By mid-December, I feel deeply vexed by the commercialism that threatens to swallow up Christmas. To cope, I meditate on places that are deeply meaningful to me: my parent’s kitchen, a friend’s comfy couch, a peaceful aisle at the public library. I also ponder places beyond my reach. High on that list is my grandma Amachi’s prayer room.
Counting all the family trips we took to India and the one time she visited the states, I spent a year with Amachi at most. She was a boxy woman with soft, doughy cheeks. When anyone leaned in for a kiss, she gently inhaled as if trying to breath in their essence. Like other women of her generation, Amachi fastened her hair in bun and wore a white chatta and mundu which seemed to glow when she moved about her kitchen and other dimly-lit spaces.
Since Amachi never learned English and I spoke Malayalum like a toddler (‘patti’ (dog), ‘poocha’ (cat), ‘kozhi’ (chicken)) our communication rarely involved words. We pantomimed. We nodded. We laughed. We frowned.
During our trips, I came to know Amachi best by observing her gentle, rhythmic ways in the kitchen and watching her undetected in the prayer room. By mid-afternoon, she began boiling water for tiffin. Around 4 p.m., she covered a section of the expansive table she had used to nourish 14 children with perfectly steamed plantains, unda rolled from avalose podi, and hot, milky tea. Even now, when I eat a ripe plantain I think of the safety of her kitchen
Amachi’s prayer room was the size of a walk-in closet. It had a Syrian Christian cross (with curly ends) and a large statute of Mother Mary with the Christ child, arms open wide. On occasion, I walked by it at night, having misplaced a book or a hairbrush. In shadowy light, produced by the bouncing of candles, I would see Amachi’s outline: head bowed, hands clasps, lips moving in prayer.
Mom's Chicken Biriyani
Serves 6 to 8
Biriyani is a richly-flavored Muslim dish commonly prepared with lamb or mutton in Kerala. We always serve it at Christmas (swapping in chicken) and for other meaningful occasions. The ingredient list is admittedly long, but friends that’s what it takes to eat like a Mughal Empress.
½ cup butter
10 cardamom pods
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
2 onions, finely chopped
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons coriander
1 tablespoon fennel
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
8 cardamom pods
3 teaspoons canola oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2½ teaspoon minced ginger
1 medium jalapeno, cut in half lengthwise
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
¾ cup chopped tomatoes
1 pound chicken, preferably bone-in
3 tablespoons yogurt
1/3 cup water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup thinly sliced onions
¼ cup roughly chopped cashew nuts
3 tablespoons raisons
Soak rice in water for 30 minutes. Rinse until water becomes clear. Drain.
Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat. Add cardamom pods, cloves, and cinnamon. Cook for 1 minute.
Stir in onions and cook until they just begin to caramelize, about 10 minutes.
Add rice and stir to coat it with butter. Cook, stirring frequently, until rice granules separate and begin to look opaque.
Add water, lemon juice, salt, and saffron, pinching it to release its essential oils. Stir. Bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to low. Cover and cook until rice is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Do not stir rice while it is cooking.
Blend coriander, fennel, turmeric, cardamom pods, and cloves in a spice grinder.
Place onions, garlic, ginger, jalapeno, cinnamon, tomatoes, chicken, yogurt, water, salt, lemon juice, and ground spices in in medium-sized stockpot or a Dutch oven. Stir together.
Cover and cook on medium-low heat until chicken flakes when pulled with a fork, about 20 to 25 minutes. If there is more than 1/3 cup of gravy, remove chicken and reduce it to 1/3 cup.
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat.
When it melts, add onions and cook until they begin to caramelize. Transfer to a bowl.
Melt the remaining tablespoon butter and add cashews and raisons. Cook until cashews turn golden, stirring frequently.
You’re almost there (!):
Place a layer of rice in a large casserole dish (or one medium-sized casserole dish and a small casserole dish). Remove cardamom pods, cloves, and cinnamon stick.
Top with a layer of chicken.
Add another layer of rice, removing the rest of the cardamom pods and cloves.
Add another layer of chicken.
Top with cashews, raisons, and onions.
Bake at 400 degrees for an hour.
Serve with cucumber tomato salad and lentil wafers.