Note: This is the third of seven recipe installments, which compose a classic Northern Indian Feast. Fine Indian cuisine is not noted for its brevity. The good news is that each of Achla Karnani’s recipes may be made well in advance, then reheated prior to serving. Or divide the recipes amongst your friends, staging your own Indian Feast pot luck. All spices and dry ingredients are available at Indian grocery stores, Bombay Grocers on Packard in Ann Arbor.
Alesia, Achla and Adrian picking out cardamon seeds from pods.
“Cooking for me is therapeutic, says Achla Karnani. “Even after a full work day, I take the time to cook, then sit down with my family.”
Achla, a single mother of two boys, works as an attorney at a downtown Ann Arbor law firm.
“There are so many unfinished projects in my day,” she continues. “But dinner is a project I can start and finish within the hour, then be done. The meal creates a bond, which my sons and I enjoy.”
And, oh, what meals she serves, many of which she learned from her mother.
Norma savoring the perfume of fresh ground spices.
“I’m of Punjabi ancestry, but my father worked for the government so I lived all over India. My mom used to get a British magazine called ‘Woman and Home.’ She baked cakes without an oven — I still don’t know how she did it. She came to Ann Arbor every semester during my legal exams to take care of the kids. I couldn’t have made it through law school without her. She’ s my kids’ court of appeals — kept me in check when I got too tough — the boys loved that.”
Pound spices, extracting seeds when necessary, before grinding them.
Achla’s been a good friend for years. She’s a fantastic cook, and I’ve often begged her for her recipes. Her perennial response: “I’d give them to you if I had them, but I don’t follow a recipe. They’re all in my head.”
After insistent pestering from me, she devised a plan. She invited me and other of her friends over for a cooking class, which was followed by an “Indian Feast.” She said I was welcome to record the class. For five, breathless hours I chased them about the kitchen with my camera and notebook.
Chop, then mince the onion, with a processor, if desired.
The recipe below, Chicken Biryani, was the centerpiece of the meal. Before I go further, Chicken Biryani is not a dish Achla makes for her sons after work; it’s too involved. But it is a dish that may be made up to 48 hours in advance, then reheated and served at a celebration or when entertaining a crowd.
Within the first five minutes of her tutelage, I cracked an important secret behind the complexity of those layers of flavor in her food. Literally cracked, by way of a mallet. You see, there are no short-cuts if you wish to have the ultimate eating experience.
“You can use pre-ground spices, but the burst of flavor you’ll get from the fresh pounded is worth the trouble,” says Achla. She guided us as we pounded open the cardamon pods, picked out the seeds, then smashed them and the cinnamon sticks together with a mallet. We then used a spice grinder to grind them to a powder.
Alesia whacks the bone-in chicken with a cleaver.
Biryani is similar to Iranian layered rice and meat dishes (polo), and is associated with the Moghuls. Achla told us that about one-thousand years ago, the Moghul culture (based in Iran and Afghanistan) invaded India. By the early 16th century, they had conquered much of northern India, and with the conquest came their culinary traditions. Biryanis may also be vegetarian, and meat or fish is often substituted for chicken.
Cooking is a celebration for Achla, weaving the customs of her ancestral Punjabi roots into her family’s life today. When a person shares a intimacy of themselves via recipes learned from proceeding generations, it’s a rare opportunity to dive into a world, perhaps never experienced first-hand. And such a world is India, pulsing with vivid colors, aromas and soulful cuisine.
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