Of beggars and dishes fit for a king!


“Wow, what an exciting life! Lucky bug – he doesn’t thave to write a Physics exam tomorrow…and NO ONE tells him what to do!”

“Can you imagine – he never has to have an oil bath unless he wants to?!” 

“He can sleep where he wants, when he wants”.

“No homework!”

The subject of all these envious comments is nonchalently building a small fire over a few sticks and sets a pot of water on it. Once it starts boiling, he adds in a few scraps of carrot, beans, eggplant, a handful of rice and throws in some salt. There’s a bunch of half a dozen small children clustered around this scene – common enough when we were growing up. The object of our envy was a beggar – cooking his evening meal with the scraps he’d gathered – in a corner of the maidan in which we were playing. Being rather small, it didn’t cross our minds that it was anything but an enviable life.

The food he cooked was also exotic – everything in one pot – open air, under the tamarind tree! Now, this tamarind tree was a source of many superstitions in our lives. If you went to sleep under one, the ghosts were sure to get you in the night;  if you yawned under one, a ghost would fly down your gullet and give your tummy a very uncomfortable time indeed – till it tore your belly open and came out…..urrrr….horror! As our dinner time neared, the beggar’s food would begin to smell more and more delicious – and all the small fry would scurry home – another superstition – “if you smell something delicious in the evening, ignore it or the ghost will catch you”!

I always think that beggar’s food – a medley of everything – must have been the rudiments of the first biryani. The history of the biryani is a bit confused but there is some agreement that it originated with the army in medieval India. Armies, unable to cook elaborate meals, would make a one-pot dish where they cooked meat with whatever meat and vegetables and spices were available. And maybe, that is why the beggar’s meal smelt so delicious to us!

Here’s a biryani that will make you reel – promise! 


Please note the marinade section requires 4 hrs – so start that before everything. This serves eight good trenchermen or 10 picky eaters!

·         2 large onions, finely sliced, deep fry on medium.heat till brown and crisp. Set aside.

·         A handful of cashewnuts, almonds, raisins – fry in 2 table spoons of ghee, drain & set aside.

·         1 cup of mint leaves & half cup of fresh coriander – wash, chop & set aside.

·         2 large tomatoes – slice finely & set aside.      


·         3 cups of  Basmati rice – wash & soak in 5 1/2 cups of water with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Set aside

Vegetables for marinading:

·         Peel and cut 1/2 kg potato into 1inch cubes.

·         1 1/2 cups of beans & carrot (cut into 1 inch long pieces ).

·         1  cup peas

·         1 cup bell pepper (green )

Marinade in:

·         750 gms of yogurt

·         3  whole  star anise

·         3 inch-long pieces of cinnamon

·         6 cloves

·         2 green cardamom

·         2 black cardamoms

·         3 dried plums (alubukhara)

·         1/2 tea spoons grated nutmeg

·         2 inch long pieces of ginger ground with 10 pods of garlic

·         1 teaspoon red chili powder, jeera powder, whole jeera.

Marinade for 4 hrs.

Soak 1 large pinch of saffron in 2 tablespoon of warm milk. Set aside.

To start the cooking:

·         1 tbsp shahijeera

·         3 green chilies

·         1 cup finely sliced onions

·         3 tbsp olive oil

·         3 tbsp ghee

Now in a large saucepan with lid, heat 3 tablespoon of olive oil and 3 tablespoon of ghee. Add  shahijeera,  green chillies and sliced onions. Fry till brown – lower heat. Add marinade & vegetables and approximately 2 teaspoon of salt . Cook on low heat (45 mins) till marinade is thick & vegetables are tender.

In the meantime cook the rice in the water it was soaked adding 1.5 teaspoons salt.

When the rice is just done, take  off the heat. To one half of the cooked rice, add the saffron milk and stir gently with fork. To the other half, add either kewda essence or biryani essence if available. Otherwise ditch.


To assemble:

1 layer of saffron rice

1 layer of vegetable gravy

sprinkle reserved fried onions, sliced tomatoes, mint & coriander,  fried nuts & raisins.

Add 1 layer of white rice and continue the layering till done, finishing with a layer of fried onions & coriander & nuts on the top. Garnish with whole boiled eggs – if you like them.

 This is a dish fit for a king – even a beggar king!

 (pic courtesy internet)