrieked: “That’s the expensive salt for directly sprinkling on food -- not for cooking, marinating, or the like!” She gave me a flat stare and declared with the same huff I had so wonderfully inherited: “It’s just salt.” This was well in advance of novel coronavirus, c.2019.
Having been locked in with my family for a portion of the day when my battles would be about very different topics, involving spreadsheets and flow diagrams, (now both are fought simultaneously during daylight hours), regular skirmishes over kitchen space (it is narrow, so bottoms -- nurtured by continued adhesion to comfortable seats -- are constantly worrying at each other), debates over which knife to employ for what task, and arguments over the merits of different types of flour are unavoidable. It is mywish to have two different types of seaweed (one for snacking, one for making stock), four types of soy sauce (light, dark, regular, and gluten-free -- and one day there will be a range which caters for the general wellbeing of soybeans), and only oregano from Mexico (if dried; from the garden, if fresh). Sea-salt-gate was just a taste.
Consider the not-so-humble biriyani: an onerous, multifaceted endeavour which, once assembled, is left to faith (as Asma Khan so eloquently mused on Chef’s Table). Meticulous preparation that is religious in its fervour, my grandfather’s recipe our guiding light: akhichuri, it must never be. Naturally, I wanted to deconstruct it, to have it speak its secrets softly to me so that I could expand its dimensions. Broken down, biriyani is subtle sweetness, with each ingredient a long-term diabetes sufferer: gamey mutton, lightly crushed nuts, dried Turkish plums, copious amounts of fried onions, and fluffy potatoes that people would gladly storm out of a wedding over if denied to them. And with each scoop, you have an array of spices hitting ineffable flavour notes that require a thesaurus to describe, and a mellow fattiness that gently coats the tongue. Harmony is achieved through the medium of rice, parboiled to perfection, then baked under steam to create an ethereal texture. It is an ode to excess, and for me, to roots.
As per our recipe (and others, I’m sure), there is a need to “smoke” the meat. This normally manifests as a hot piece of charcoal quenched with flavoured oil, hissing and sputtering in a way that is frisson-inducing to those in earshot -- with the meat exposed, shamefully, for mere minutes. Inviting over chain-smoking relatives to occasionally walk by this meat is likely more effective, even with social distancing. “No. We shall smoke it for 2 hours,” I declared. After prolonged negotiations, all parties agreed on 45 minutes. The method was to be so: array marinated meat in a big pot in a way that maximizes exposed surface area, heat up two pieces of charcoal (this number was part of the deal) to a white heat, and soak whole spices in hot water… “Wait, we cannot heat up the charcoal to white heat in a kitchen! It’s too risky!” interrupted my dad. I channelled my inner Gibson (Mel, not William -- this would be a very different story otherwise) and asked him to hold, as he prodded the nuggets with tongs, brows furrowed. Extractor fans were on full blast, doors and windows were wide open, metal bowls were available: we were prepared, enough, to handle entropy (I imagined my physicist sister-in-law shaking her head in utter disbelief). The heated charcoal and soaked spices were introduced to each other and hit it off like old flames reconnecting, resulting in copious wisps of smoke. We covered the meat, leaving a little gap for home-wrecking oxygen to remind these lovers they were truly meant for each other.
But before we peek at the happily smoking meat, let me tell you about my glorious plums. Although homebrewed biriyani won’t leave you enough leftover oil for setting up the fried chicken pop-up of your dreams, it cannot completely avoid its lipid destiny. I theorized to my wife (who is very patient with my food tangents) that something was needed to cut through that richness, and I was unwilling to let a third party such as a salad or a raita play such a crucial role. Thus entered a wizened traveller from the Far East: organic umeboshi (preserved Japanese plums), introducing a beautiful tartness that makes you regret it at first nibble, and then makes you a willing slave. In a show of continued cross-cultural culinary collaboration, these joined the Turkish plums -- intensely sweet and salty in their own right -- in offering a perfect counterpoint to the fattiness and savouriness of mutton. When these friends from afar were introduced to my parents and wife, there was an initial frostiness. The smoking technique was an extension of what was traditional (and flawed; friends, please smoke for longer -- your food that is) but this was a stranger wandering about the family home. Only years of proving myself repeatedly through countless culinary experiments could have convinced them that we should take a leap into the unknown. All that for a single step in dozens. The things I do for food.
Happily, not all things needed to be escalated: my suggestion of dried roses to add a floral whimsy, inspired by Iranian cuisine, was accepted at first blush. In fact, my parents plucked rose petals from our own garden (no pesticides, all organic, watch out for that ant) to slowly dry in the recently-generous sun. These made their way into both the marinade as well as the glorious recursion of rice, fried onions, and other condiments (not going to give everything away) that make up the layers of a biriyani. Traditional? We may never know, thanks to the best part of food culture being how it wonderfully changes to suit our palates, over distances and time itself. When we nervously cracked open the dough-encrusted pot for my inaugural attempt, I wondered how my grandfather felt when he made his famous biriyani: I imagined it was with a smile, happy in the faith that it would be perfect as always. Take away the squabbles over who broke the bottle of rice vinegar and if eggs should be hardboiled from a cold start or plunged directly into bubbling water, and you realize that from the simplest snack to the most complex dish, food is about true happiness and bringing people together. To my family: I hope to keep exasperating you with one-time ingredients and constant huffing when you refuse to read instructions on a pack of noodles, cooking for you is how I show my love.