"This is the real Hyderabad biryani, the real thing. No one else in KL does it, not like this, steamed, the way it should be done," the gentleman below told me. It wasn't a sales pitch. I don't know my biryani from a hole in the ground (he didn't know that, of course) -- and anyway, we'd already eaten a plate of his product.
Last Sunday found Dave and I at the small Deepvali fair behind KL's Sentral train station. We'd dropped by to pick up some more Almond Joy-like chocolate and coconut barfi at Jesal Sweethouse but decided to stay for lunch and sample the dishes and snacks on offer as well. Quite a few tasty treats are being dished up here, but the belle of this ball by far is the Hyderabad biryani.
Biryani is fragrant rice served with meat or fish or vegetables that are cooked separately; Hyderabad biryani combines the two in the same pot. Hyderabad biryani is an example of dum, the Indian method of pot-roasting food. Protein or vegetables are cut into large pieces and sauteed with spices in a large, heavy pan with lots of fat, usually ghee (that must be why it tastes so good!). Parboiled rice is spooned over protein or veggies and left, once the pot is covered (traditionally, lid was sealed to pot with a strip of dough), to steam in the aromatic vapors that rise from the other ingredients as they are cooked slowly over a low heat.
The result is quite spectacular. I couldn't put it any better than Julie Sahni does in her Classic Indian Cooking (1980): The dum process makes ..."the meat melt-in-your-mouth-tender." During the slow, low cooking process "...meat, chicken, rice, and so on begin to relax in the vapor-filled pot. The juices in the meat and chicken begin to settle, thus making them plump and moist. The starch in the rice forms a permanent bond that enables the grains to expand without breaking or cracking."
Our Sentral biryani vendor offers chicken, mutton, and veggie Hyderabad biryani. We ordered the chicken, and were presented with a plate of rice of beautiful golden hues, several large pieces of bone-in breast, a generous dribble of green chile curry, and a bit of zesty red onion and coriander raita.
The photo, unfortunately, cannot do justice to the chicken (at 3 o'clock), but I would not be exaggerating if I said this might well be the most moist, tender piece of white-meat bird I've ever eaten in my life. The rice, glistening with fat, each grain distint, tasted of a riot of spices (cardamom, cinammon, cloves, black mustard seeds, and most likely some that I wasn't able to identify) combined with pure chicken essence. Raita cut through the richness with a sharp sour note, and the green chile curry was chile-flavorful, but not spicy enough to burn.
After observing our swoons (and probably overhearing our audible moans) as we ate his biryani, the vendor sent over to our table a few pieces of his "special" yogurt chicken, gratis.
Another astonishingly moist and tender white-meat chicken tour-de-force. For this dish, the chicken is sauteed and cooked almost through before being coated in a yogurt, chili, and spice mixture. The yogurt adheres, but stays "wet" and retains a bit of its tang, enough to counter the heavy dose of chili. Served topped with crispy, caramel-y fried red onions, this chicken is right up there with the biryani on my list of memorable bites.
Much as we wanted to, there was just no way to make room to sample either the mutton or the vegetable biryani. If I'm unable to make it back to Sentral to do so before the Deepvali fair finishes on November 1, there is some consolation: the vendor and his wife, working the fair for the third year in a row, assure me that they will be back in 2006.
Even if (in my opinion) the Hyderabad biryani is the hands-down winner here, there are still a couple of other items at the fair worth trying. Aneka Rrasa (The Caterer) -- that's a quote from the stall's sign -- offers lemon rice and a variety of dishes to go with it.
We ordered carrot poriyal, sweet and sour brinjal (eggplant), cabbage perattal, and fried chicken.
The lemon rice, studded with mustard seeds and fried dhal and topped with fried fresh curry leaves, surprised me with it's very distinct -- lemonyness. I've never encountered this dish on an Indian menu before and I have no idea of the origin; lemon is not something that usually comes to mind when I think "Indian food". The slightly smoky eggplant, left in pleasingly large chunks and not overly sweet; soft cabbage seasoned heavily with turmeric and crunchy with fried cashews; and fragrant shredded carrot were all delightful. The chicken's dry coating of chili and other spices had a slight tang (tamarind?).
At the stall next to The Caterer's, thosai and chapati were being made to order. Our thosa, right off the griddle, was something like an airy, puffy, crispy, super-thin pancake with a delicious filling of potato, sweet corn, and onion masala. On the side, a spicy fresh "sauce" of coriander, garlic, and green chilies.
If I had to do it over again? Mutton and chicken Hyderabad biryani, a couple of veggie dishes from Aneka Rrasa to accompany, and maybe -- maybe -- a thosa or chapati for dessert .... if I was in particularly gluttonous mode.
Deepvali Fair, behind Sentral Station (in the arcade on the pathway to the monorail). To November 1.