Dum Briyani in The Prairies

Read about Thiviyan’s recount to discovering a different kind of Kung Pao chicken while studying in small town Camrose, Canada. Quickly realising that cooking his favourite Asian dishes is better, Thiviyan recreates his version of Chicken Dum Briyani and Sugee cookies – a Deepavali favourite – make sure you give it a try!

26 October 2019 / By Thiviyan Nathan

“Could I get the Kung Pao chicken, please?”

I asked the waitress with a big grin on my face, at the Chinese restaurant close to my university. I was eagerly waiting to finally taste something that was close to home. However, I was left disappointed−the waitress arrived with a plate of stir-fried chicken pieces that were stripped of colour. These pieces were also topped with chopped celery (WHY?) and cashew nuts. I asked, in awe, “Is this Kung Pao chicken?” The waitress nodded her head, confidently.

I have had Kung Pao chicken in Singapore several times and just at a glance, I could tell that that certainly was not it. That was reaffirmed when I took a bite, which left my taste buds very sad. I wanted to return it or replace it with another dish, but I was not allowed to. Yup, that was my first experience eating Kung Pao chicken in Canada. I never patronized that restaurant ever again, but fortunately I found other Asian restaurants in the vicinity that were decent.

I pursued my undergraduate degree in the University of Alberta, Augustana campus, which was situated in the small town of Camrose, an hour away from Edmonton. I lived in the dorms for the first semester and visited the cafeteria for most of my meals. These meals were good, but I was missing the foods that I grew up with, a lot.

I made the decision to live off-campus so that I could have my own kitchen to cook all my favourite dishes. The first local dish that I learned to cook was chicken rice. Us Singaporeans would choose chicken rice over any dish, wouldn’t we? Well, most of us, at least. At that point of time, I was living with the family of an American Professor, who used to teach at the University that I was going to. I would cook for us at least thrice a week, and share the cost of groceries too. It was a great way to introduce Singaporean flavours to them. I also enjoyed having my friends over for weekend brunches and dinners.

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What I missed most while I was in Canada was celebrating Deepavali – the Festival of Lights with my family and friends. There were only a handful of Indian students in my university, but we would still come together to put up a small celebration. There would be dancing, presentations and lots of Indian food. Even the cafeteria would attempt to serve Indian dishes like “Butter Chicken” for the occasion.

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As for me, I would whip up Dum Briyani – a one-pot dish of aromatic spices and delightful flavours, layered with Basmati rice and curried meat; the result of slow cooking the ingredients in a sealed, heavy-bottomed vessel for hours, even overnight. I would serve it up on a Paella pan, topped with boiled eggs, with yoghurt Raita on the side and – the last one is a must – Pappadums!

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My mum’s Sugee cookies and Murukkus are also always a hit during this festive season. Murukkus can be tedious to make as each individual piece has to be meticulously piped out through a mould, and then deep fried. Instead, I have managed to replicate my mum’s Sugee cookies – shortbread-like delights made with luscious Ghee (clarified butter), powdered sugar, semolina and flour.

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Here’s my version of Dum Briyani and my mum’s Sugee cookies:

Chicken Dum Briyani:

Ingredients:

¾ kg (750g) Chicken pieces, bone-in

For marinating chicken: 3 tablespoons plain yoghurt ground masala paste (see below) 1 bunch mint leaves, chopped ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder

For masala paste: (Grind until smooth) 10 green chillis 2-inch chopped ginger 8 garlic cloves 1 cinnamon stick 2 pods cardamom 3 cloves 1 teaspoon water

For rice: 4 cups (740g) basmati rice 2 cups coconut milk 4 cups water

For spice blend: 8 cups water 2 cinnamon sticks 3 pods cardamom 4 cloves 2 star anise 1 bay leaf

For gravy: 5-6 tablespoons ghee 2 bay leaves 3 large onions, sliced 3 large tomatoes, chopped 1 teaspoon red chilli powder ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder

For garnish: ¼ bunch coriander leaves, chopped 20 cashew nuts, fried

Method:

  1. Marinate chicken pieces with yoghurt and ground masala paste, chopped mint leaves and 1/4 tsp turmeric powder. For best results, marinate overnight.
  2. Mix 2 cups of coconut milk with 4 cups of water.
  3. Soak basmati rice in coconut milk and water mixture for half an hour. Drain and set aside 1 cup of the liquid mixture for later.
  4. Bring 8 cups of water to boil in a pot, along with the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, star anise and bay leaf to the boiling water. Add the drained rice and boil for 3-5 minutes until the rice is only partially cooked. Stir occasionally. Drain the liquid and set the pre-cooked rice aside.
  5. Heat ghee in a heavy bottom pan with lid, add bay leaves and onions. Sauté onions till they are caramelized.
  6. Next, add the marinated chicken along with the masala paste & mint leaves to the sautéed onions and fry until the chicken turns pale.
  7. Add the chopped tomatoes, yoghurt, red chilli powder and rest of the turmeric powder to the pan.
  8. Sauté well until tomatoes are cooked, add a few tablespoons of water to the pan, stir well.
  9. When light gravy is formed, reduce heat, cover pan with a tight lid and leave chicken to cook in gravy for 10 mins.
  10. Add 1 cup of the coconut milk and water mixture that was previously set aside. Mix well.
  11. Turn the heat to high and bring the briyani gravy to boil.
  12. When the gravy starts boiling, add the partially cooked basmati rice to the pan and stir well. You could also divide the chicken gravy mixture and the rice into two, and layer them in an alternate manner, before putting on the lid.
  13. When about half of the water has been absorbed by the rice, reduce heat to low, cover pan with a tight lid and cook briyani rice for 30-40 minutes until tender.
  14. Finally, give the chicken briyani a good last stir (be careful not to break the rice) before garnishing with coriander leaves, fried cashew nuts and even fried onions, if you want to. Serve hot with onion raita and boiled eggs.

Sugee Cookies:

Ingredients:

250g ghee

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

500g plain flour

3 tablespoons semolina, toasted

2 teaspoons bicarbonate soda

170g icing/powdered sugar

¾ teaspoon fine salt

¼ teaspoon cardamom powder, optional

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius
  2. Melt ghee over low heat and cool.
  3. Add vanilla extract to cooled ghee.
  4. Sift flour, bicarbonate soda, icing sugar, semolina, salt and cardamom powder into a mixing bowl.
  5. Make a well in the flour mixture. Slowly, pour in the ghee mixture and knead well to form a firm dough.
  6. Roll dough into melt-in-your-mouth ball sizes, space them out on a greased sheet (lined with baking paper) and press down slightly.
  7. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes till cooked but not brown. The cookies should be white and crumbly in texture.