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More often than not the largest wedding banquets are the Boubhats (traditionally feast prepared by the bou, that is the bride). According to Bengali wedding customs, three days after her marriage, the birde goes back to live with her parents for a short while. The idea was to allow the bride a temporary relief from the 'shock' she supposedly got at her in-laws', trying to adjust to a new, unfamiliar set-up.

On the eve of her departure, she is required, by convention, to cook for her in-laws, friends and neighbours. As such banquets turned into huge events, it soon became impractical for the new bride to cook for all the guests. She is now therefore required to symbolically launch the cooking by touching the haandi with a khunti.

The cooking is then taken up by professional cooks and caterers. And most banquets call for kachchi biryani -- a Mughal dish, the first mouthful of which will make you feel as if you were in the gourmet heavens of Persia. This dish tastes great, precisely because the embellishments have been kept simple. The given menu is meant for a group of 20, since exceeding this number will require you to use special utensils.

Menu: Kachchi biryani, Shami kebab, Jorda


Kachchi biryani: Rice and Mutton
This is an all-in-one dish to be cooked only by the dum pookth (steam) method and to be served on special occasions like weddings. The spices and condiments used in kachchi biryani primarily contribute to its flavour. The three main ingredients are goat meat, potatoes and basmati rice.

Cooking this dish is tough - you need to be meticulous in measuring time and heat to avoid overcooking the rice or undercooking the meat. The ustad (chef) must also be zealous to ensure that the rice retains its delicate flavour. The fine balance required is achieved only through extensive practice and a long apprenticeship. As for the cooking, it is done simply on three stacks of bricks lit by lakri (firewood). Traditionally, kachchi is served with a yoghurt drink called borhani, and followed by either firni (khir birinj) or jorda (zard birinj).

According to ancient Vedic edicts, cooked foods are to be classified into two groups. Those cooked in water, such as bhat, dal or ruti is kaccha (raw) food, and that cooked in ghee is pucca (cooked) food.

Milk is pucca as it comes out warm from the udders. Ghee is the purest of the pure. It comes primarily from hallowed milk, clarified or made untainted.

Foods that were first purified by cooking in ghee are considered pucca. It is also important for such classification to note at what stage of cooking ghee is introduced. In payesh (rice pudding), rice is not roasted in ghee but cooked in milk. The ghee is added at a later stage, which makes it a kaccha food. The rice in a pulao is roasted first in ghee and therefore the item is elevated to the pucca (or pakki) category. These Vedic concepts, along with many other local beliefs, were adopted in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar and inculcated in Mughal culinary culture. It is from this concept that certain biryanis are considered as kaccha or kachchi in Urdu.

The following is a basic kachchi recipe, which was collected from migrant Awadhi baburchis (cooks). Note that the potato was adopted during their transitional stay in Kolkata.

2 tbsp cumin seeds, 15 + 15 cloves; 10 cardamoms, de-poded; 10 + 10 cinnamon sticks, 2.5cm-long; 3 tbsp caraway seeds; 3 tbsp cubeb pepper; 1 tsp nutmeg, grated; 1 tbsp mace, pounded; 1 tbsp black pepper, freshly ground; 1 tbsp red chilli powder; 6 + 6 + 4 + 4 tsp salt; 6 tbsp garlic paste; 3 tbsp ginger paste; 2 tbsp sonth (dry ginger); 4 cups yoghurt; 3 tbsp lemon juice; 7½kg goat meat (with bones), cut into 100g pieces each; 2½kg Basmati rice; cold water + 8 litres water; pinch of saffron; 1 cup milk; 10 drops edible yellow colour; 5 drops edible red colour; 2 cups rose water; 2 cups soya oil; 5 tbsp sugar; 1kg potato, peeled; 4 cups ghee; 8 cups sliced onions; 15 cardamom pods, gently cracked; 2 cups all-purpose flour

In a hamam-dista (metal mortar), pound cumin, 15 cloves, 10 de-poded cardamoms, 10 cinnamon sticks, caraway, cubeb, nutmeg, mace and black pepper. Blend to make a fine powder and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add red chilli powder, 6 teaspoons salt, garlic paste, ginger paste, sonth (dry ginger), yoghurt and lemon juice. Mix well and work to get a smooth paste.

