Better Biryani
March 12, 2006 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Help me make better Indian food!

So I took my first stab at making an Indian dish last night, or at least, a dish billing itself as Indian that included Indian ingredients. I didn't make the rice part, instead opting (as one of the reviewers suggested) for some Nasi Kuning instead.

For the Biryani, I ditched the mint and had to use ground cinnamon instead of a stick (forgot the latter at the store), other than that I stuck to the recipe. Honestly, it came out great, but I feel like it could have used something... More. More bite, and I don't necessarily mean heat. I know that if I'd used ghee that probably would have added some more flavor, but I feel like what it was lacking was more of a spiciness than just butter would add.

Anyone have any suggestions on how to make this dish even better? And if you do, chances are you know something about good Indian dishes, so any suggestions on what I might want to try my hand at next?
posted by wolftrouble to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'd recommend that you try to familiarize yourself with the regional foods of India, and also become more familiar with the characteristics of dishes you like. "Indian food" comprises quite a lot of different types of food, and it's hard to give a general recommendation for all different dishes.

That said, you can always try these things:

  • Increase the amount of spices
  • Use butter (not oil) where ghee is called for
  • Use lots of fresh ginger-garlic paste
  • MSG will always make food taste better if you're stuck

    To get started with some good recipes, I like My Dhaba.

  • posted by rxrfrx at 9:39 AM on March 12, 2006

    Best answer: The single biggest cause of unsatisfactory Indian food, is the use of ground spices that have been sitting around too long in the kitchen, in the store or in transit.

    Using freshly ground and roasted whole spices makes the single biggest difference between so-so and great Indian dishes.
    posted by Neiltupper at 9:47 AM on March 12, 2006

    What Neiltupper said. A spice grinder is the single biggest thing that will make your Indian cooking sing.

    Also, do not skimp on spices that are hard to find. Lots of recipes leave them out, but things like fenugreek, cardamom, fresh coriander leaf, fresh ginger (these two are not hard to find but you have to go and get it) and tamarind all make a LOT of difference.

    Fresh chilis also make a substantial difference. Buy in bulk and freeze, then you can pull them out of the freezer when you need them.

    One of the great secrets of all kinds of cooking is that the ingredients are two-thirds of the battle.

    And ditto increasing the quantity of spices.

    Finally, add a little fresh spice (eg garam masala) right at the end of cooking or when you reheat.

    I really like Pat Chapman, Madhur Jaffrey and Ismail Merchant's cookbooks FWIW.
    posted by unSane at 9:58 AM on March 12, 2006

    By the way, I gave Metafilter my recipe for Chicken Dansak a few weeks ago.
    posted by unSane at 10:01 AM on March 12, 2006

    We often put rose water in our biryani. Some people (my other half included) put boiled eggs in too but I don't like that.

    That said, I usually find chicken biryani lacks a certain something. Even made by the most accomplished Indian restaurants or Bangladeshi mamas it can turn out a little bland. Goat or beef biryani have a bit more oomph in my opinion, but better still try a dish with a sauce next.
    posted by jamesonandwater at 10:16 AM on March 12, 2006

    It may be of some help that Cook's Illustrated's America's Test Kitchen created a excellent Chicken Biryani recipe, and unlike the main CI site's recipes, they offer the current season's recipes for free. Registration required, though. If their cookie shows you're registered the recipe is here.
    posted by mojohand at 10:23 AM on March 12, 2006

    Best answer: The single biggest cause of unsatisfactory Indian food, is the use of ground spices that have been sitting around too long in the kitchen, in the store or in transit.

    This is a definite problem. But in my experience, the biggest cause of unsatisfactory Indian food is using less butter/ghee than you find in restaurant or indian cooks' versions.

    A lot of cookbooks for the western market cut it down a bit too. Because if they didn't, we'd often say "Holy shit! I'm not doing that."

    When I got to cooking with a coworker's wife from northern India, I was aghast at how much butter went into her food. But, as she pointed out unapologetically, fat is what makes it so good (along with spices from a source you trust) and it's more satisfying to eat less delicious food than more food that's substandard.

    So let your ghee flow, use a smaller spoon to dish it out and freeze the rest if you have a small family. And take the previous advice about spices to heart.

    (I don't cook Indian any more because my wife really objects to Indian spices. So I envy you, man!)
    posted by Mayor Curley at 1:42 PM on March 12, 2006

    That's true about the ghee.
    posted by unSane at 2:28 PM on March 12, 2006

    More fat, fresher spices, and better ingredients. It's true of all food, but of Indian food in particular.
    posted by anildash at 2:35 PM on March 12, 2006

    Ghee instead of butter /oil makes a BIG difference. Ditto the many comments on spices.

    Something you might try next - Samosa (Yum!)

    BTW, If you're in anything approaching a big city, make the effort to find an indian grocery store. Not only will you find it a good spot to pick up the harder to find spices in indian cuisine (dried mango powder, for example), but you'll save a LOT of money on spices, et cetera.
    posted by gage at 4:00 PM on March 12, 2006

    I didn't make the rice part

    Uh, you need rice for it to be Briyani...briyani's a rice dish. Nasi kuning (literally: yellow rice) is a Malay dish that's basically rice coloured with tumeric.

    My mum makes the best briyani in the world, hands down. I'll ask her what her recipe is and get back to you.
    posted by divabat at 5:34 PM on March 12, 2006

    I'm told, by my Sri Lankan mother-in-law, that western onions, shallots, garlics, etc are twice as watery as Indian ones. She suggests doubling the recipe amounts, dicing them up, then microwaving them to get rid of a lot of water. Then use them as the recipe says (fry, sauté).

    I'm trying to learn from her, but my results are such a pale comparison to hers that it's depressing.
    posted by mediaddict at 6:35 PM on March 12, 2006

    Ghee takes a little time and attention to make but it is well worth it and it keeps for ever. Also since the milk solids are removed it is not the fat fest that butter is.
    posted by pointilist at 8:39 PM on March 12, 2006

    Best answer: Mum says:

    * Use garam masala - take cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, bay leaf, cumin seeds, nutmeg, and mace, dry-fry them, and then grind them together.

    * Marinate chicken in yoghurt (or powdered milk), salt, sugar, garam masala, and dry chilli/chilli powder - an hour or so (chicken should be skinless and chunky)

    * In a pot, heat ghee; when the ghee is warm, fry one cup of chopped onion for each whole chicken

    * Fry some onion, then ground ginger & garlic paste, whole cinnamon & cardamon. When they're light brown, put in chicken, then cook

    * In rice cooker, cook pilaf rice with ghee and spices, plus onion, garlic, ginger (or you can fry rice+ghee+spices+salt+sugar in a wok for 5 minutes and then put in rice cooker) For each cup of rice, put one 1/2 cup of boiling water (but if you're only making one cup of rice, put in 2 cups of water)

    * When the rice is done, mix in rice with chicken: one layer rice, one layer chicken, one layer nuts & chopped prunes, so on and so forth. Then keep for a while before serving.

    * Sprinkle some rose water for flavour. Put some saffron if you have any. (10 strands mixed with water/milk). Sprinkle also crispy fried onions or nuts.

    Serve with salad or tikka.

    Shewants me to tell you that there is a lot more involved and a lot of it is guesswork and estimation. But it should be ok. :)
    posted by divabat at 5:02 AM on March 13, 2006 [5 favorites]

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