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The biryani has its origins in Persia, now Iran, and was brought to India by the Mughals in the sixteenth century. The etymology of the name for the dish comes from the Persian word, بریان (biryan), which means “fried.” Apparently, chefs in Safavid Iran used to fry rice in clarified butter and add meat – marinated overnight in spices – to it. However, there is some evidence that a similar dish existed even before the Safavids – one rumour has the infamous Tarmashirin Khan bring it to India from Kazakhstan by way of Afghanistan, the spices of India being added to the Kazakh palaw. Another story of a similar preparation comes from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu – ஊன் சோறு (Oon Sooru) is mentioned in Porunar Aatrupadai as a dish made of rice, ghee, meat, and a few spices. Like the Kazakh version, the dish appears to be a simple pilaf which gained spices and complexity as the years went by.

Regardless of origins, the basic template of the biryani has spread to the Middle East, South Asia, and even Southeast Asia, and as one would expect, many versions have evolved, depending upon local agriculture and palate. In India, the southern city of Hyderabad is famous for its interpretation of this centuries-old dish (I say this only partly in fear of my Hyderabadi friends 🙂 ). There are many versions of biryani in India, varying in ingredients and style of cooking, but this recipe will stick to the famous Hyderabadi style, or what I am led to believe is the Hyderabadi style!

While Indian cuisine has taken the world by storm in the last decade or so, it has not lost its “exotic” label yet and many people look askance at it and are worried about its spicy reputation. There is no reason to be wary of a lamb biryani, but like most biryanis, it could be slightly on the spicier side for the Anglo-Saxon palate. However, Indian cuisine also has its checks and balances, and spice should not be the reason one backs away from a lamb biryani!

lamb biryaniThe lamb biryani is a complete meal in and of itself, very much like the Korean Bibimbap, the Anglo-Indian Kedgeree, popular as a breakfast dish in Victorian England, or the Jambalaya in Louisiana, US. The biryani is commonly believed to be a northern dish, but this is highly unlikely – even if it were brought in by the Mughals from Persia, it spread to South India with or slightly ahead of Islamic invasions into the southern part of the subcontinent. The predominance of rice in South Indian cuisine and wheat in North Indian kitchens suggests that even if the biryani came from outside, it was perfected to its current form in the South. So anyway…on to the yumminess!


  • Lamb – 1 kg (shoulder or leg), cut into 1½-inch cubes
  • Rice – 3 cups, basmati
  • Onions – 4 large, sliced finely
  • Tomatoes – 4 large, peeled and pureed
  • Lamb stock – 1 litre (chicken stock will do too)
  • Yogurt – ½ cup
  • Milk – 200 ml
  • Ghee – 2 tablespoons
  • Ginger – 2 inches, grated
  • Garlic – 6 cloves
  • Green chilli – 3, finely shopped
  • Cardamom – 5-6 pods
  • Cinnamon – 2 sticks
  • Cloves – 5-6
  • Saffron – 1 teaspoon
  • Coriander powder – 2 teaspoons
  • Cumin powder – 2 teaspoons
  • Turmeric powder – ½ teaspoon
  • Red chilli powder – 1 teaspoon
  • Garam masala – 1 teaspoon
  • [Optional] Cashew nuts – 10 – 15
  • [Optional] Raisins – 25 – 30
  • Salt to taste

Preparation time: 4½ hours (including marination)

Cooking time: 1 hour

Serves: 4-6


  • Marinate the lamb in the yogurt with ginger, garlic, green chillis, and half the tomatoes and half the saffron overnight; if you have planned this badly and cannot do so, marinate for at least four hours
  • Soak the other half of the saffron in warm milk and keep aside; also wash and drain the rice a couple of times and allow it to soak in salted water for about half an hour
  • Heat the butter in a pan and add the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and cumin; add the onions and fry until a rich golden brown
  • Add the other half of the tomatoes (not used for the marinade) to the mix and add the cumin and coriander powders
  • Separately, cook the rice in the broth for about 5 minutes on high flame
  • Add half of the onion-tomato-spice mix to the rice and cook for another five minutes on medium flame. Add the red chilli powder, garam masala, and turmeric powder
  • To the other half of the onion-tomato-spice mix, add the marinated lamb and cook for about five minutes on medium flame
  • Add the lamb mixture  to the rice and stir thoroughly; cook for about five minutes or until the lamb is almost cooked
  • Preheat the oven to about 200° C; in a casserole dish, lay out the lamb and rice mixture evenly. Try and keep the lamb away from the bottom of the dish. Evenly sprinkle the saffron milk over the rice and lamb. Sprinkle a very tiny amount of ghee onto the rice as well
  • Cover the dish with aluminium foil and insert it into the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes

Garnish with coriander leaves if desired; the dish is sometimes decorated with a few cashew nuts and raisins embedded lightly in the rice too. Serve alongside raita or curds, particularly for those with a sensitive palate.