In a mixing bowl, apply this paste to coat all over the pieces. Marinate meat for 4 hours. Spread the rice on a clean flat surface or a kula, pick out and discard any grits, dark or discoloured grains. Wash the rice in a fine sieve or colander. Set under warm running water, until the draining water runs clear.

Place the rice in a large bowl, add 6 teaspoons salt and enough cold water to cover it by about 2.5cm (1 inch) and soak for 2 hours. In a small glass bowl, soak the saffron in luke-warm milk and let it stand covered until required. In a separate glass bowl, mix yellow colour, red colour and rose water. Let it stand covered until required. Heat oil in a korai (wok), add sugar and cook until it caramelises.

Add potatoes and sauté until their coat acquires the caramel colour. Strain out and keep potatoes aside. Discard oil. Heat ghee in a large deghchi (heavy pot), lob in the sliced onions and saute until they turn golden. Using a latticed spoon strain out the baresta (fried onions) and set aside. Reserve the ghee also.

In a separate stainless steel pot, bring 8 litres of fresh water to a boil over high flame. Drain the rice. In a slow, thin stream so that the water does not stop boiling, pour rice and sprinkle 4 teaspoons salt. Stir once or twice, then boil briskly, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Occasionally pick a few rice grains with a spoon and chew to see if they have softened.

When the rice is half-crunchy, half-soft, take pot off the flame and tip out the water through a fine kitchen strainer. Lightly rake the rice with a large fork, to remove all moisture, and keep the grains separated. Divide the rice into three portions.

Colour the first portion of rice with yellow-red colour concoction mentioned above, and set aside. Combine the reserved ghee with the second portion or rice, and set aside.

Keep the remaining rice untouched and white. Cover the bottom of a haandi (heavy pot) with a 30cm (12") base with the sautéed potatoes. Sprinkle 4 teaspoons salt. Pile up the yellow-red coloured rice loosely on top of the potatoes. Take half the quantity of meat and arrange the pieces on top of the rice. Scatter half the baresta on top of the meat. Now cover the meat with the ghee-mixed rice and add one more layer using the remaining meat.

Scatter cracked cardamom, 15 cloves and 10 cinnamon sticks over the meat and cover the entire surface with the remaining baresta. Finally, loosely cover the second layer of meat with the remaining white rice. Sprinkle the saffron infused milk over the white rice to create irregular patches of saffron colouring. Make soft dough using 2 cups plain flour and enough water. Roll out the dough into a long thin strip. Place the dough-strip on the rim of the pot, covering the whole circumference.

Rest the lid on the dough-strip, and press down to attach firmly. Place the pot over a high flame, for about 5 minutes. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3 (low). Take the pot off the flame and place in a preheated oven for 50 minutes. (As cooking time varies from oven to oven, please experiment with the timing to find out the golden mean that does not leave the rice overcooked and the meat undercooked).

Switch off the oven and wait for about 10 minutes before taking out the deghchi. Insert the handle end of a khunti (metal spatula), right through the centre of the food, until it reaches the bottom of the pot. Gently pull it out, and check if the end is well coated with fat. If there is no fat coating the spatula handle, cover the pot again and cook over a very low flame for 10 more minutes. At this stage a slight splattering sound of the fat which will have formed at the bottom of the pot will be heard.

To serve, open the lid, take a ceramic dinner plate, and cut vertically into the biryani. Push the plate down, until it touches the bottom of the pot. With one deft scoop take out a plateful of biryani, this scooped up portion will contain all the 6 layers of potato, yellow-red rice, meat (first layer), ghee-rice, meat (second layer) and saffron-rice. Slide the biryani on to a serving rice dish in such a manner that all the layers are discernible.

Note: An ustad chef supported by a bank of assistants takes around 15 to 18 hours to cook biryani at a leisurely pace. The recipe requires a fair amount of time management, so follow the steps in the order outlined above and you will not require more than 1 hour of preparation time and 2 hours of cooking. Rightly and carefully made, the dish is an epicurean's ecstasy.

