Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rice and Shine

Practically every culture has a quintessential rice dish staple to the area, one that is a complete meal in itself satiating every aspect of the palate and offering a certain sense of roundedness that perhaps few other starch-based dishes provide.

There's paella from Spain, risotto from Italy, nasi goreng  from Indonesia, bibimbaap from Korea, and jambalaya from Louisiana in the United States to name a few. But most of these are quite region specific. Perhaps the most widely consumed rice preparation in the world with maybe a few subtle variations across borders is the biriyani (pronounced be-ree-a-nee) - a dish made with rice and a kurma (mixture of meat, seafood, or vegetables cooked with spices and yogurt in a thick sauce) arranged in layers, mixed together, or sometimes even cooked together.

The exact origins of biriyani in Persia several centuries ago are shrouded in myths and masala. Perhaps the nomads dug  pits in the ground and placed covered pots with rice, meat, and spices in the morning only to find delicious aromas seeping out by evening. The dish was later brought to other parts of south Asia by travelling Iranian merchants. It found its way to Northern India via Afghanistan  and has since spread all over the country and evolved into distinct recipes in every nook and cranny. As one could expect, each region swears by the superiority of their version. But seriously, mine's pretty darn good!

When I decided to make my own version, I barred myself from even looking at other established recipes. I worked on it based on my cumulative experiences of consuming variations of the dish throughout my life.

Remember that this dish is principally about the rice. While most biriyani recipes call for the rice to be boiled and drained, mine uses the pilaf method which ensures a wonderful result of fluffy individually discernible grains once properly cooked.

I've used quail as choice of meat which is rather unusual for a biriyani and precisely why I selected it. The idea of finding a tiny whole bird tucked underneath the flavorful rice somehow seemed quite appealing especially with it being different from the norm.

Any Indian cook might find even just the splash of soy sauce in the recipe quite appalling but I feel that it adds a certain complexity or umaminess to the dish that makes up for the lack of flavor in tomatoes that you usually find in markets these days. I also wanted a certain feeling of extravagance which is where the saffron comes in.

Do note that this recipe is hardly authentic even though it fits all the guidelines for a biriyani; there are enough websites on the internet if that's what you're searching for. Mine has been tried and tested on several willing friends and family members.

A good biriyani should be fragrant with a well balanced flavor, spiced but not overtly spicy, and prepared with high quality basmati rice cooked to perfection. It is ideally served hot with a cooling yogurt-based raitha, boiled egg, pappad, and pickle.

With such a large population in Asia that consumes it and its reputation as an opulent dish fit for royalty, is it somewhat fair to say that biriyani is probably the most cherished rice dish, in this part of the world at least. And now you can make it yourself at home.

Well, what are you waiting for? 

Thoma's Quail Biriyani


4 ea whole Quails, small sized
4 T Oil, vegetable

For the Spice Marinade for the Quail:
1 T Salt
1 T Red chili powder
1 t Turmeric powder
1 t White pepper powder

For the Kurma:
2 T Oil, vegetable
1 T Butter
3 ea Red onions, thinly sliced
3 ea Green chillies, sliced
20 ea Curry leaves, fresh
2 t Ginger, chopped
2 T Garlic paste
1 T Red chili powder
1 t Turmeric powder
1 T Garam masala powder
1 t White pepper powder
2 ea Tomatoes, chopped
2 T Soy sauce
1 C Water
1 T Yogurt
1 T Vinegar
1/2 C Cilantro leaves, whole
t.t Salt

For the Fried Onions garnish:
as needed Oil for frying
6 ea  Red Onions, thinly sliced

For the Rice Pilaf:
2 T Butter
2 ea Shallots, finely chopped
3 ea Cloves
1 ea Cinnamon stick
3 ea Bay leaves
2 ea Star anise
4 C  Basmati Rice
6 C  Water
1/4 t Saffron (optiona)
1 T   Butter


1. Mix together the ingredients for the spice marinade for the quail and rub onto the bird. Leave for a few minutes at least.
2. To sear the quail, heat the oil in a saute pan large enough to hold the birds. When oil is almost smoking, gently place the quail on its one side. After two minutes, once the side is browned, turn over and repeat for the other side.
3. Turn again to color any part of the quail that hasn't been browned. Remove and keep aside.

