There are hundreds of varieties of biryani and the dum pukht biryani is the method of cooking the dish in a sealed vessel or spherical pot made from clay or steel known as a handi. A clay saucer is often used as the lid and placed on the top of the pot or vessel. The lid is sealed with a paste or a homemade putty dough created from kneading together chapati flour (atta) and water. That is the only purpose of the dough and nothing else. Although the dough seal is edible, traditionally, it wouldn’t be eaten. If there is no lid then that is also made by rolling out some dough and placing the lid on top of the mouth of the pot or the cooking vessel.
The sealed vessel is then placed on hot charcoals or a hob until the rice is completely cooked. The heat creates the steam, condenses and rolls down the curved walls. Dum means warm breath denoting the steam and the pukht means choking the steam and preventing it from escaping.
FOR THE SPICE BLEND – GARAM MASALA
1 piece cassia bark or cinnamon, 5cm/2.5in length
6 bay leaves
6-8 green cardamom pods
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
22-24 cashew nuts, roasted
600g boneless and skinless chicken breasts or stewing lamb, cut into bite-size chunks
2-3 green finger chillies, finely chopped
3 tbsp natural unsweetened yogurt
6 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp peeled and finely grated root ginger
1 tbsp lemon juice
7 tbsp sunflower or groundnut oil
½ tsp salt
3 medium onions, finely sliced
400g or 2 cups white Basmati rice, or any other long-grain rice
500g wholemeal chapati flour, plus extra for dusting
4 tbsp full-fat or semi-skimmed milk
a generous pinch of saffron strands (about 1 strands)
2 black cardamoms (optional)
1 tbsp butter or ghee, melted
a few mint leaves, washed and chopped
TO MAKE THE SPICE BLEND (Garam Masala)
Heat a dry skillet or frying pan over a medium low heat until you can feel the heat rising. Add the cinnamon stick or cassia bark, bay leaves, and green cardamoms and roast for 30 seconds, shaking the pan.
Add the cloves, cumin and coriander seeds and black peppercorns and continue roasting, shaking the pan, for about 1 minute longer, or until you can smell the aroma of the spices. Watch carefully so they do not burn. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately tip in the spices onto a plate and let cool completely.
Transfer the spices to a spice mill and blend until finely ground. Store the mixture in an airtight container, away from sunlight, up to 4-6 months.
Put the frying pan back on the heat and add the cashew nuts. Toast for about 5 minutes until lightly browned. Set aside.
Marinate the meat
Place the meat in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the spice blend (garam masala), green chillies, yogurt, garlic, ginger, lemon juice, 1 tbsp of the oil and the salt. Mix all the ingredients together until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for half an hour.
Meanwhile, heat 3 tbsp of the oil in a heavy based pan, and fry the onions for 5-7 minutes or until crisp and golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside.
PARTIALLY COOK THE RICE
Rinse the rice thoroughly in cold running water and place in a pan with 1 litre or 4 cups of just boiled water. Cover and boil for 8-10 minutes or until the rice is half to three quarters cooked. The grains should be soft on the outside but still hard in the centre.
Place the chapati flour in a bowl and add approximately 200ml of tepid water. Stir until the mixture forms a soft dough. If the dough is dry and does not come together, add 1-2 tablespoons of water. Knead the dough by clenching your hand into a fist, then wet your knuckles and press them repeatedly into the dough, pressing against the side of the bowl, until a soft smooth dough forms. This should take about 10 minutes.
Warm the milk and place the saffron strands in the milk and set aside. The flavours will begin to diffuse.
If you’re cooking the biryani in a casserole dish that is not hob proof or cannot be placed onto direct heat, preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.
Heat the remaining oil in a heavy-based pan and add the black cardamoms, if using. Fry for 30 seconds until you can smell the aromas.
COOK THE MEAT
Tip in the marinated meat and fry for 15 minutes until well browned. Stir in half of the fried onions. Mix well.
Take half of the dough and roll it out on a floured surface until it forms a long sausage about 2.5 to 3cm thick and long enough to go around the circumference or rim of the vessel in which you are cooking the biryani.
Grease the base of the large heavy-based casserole or pot which has a lid with the butter or ghee.
ASSEMBLE THE BIRYANI
Spoon half the meat mixture into the vessel followed by half of the parboiled rice. With a spoon, pack the rice firmly into the casserole or vessel. Spread over half of the quantity of of the cashew nuts. Sprinkle over half of the saffron milk and half of the remaining fried onions. Repeat the process ending with a layer of the rice, the remaining cashew nuts, saffron milk, leftover fried onions and mint leaves.
The top should be the layer of rice.
SEALING THE POT
Then take the sausage shaped dough and place on top of the edge of the rim of the vessel. Take one end of the sausage shape and feed around the rim of the vessel, pressing firmly as you go around to create a circular, spongy and squashed seal. Make sure the rim is completely covered with the dough.
Flour the surface again and roll out the remaining dough until it’s large enough to cover the entire mouth or opening of the vessel. It should be about 3 to 5mm thick.
Carefully place on top of the mouth of the vessel and loosely cut around the pot leaving a 2-3cm lip of dough all around. Just like you would when making a pie covering.
Press the dough cover firmly around the circumference of the vessel squeezing and pinching the dough into the dough seal.
If the vessel is hob proof, place it directly onto a hob on a low heat for 20-25 minutes.
If the vessel is oven proof, place it in the centre of the oven for 20-25 minutes.
For both methods, the dough will begin to change colour and the ‘pie lid’ will begin to rise because of the trapped steam within.
Turn off the hob or remove from the oven. Carefully, cut out half way around the circumference of the pie lid. Watch out for the steam that will be emitted as you break the seal of dough.
Then with a pair of tongs, prize open the lid.
Spoon the biryani onto a plate and place the raita on the side of the plate or in a small vessel. Serve hot.
The biryani can be stored in the fridge covered overnight and reheated once.