Shami kebab (Soft Chevon Patties)
As Lewellyn-Jones explains in Engaging Scoundrels, shami kebab was supposedly created because the Nawab of Lucknow, Asaf-ud-Daulah, did not have teeth. Shammis were made of mincemeat repeatedly pounded till transformed into a paste.

When purchasing mincemeat, it is not always possible to know which meat cuts have been used to produce the mince. Ideally, purchase the cut of your choice and grind it at home. However, the meat should not be ground meat, which deteriorates in quality rather quickly. Before the meat is ground, the gristle and tendons should be removed.

If you have an electric meat grinder, cut the meat into cubes before placing it into the food-processor. Pulse on and off rather than allowing it to operate continuously. This prevents the meat cubes from becoming over-processed. The meat should be stirred in between pulses to provide an even grind.

For best results grind the meat until the larger chunks are broken down into pieces that are no smaller than 0.5cm.

If you want to do it manually, use a sharp cleaver to chop meat into cubes. Then hack into smaller pieces until the meat has the desired consistency. Hand chopping will provide more firm mincemeat than any other method.

(Serves 20)
2kg kima (mince meat); 200g booter dal (split chickpeas); 10 cups water; 20 garlic cloves; 10 onions; 20 green chilies, chopped; 5 teaspoons salt; 1 tbsp cubeb powder; 1 tbsp black cumin powder; 1 tbsp mace powder; 1 tbsp nutmeg power; 1 tbsp peppercorn, roughly crushed; 10 eggs, whisked; 10 cups yoghurt, whisked; 1 cup raisin; 1 cup pudina (mint) leaves.

In a deghchi (heavy metal pot), combine mincemeat, dal, water, garlic, onion, green chillies and salt. Put pot on a medium flame and bring contents to a boil. Lower the flame, cover with a lid, and cook until dal is soft.

Uncover and evaporate any water left behind. Transfer this to a meat grinder. Grind meat along with all the spices and dal into as fine a paste as possible. Add cubeb, black cumin, mace, nutmeg and pepper. Blend thoroughly and grind again.

Transfer meat-dal-mosla paste into a mixing bowl. Fold in the eggs. Next blend in yoghurt, enough to get a moist and pliable mixture; you may not need to use the entire amount. Knead thoroughly, turning the paste into a moist mixture.

Wet your palms; take a tbspful mixture and roll continuously between your palms to make balls with a 3cm diameter (size of a golf ball). Flatten the ball between your palms and put 2 raisings and 4 pudina (mint) leaves in the centre. Draw up edges to form a ball around the elements inside. Press firmly between palms to flatten the balls into discs. Leave the centre of the discs slightly raised. Heat oil in a korai (wok). Gently slide in the discs. Shallow-fry for 3 minutes on the first side. Using a latticed spoon gently flip the discs over and cook for a further 2 minitues.

Sweet pulao
Jorda, a sweet rice dish, also known as sweet pulao, derives its name from the Persian Zard-Birinj, a popular sweet dish to compliment Kachchi biryani.

Start a few hours ahead of time by preparing the rice. Pick out any dark or discoloured grains and grits, and then wash in a colander until the water runs clear. Place the rice in a large bowl. Add salt and enough cold water to cover by 3cm. Soak the rice for about 2 hours, and drain before cooking.

Sprinkle 2 teaspoons sugar over the grated pineapple, mix well and spread on a stainless steel sieve to macerate. Bring 3½ cups water to a boil over a high flame. Stirring constantly, pour the rice in a slow thin stream. Do not allow water to stop boiling. Turn the flame down to very low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Stir, adding 4 cups sugar, butter and saffron mixture. Continue stirring until sugar dissolves, butter melts and the rice is bright yellow to colour.

Toss in silvered almonds, 1 tbsp pistachios, orange zest and pineapple. Cook stirring frequently for 30 minutes or longer until the mixture can hold its shape almost solidly on a spoon. Sprinkle rose water and ladle the mixture a large serving bowl. Garnish with 3 tbsp pistachios and whole almonds.

Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until jorda is chilled and firm. Serve directly form the bowl.

Photo courtesy : Prito Reza



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