Exchanging notes over Dum Biryani: Vijay Babu in conversation with Chef Saji Alex

Fiery red chili roasted prawns, stone-baked kalthappam, Kottayam style fish mappas, steaming Malabari mutton biryani, and chicken fry…a feast tantalizing enough to break your disciplined diet. Producer-director Vijay Babu who came from the sets of Midhun Manuel Thomas’s film was understandably tempted. Vijay Babu was here to sample the sumptuous banquet hosted by Chef de Cuisine Saji Alex at Kochi Marriott. They also spend some quality time together, exchanging recipes and stories.

According to Vijay Babu, if he hadn’t been in cinema, he would have been a chef. It was while assisting Chef Saji in making Meen Mappas that Vijay revealed the story— “I badly wanted to study BHM. But when I told that to my mom, she was furious— “You want to be a cook?” she smirked. That put an end to my chef dreams.”

Chef Saji says though he hasn’t faced that amount of threat, his 30-year-old journey wasn’t exactly smooth. He also had to face lot of brickbats during the beginning. “I had taken Malayalam for my graduation. It was after I finished my graduation that my uncle told me about this course. Though it requires some hard work I was told that I will get a job easily. That helped me come into a decision quickly. I still remember the tea Kadai owner who laughed at me and called me a cooker. Those were the days,” Saji recalls with a laugh.

During the course of the conversation, Chef finished the delectable Meen Mappas for Vijay. Though King Fish is usually used for this purpose, Chef experimented with Seer fish this time. Vijay keenly followed the procedure, and enthusiastically kept asking doubts and that enlivened the kitchen atmosphere.

It was while preparing roasted prawns and fish mappas that the aroma of dum biryani wafted into the kitchen, prompting Vijay to hold the conversation and give all his attention to the Biryani. In a large cauldron, beautifully marinated Mutton was simmering alongside flavourful basmati rice and the aroma was tantalizing. and the aroma was tantalizing. Now, this was the real deal—Malabar Mutton Biryani, it was enough to make any foodie go weak in their knees. And Vijay Babu was a certified foodie. It seemed fitting that he had to dig into this feast now. The table was laid out—Mappas, Biryani, Prawn roast…

Representational image | Shutterstock images

While savouring the food, Vijay fondly recalled the late Chef Naushad who taught him the fine art of cooking Biryani. “It was Naushadikka who taught me to make Biryani at Hyderabad. We were good friends. Whenever there is a function at Kochi, he would make it a point to send a cauldron of biryani home. He never added anything fancy than a handful of garam masala.” Vijay admits that it is his dream to start a budget-friendly restaurant in Kochi. “A meal for 10 or 15 bucks. That’s my dream project,” he smiles.

Before parting ways, Vijay Babu reminded the Chef—“Whenever you have prepared a delicious meal. Call me to the mountains and I will be there.”

Tips for making the perfect biryani
Before anything else, let's first understand the difference between Biryani and Pulao. Biryani rice is boiled first and then layered with meat, fried onions, stew, etc. Meat and rice are cooked separately and assembled together before dum. Biryani has white and yellow rice grains. Having said that there are various varieties of Biryani available today. Karnataka’s Donne Biryani for example is cooked like a one-pot dish but the flavour is awesome.

Rice to meat ratio: Having a general ratio of meat to rice beforehand will make sure you will never face that meatless only rice stage of biryani pot when biryani is about to be consumed completely. Sometimes, you have so much meat but everyone's asking for juicy biryani rice. For rice measurement simple rule is to take an equal quantity of meat and rice by weight i.e 1:1 ratio. That means 1 kg meat (chicken, lamb, or beef) for 1 Kg rice.

Use fresh ingredients: Onions, ginger, garlic, green chilies, cilantro, mint, and curry leaves. Allow the meat to marinate overnight in the refrigerator so that all the flavors and spices will get into the meat.

Good quality Basmati or Jeeraga Sambha rice: A good Biryani should have separate but fully cooked rice grains. We think brown rice is only good for pulao or khichri. Actually, basmati rice absorbs a lot of water. That’s why you should boil rice in spiced water as it absorbs flavor and aroma adequately. When you cook the rice: add whole cardamoms, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, cumin seeds, ghee along with the rice and water. If you don't have one or two spices like bay leaves and black cardamom, its ok. You can skip them. And use garam masala powder or chat masala or just extra green chilies. Although, some spices like black cumin and saffron really change the aroma and taste of biryani. But, if you have just a few basic spices, like cumin, turmeric, pepper and cinnamon etc you can begin Indian cooking with these.

How to check salt: If your rice lacks salt, biryani will lack flavour. To know whether the salt is enough in water for boiling rice, taste the water, it should have a soupy salt level.

Choose a thick-bottomed pot: Always use a wide and thick bottomed pot for Biryani. You can also put rice pot on griddle/tawa if your skillet has a thin base; to save rice that is at the bottom of the pot from burning. Keep the griddle/tawa under the skillet for re-heating biryani too. Always re-heat biryani on medium or low flame.

Taste enhancers: If you’re not frying the chicken or meat: cook the meat along with water, drain the stock from the cooked meat and cook the rice in the meat stock. This way, the rice will taste absolutely delicious. Also, make sure you fry those onions carefully. Thinly slice the onions, then fry, very slowly, in a few tablespoons of sunflower oil on low heat until dark golden brown. Be careful not to burn the onions—the acrid taste of burnt onions will ruin the dish.

Make the gravy earlier: You can make korma gravy of Biryani a few hours ahead or even a day ahead. In that case, the fried onions will puff up and soak water so add ¼ cup extra water or more if gravy is too dry. Korma gravy should have thick juicy gravy. It shouldn't be dry.

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