4. To make the kurma for the biriyani, heat the oil in a pot large enough to hold about four litres of water.
5. Add the butter, onion, green chillies, and curry leaves and saute for a few minutes on high heat till the onions start to color. Make sure to stir constantly.

6. Add a few pinches of salt and the ginger, garlic, and spice powders. Continue to cook for a minute all the while stirring to avoid burning the masala.
7. Add the tomatoes and soy sauce, saute for a few minutes and add the water. Give it another stir, and cook covered with a lid for about five minutes on low to medium heat.
8. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Add water if necessary to bring the consistency to that of heavy cream.
9. Once the tomato is cooked and you start to see the oil float to the surface, add the quail and gently stir so that the masala coats the quail. Cover the pot again and cook for another 5 minutes; the quail should be cooked by now.

10. Add the curd, vinegar, cilantro leaves, and any more water if necessary, stir gently so that it is properly mixed and remove from the heat.
11. The kurma can be cooked in advance and refrigerated. When assembling the biriyani ,reheat the kurma with a splash of water in a pot or in the microwave.

12. To make the fried onion garnish, heat oil to medium and add the thinly sliced onions. Cook till dark brown , remove and drain on absorbent paper. Lightly season with salt while still hot.

13. To make the rice pilaf, melt butter in a pot, add the shallots and cook on medium heat till translucent.
14. Add the whole spices, toast for about one minute and add the rice.
15. Allow the rice to toast gently till it becomes translucent. Make sure to stir very gently without breaking the rice grains.
16. Increase the heat to high, add the water and the saffron, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook for about 15 to 17 minutes on low to medium heat.
17. When rice is cooked, remove the lid and stir in the butter with a fork. Replace the lid and allow to cool with the lid on. Remove any whole spices that are present.

18. To assemble the biriyani, take an oven proof dish, spread some of the kurma gravy on the bottom, spread a 1 inch layer of rice and then the quail pieces with the rest of the kurma. Cover again with another layer of rice.
19. Cover the dish with silver foil and bake in a 150 C preheated oven for about 20 minutes.
20. Remove from the oven, sprinkle the top with the fried onions, and serve hot.

Variations on the above recipe can be made with other poultry like chicken or duck cut into manageable sized pieces.


  1. i had the rare honour of tasting thomas quail biriyani and it was simply superb!!!! you have to eat it to really experience it!!! keep it going thoma

  2. Hi there Thomas!

    My name is Steve Walters and I recently started blogging at http://www.eatingbangkok.com, which is currently being updated with recipes, but in the next few months will be my vehicle for covering the food and restaurant scene in Bangkok Thailand.

    I am now in the process of meeting as many food bloggers as I can and I found your site http://www.thomaszacharias.com recently and was pretty impressed. I've added your site to my Foodie Blogs list here: http://www.eatingbangkok.com/foodie-blogs/ and would also like to add you to my blogroll.

    If you could add my site to your blogroll and write back to let me know it has been added (foodie [at] eatingbangkok.com) I will add you to mine as well and the exchange would be greatly appreciated!

    As you might imagine I am very excited to get moved to Bangkok and get started on covering the food scene there as I feel it is an area that isn't well covered by English speaking bloggers. I plan on adding loads of great reviews, pictures and even video and will be holding contests as well. It should be fun, entertaining and informative for everyone that visits.

    Thank you so much in advance for adding me to your blogroll and I look forward to reading your posts (I've subscribed!) and maybe even featuring some of your own posts as I do plan on a weekly roundup of Thai themed recipes and posts from other food bloggers.

    Warm regards,

    P.S. If you are on Twitter I would love to have you as a follower and I follow back: