My brother from Canada and sister from Chennai were there and us siblings were bonding after a long time. When siblings bond, memories of the past sprung forth like a reminder of the best times with loved ones.
It was on this journey that we discovered a small house on the outskirts of Puducherry, which was serving exclusive home cooked food. It was not a typical restaurant but the home of a retired Air Force officer, who had a great passion for our heritage food. Along with his talented wife Nirmala, he opened the doors of their home to people who enjoyed food. It was here that we got to taste the very flavourful palak biryani. The dish was so good that it left us asking for more and after our gluttony was satiated, we decided to rest near the sea before heading further.
Spinach or palak is said to have originated in ancient Persia. This later made its way to India in the 8th century when the king of Nepal sent it as a gift to this country. Spinach was known as “the Spanish vegetable” and became popular in many countries like India.
It was during Raja Raja Cholan’s time that all green leafy vegetables found a place on the royal dining table. It is mentioned in some pieces of literature that before any battle, greens were served to their soldiers as it was said to have miraculous properties for increasing resistance against diseases and ensured they remained healthy.
The Chola dynasty began declining by the 13th century and ended in 1279. By then, greens that included palak was a routine part of the cuisine. Palak biryani was first introduced in Hyderabad by the Nizam’s khansama who came from Persia. Since biryani was growing in popularity in their kingdom and every guest who ate there took back the recipe of palak biryani, it got introduced to the rest of South India too.
It spread to the villages first where it was grown on most farms and consumed with lentils or in the form a curry and made its entry into the urban setting thanks to the cartoon Popeye, where the protagonist who is a sailor, can be seen eating a can of spinach before defeating the “bad guys.”
Pacha Pachai Palak Keerai Biryani
Prep Time: 20 Mins.
Cooking Time: 35 Mins.
Serves: 5—6 Pax.
Calories Per Serve: 340Cl Per Serve.
Basmati rice: 3 cups
Garlic paste: 1/4 cup
Ghee: 1/2 cup
Cinnamon stick: 2
Black cardamom: 2
Bay leaf: 2
Red chilli powder: 1 tsp
Powdered turmeric: 1 tsp
Fennel seeds: 1 tsp
Asafoetida: A pinch
Mint leaves: 1/4 cup
Coconut milk: 2 cups
Poppy seeds: 1/4 cup
Cashew nut/almond paste: 1/4 cup
Grated coconut: 1/4 cup
Coconut oil: 1 tbsp
Ginger paste: 1 tsp
Water as required
Salt as required
Green cardamom: 5
Garlic cloves: 6
Mace: 1/4 tsp
Garam masala powder: 1 tsp
Cumin powder: 1 tsp
Coriander powder: 1 tsp
Palak keerai: 1 bunch
Methi keerai: 1 bunch
Coriander leaves: 1/2 cup
Red chillies: 3
Kewra essence: 1/2 tsp
Jaggery: 1 tsp
- Soak rice for 15 minutes.
- Soak khus khus, cashew nut and almonds in milk. Soak each separately.
- Wash and cook rice in cardamom water in an open vessel till it’s 3/4th cooked. Make sure the grains of rice are separate from each other.
- Spread the rice on a tray and keep it to cool.
- Clean all the greens — palak, methi, coriander and mint and keep aside.
- Chop each bundle of greens finely.
- Now, in a blender, add the chopped spinach leaves along with mint and coriander leaves. Add coconut oil and blend it to a smooth paste.
- Next grind the coconut, chillies and khus khus to a smooth paste.
- Now grind the soaked cashew nut and almonds (without skin).
- Heat ghee in a large pan over medium flame.
- Once hot, add ginger and garlic paste along with cinnamon sticks, green and black cardamoms, cloves, bay leaves and mace.
- Now add red chilli powder, garam masala, turmeric powder, cumin powder and coriander powder. Sauté it by continuously stirring the ingredients in the pan.
- Next, add in the same pan the coconut and khus khus paste.
- Sauté well; once done add the cashew nut and almond paste. Sauté.
- Now add the paste of the greens and sauté.
- Add 3/4th of the coconut milk and sauté till masalas get cooked and gravy thickens.
- Add salt and the pinch of asafoetida.
- Now add the rice and rest of the coconut milk.
- Add the jaggery powdered and kewra essence. Jaggery is added to offset the slight bitterness of methi leaves.
- Add the ghee and seal the vessel with an airtight lid.
- Cook on low flame, after placing the pan/vessel on a tava.
- After 15 minutes, open and see if the biryani is cooked properly.
- Serve biryani with vendaikai/ ladies finger raita.
- Green leafy vegetables must be fresh or the biryani will not be flavourful or tasty
- Use a tava while dum cooking, to avoid the biryani getting burnt at the bottom
- Any greens can be added, as long s they complement each other
— Chef Ramaa Shanker is the author of Festive Offerings to the Gods: Divine Soul Recipes