The Magic Of My Mother And Her Chicken Biryani
My mother is a petite woman. When we walk together, people often inquire if I’m adopted. It’s hurtful, because the greatest compliments I’ve received were the few times people told me I am like her. More often than not, however, I hear the opposite.
I can see why. My mum, today 52, is dainty and slim, her skin the color of almonds. Mum is also the most restrained person I know. She speaks quietly even when she disagrees, laughs elegantly, and doesn’t indulge in excesses like an extra slice of chocolate cake or two more glasses of wine. Give mum a challenge and she’ll go out of her way to master it.
We are nothing alike in most ways.
For most of my life, chief among our differences were our respective abilities in the kitchen. Until four years ago, I couldn’t even boil an egg, while my mum has long reigned as a culinary legend among those who know her. Growing up, my friends would beg to come over to eat her linguine pesto — the latter was a novelty in the early 2000s in Singapore, long before the ubiquitous green goop in a jar became available in stores around the world.
My longstanding refusal to learn to cook was rooted in a deep misperception — the notion that cooking was for housewives. I grew up in a time and place before Jamie Oliver and Anthony Bourdain were famous, before chefs were lauded as celebrities. And the type of home cooking my mum was known for didn’t match the frou frou French cuisine that white male chefs were celebrated for.
My looking down on women who cooked came from a feminist place — or so I argued all throughout my teenage years. Women who worked at home were answerable to the oppressive patriarchy. Instead, I would attend fancy colleges and make wads of money so I could have others cook for me! An ambitious woman doesn’t enter the kitchen!
In my defiance, I ate out all throughout college, even when I had a kitchen available to me. Soon I had gained over 35 pounds and developed a pre-diabetic condition known as insulin resistance. My body was literally refusing to break down all the sugar I was consuming in excess. Upon graduation, at the age of 21, I was on daily medication. Without doing something about it, my doctor said, my condition could progress into a lifelong battle of Type 2 diabetes with daily injections.
With a lot of exercise and dieting under my mum’s firm and constant watch, I was able to bring myself back from the brink of developing the disease. I moved in and out of my mum’s home after college, and I was fully off the medication in less than a year. But I know my health pendulum can swing back any time.
Four years ago, I moved out of my mum’s home permanently. I knew it would be disastrous to my health if I kept up my rebellion against learning to cook. By that point, Rachel Ray and Ina Garten were household names. There were TV channels that ran cooking shows 24 hours a day. Men — even women — were making serious bank and getting famous for doing exactly what I had eschewed all those years ago for being “unfeminist.” Reluctantly, I picked up a chef’s knife.
The next four years went by in a flurry of debuts and disasters in the kitchen — the cod casserole that I had to chuck in the garbage en masse, but also the palak paneer I learned well enough to entertain with at home. As time went on, I grew inspired to experiment more and more. I learned why my mum kept persevering in the kitchen, even when the world looked down on women who stayed home to cook for the families. It was pure alchemy to be able to transform raw ingredients into something everyone could enjoy.
Preparing and eating a great home cooked meal, I discovered, gives me a bigger high than putting in nine hours in an office, chained to a desk. Plus, I found it to be relaxing. And all throughout my learning process, no matter the time difference between my mother in Singapore and me in the U.S., I’d call her to ask inane questions like, “Do you peel potatoes after cooking them or before?”
Finally, I knew the day had come for me to attempt mum’s masterpiece: her chicken biryani.
Chicken biryani, lovingly gifted to the Indian subcontinent by the Persians of the Mughal Empire, is a magical dish when done right. Flavorful and tender pieces of meat mingle with distinctly separate grains of spiced rice. It’s hard to find one recipe or technique cooks largely agree on — most are jealously guarded and passed on only among families.
My mum, who didn’t grow up eating it, spent many years of her adult life perfecting it by experimenting. Her chicken or lamb biryani became sacred; our friends would come from far and wide, specifically asking for it.
When I lived with her, on the day mum made her biryani, the whole house would be abuzz with activity. From the moment she would drop whole spices to sizzle in the pan of hot ghee — cardamom, cloves, whole black peppers, and more — to when she would painstakingly layer the meat and the rice, then seal the pot with dough before cooking the completed biryani, the anticipation to eat would grow with each passing hour. The trapped aroma would be unleashed around the house when it was finally time to cut through the hardened, sealed dough and serve the biryani. The whole table would go quiet. And for a good 20 minutes later, the silence around the table spoke volumes.
The day before I was attempting to make mum’s biryani, I called her to double-check quantities. It was early in the morning for her in Singapore, while I was scrambling to marinate the meat that warm Seattle afternoon.
The pressure was on; biryani cooked dum (sealed tight and slow cooked) is one of those dishes that you don’t have a clue on how it’ll turn out after you’ve spent hours making it. Both the rice and meat are supposed to be undercooked before you resign the ingredients to their fate. The moment of truth arrives when it’s time to peel off the pot’s dough and you pray that everything turned out right over the slow fire. If the rice is mushy, or the meat overcooked or under-seasoned, there’s no way to remedy the situation.
“Mum, how will I know I’ve got it right before I seal it?”
“You won’t. Just trust yourself,” she replied calmly.
Nothing fazed her anymore. My vegetarian mum had mastered the art of chicken biryani, without ever tasting it in her life.