In my humble opinion, the grandest, most special and one of the most refined Mauritian dishes is the biryani. The most famous biryanis in Mauritius are made by the Muslim community and there are caterers that only make biryani. It is a dish that is very time consuming and requires a lot of skill and as a result, is prepared for special occasions or by people who specialise in the art of making it. Indeed, a good biryani requires the use of all of the senses and producing a good one is a work of art. The aroma is distinctive and permeates the house as the biryani is cooking. It is one of the dishes that I have to have when I return.
When making a good biryani, basmati rice is transformed into a rich and delectable dish, almost a food for the gods. The rice absorbs the flavours of the other ingredients, which include saffron, cumin, mint, cinnamon and cloves among many others.
Biryani is a dish that originated in India and from my research I came to the conclusion that the Mauritian Biryani has its roots in Hyderabad, India, where many types of Biryani can be found. A large percentage of Mauritian people have Indian ancestry so it is not surprising that Biryani made its way to Mauritius.
I have tried several delicious biryanis in Mauritius and one of my aunts makes some of the best ones I have ever tried. One time when I was visiting Mauritius with my husband and daughter she made 5 varieties in one day! Knowing how much effort goes into making the dish, I was really touched by her gesture. Another good one is made by a neighbour called Ayesha. She learned to make the dish from her mother and graciously agreed to teach me when I asked her.
It is a very time consuming dish as onions, potatoes and hard boiled eggs all have to be fried separately and rice par boiled to two stages before the dish is assembled. It also uses costly ingredients like saffron but I assure you that it is worthwhile. I have prepared the dish several times for Mauritian clients here in Brisbane and they have all been very happy with it.
I only realised what a treasure that her lesson and recipe was a couple of years later on here in Brisbane. A Malaysian friend had her father visiting here and as was the custom, I invited the family for dinner.. I had a bit of trouble deciding what to make and finally decided to put in the effort to make the biryani.
The biryani turned out perfectly! I hesitantly served it to my friend’s father and after polishing off his plate he told me that he hadn’t tasted a biryani like that in 50 years. He told me that when he was a young boy back in Malaysia, some street food vendors from Hyderabad used to prepare a biryani with that exact flavour and that he hadn’t had that flavour in decades! That’s when I knew I was on to a winner and decided to get a proper biryani pot the next time I went to Mauritius. The pot is called a deg and is in the shape of an inverted cone and has a heavy copper bottom to conduct the heat properly.
It gives me a sense of pride and great pleasure to share this recipe with you. I have taken the liberty to add the step of lining the pot with sliced potatoes to prevent anything on the bottom from sticking to the pan. Don’t give in to the temptation to skip steps as they are all essential to the dish. Here in Brisbane, I use an Aged Basmati Rice, India Gate Brand as it produces the best results.
Here is the recipe, I hope you enjoy it! Please feel free to share with your family and friends.
Ingredients (serves 12)
1 kg potatoes, cut in large pieces
1.5 kg basmati rice, preferably aged
2 kg lamb, cut in large cubes
1 kg onions
100g ginger, crushed
100g garlic, crushed
1 small bunch coriander
4 green chillies
1 bunch mint leaves
3 cinnamon sticks
8-10 cardamom pods, bruised
3 -4 tablespoons cumin powder
2-3 cups plain yoghurt
12 hard boiled eggs
Salt to taste
Fresh mint or coriander leaves for garnish
1 pinch saffron strands, soaked in about 1 teaspoon warm water
Oil for frying
Rinse rice several times and allow to sit in water for at least two hours prior to cooking.
Boil rice with salt, a little cumin, 1 cinnamon stick and 2 cardamom pods for about two minutes. Remove about 1/3 of it after about one and a half minutes of cooking. Drain and set rice aside separately.
Blend about 1/3 of the onions with the ginger and garlic, slice the rest of the onions and fry until brown.
Chop mint and coriander separately and slit chillies.
Peel potatoes and cut into large pieces, fry until golden. Peel and fry eggs as well.
Combine lamb cubes with yoghurt, salt, blended onion mixture, the remaining whole spices, about half of the fried onions, coriander and mint. Stir well and add potatoes, making sure potatoes get covered by the spice mixture. Add about two tablespoons of oil.
Place lamb mixture in a large pot, smoothing it out on the top. (Some people like to line the bottom of the pot with thin slices of potato to ensure that the meat doesn’t burn).
Spread the lesser cooked portion of rice on top of the meat, trying to ensure that the top is as flat as possible. Sprinkle with half of the remaining fried onions and add the fried eggs on top. Now add the remaining rice, top with remaining fried onions and sprinkle the top with saffron strands and saffron water.
Cover tightly and cook over medium-low heat for 60-90 minutes. After about an hour, forge with a spoon into the bottom of the biryani to see whether the recipe is cooked.