I first met Jafar “Jeff” Siddiqui 16 years ago when I first came to the U.S. Jeff and his wife Kathy were my brother’s host parents. Every year, FIUTS, an organization at the University of Washington, plays matchmaker, pairing newly arrived foreign students with American families who are willing to host them for a week and help them transition to a new culture and country.
Just as they did with my brother, Jeff and his family graciously took me under their wing, and we’ve become lifelong friends.
My first few thanksgivings and Christmases were spent with the Siddiquis and we’d go over for other occasions, both special and casual. I devoured my first plate of roast turkey smothered with gravy and cranberry sauce at theirs, and I was introduced to Kathy’s chili and cornbread one lunchtime. And every so often Jeff would cook up dishes hailing from his native Pakistan. “This is NOT Indian cuisine!” Jeff would declare, not realizing I had spied a cookbook on the kitchen counter with the word ‘Indian’ emblazoned somewhere on its front cover. I knew better than to open my mouth so I’d stifle a giggle, roll my eyeballs, and continue eating my plate of chicken curry, dhal or whatever sumptuous spiced dish was on the table.
I’ve met the extended family from both sides–mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins–and I’ve watched their kids grow up. The oldest, Heather, is now a beautiful young woman of 17 and Arman is 13 and already taller than his dad.
So when I started working on my cookbook, I naturally asked the Siddiquis if the had any recipes to share. The kids were unanimous: Amma’s Rice, the name for their grandma’s chicken biryani.
Jeff’s mother, “Munni” Khursheed Ashraf, never recorded the recipe so all her children and grandchildren were left with were fleeting taste memories on their palates.
Last summer, Jeff’s sisters Fazi (who lives in Holland) and Samia (who lives in Seattle’s eastside suburb, Bellevue) recreated it in Samia’s kitchen, with Arman supervising of course.
Arman cooking in my kitchen
And lucky me, I got to cook Amma’s Rice twice: once with Arman and another time with Samia. Arman came with a recipe his Aunt Fazi dictated over the phone the night before (and a veiled warning from his dad not to disgrace the family); whereas at Samia’s, we cooked based on the recipe notes she took when her sister visited.
Clockwise from bottom left: Lou (Samia’s husband), Samia, Jeff, Arman and Lena (Samia and Lou’s daughter)
Although both versions had almost identical ingredients, there were subtle differences. I was fascinated that the same recipe could be interpreted in different ways by siblings.
Here’s what I observed based on my cooking sessions with Arman and Samia, and Jeff’s interjections:
-Fazi likes her biryani with lots and lots of butter–her recipe uses about 2-1/2 sticks of butter!
-Samia uses ghee instead of butter and likes to add a tad more spices–more peppercorns please! Samia prefers lamb in her biryani too.
-Jeff likes to cook his rice with more water: a ratio of 1 rice to 2 water, instead of Samia’s 1 to 1-1/2. He also likes more salt!!
– Both sisters use breast meat in their recipes but Jeff swears by tender, juicy dark meat.
My conclusion? This would make for a fun, non-scientific experiment among siblings. Pick a favorite recipe you remember your grandma or mom cooking and see how each of you interprets it. Drop me a comment with your results!
“Amma” means mother and this dish is named for “Munni” Khursheed Ashraf, the late matriarch of the Ashraf/Siddiqui family. The recipe was never written down so her grandson Arman set out to recreate the recipe with his aunts Fazi and Samia one afternoon. Generally, chicken biryani is a sumptuous Pakistani/Indian dish often reserved for special occasions such as weddings, parties, or holidays like Ramadan. Samia remembers it as her mum’s go-to dish when expecting company. The preparation is rather lengthy but all the work is definitely worth it! Basmati rice with its thin, fine grains is the ideal variety to use. If unavailable, long grain rice is the next best thing; short grains result in mushy rice.
Time: 2-1/2 hours
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
3 cups basmati rice
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon ghee
2 medium onions, sliced thinly (about 4 to 5 cups)
1 head garlic, peeled and minced*
3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced*
10 to 12 black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
Seeds from 8 to 10 cardamom pods
3 (3-inch long) cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
2 teaspoons (or more to taste) plus pinch salt
2 pounds boneless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 breasts)
1/2 cup yogurt, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
4-1/2 cups cold water
Raita (recipe to follow)
Wash rice in 2 to 3 changes of water. Soak until required.
Place saffron threads in a small bowl and pour in boiling water. Soak until required.
In a (6-quart) wide-mouthed pot or Dutch oven, melt 1/2 cup ghee over medium heat. Fry onions until soft and translucent, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add ginger and garlic and fry for 30 seconds. Toss in whole spices and stir well. Add ground spices and 2 teaspoons salt, and stir for another 30 to 45 seconds.
When onions have turned yellowish, add chicken and mix well to coat. Cook and stir until chicken is no longer pink, about 8 minutes.
Stir in 1/4 cup yogurt and mix well. Cook, covered, over low heat for about 30 minutes, or until water evaporates and oil starts to separate.
Turn off heat and leave pot on stove, covered.
Drain rice well. Heat oil in a (4-quart) pot. Fry rice over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Add 4-1/2 cups water, 1 tablespoon ghee and pinch of salt. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer, covered, over low heat for 20 minutes. When rice kernels separate, rice is done. Set aside, covered.
Uncover chicken and spread pieces evenly in pot. Smooth 1/4 cup yogurt evenly over chicken. Layer cooked rice over chicken and yogurt as evenly as possible, smoothing down any clumps.
Drizzle saffron liquid, including threads, over rice. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes.
Spoon chicken and rice into a large bowl with a low rim and mix thoroughly. Pick out cinnamon sticks and serve with raita and (store-bought) chutney.
Soak raisins in water for 10 minutes until they’re plump, and dry with a paper towel. Fry with a little butter and scatter over rice.
*You can mince both the garlic and ginger at the same time in a food processor.
Ghee is butter that has been slowly melted so that the milk solids and golden liquid have been separated and yields a more authentic taste. Use butter if you can’t find ghee.
Samia recommends buying free range, organic chicken breasts because they have not been injected with water like many conventional brands you find at supermarkets. And you don’t want a watery biryani.
2 cups yogurt
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
In a small bowl, mix everything together with a fork until yogurt is smooth and there are no lumps.