Goat Biriyani: From the Petting Zoo to My Mouth

We take our kid to a zoo with a place where you can pet and feed goats, similar to the petting zoo I frequented as a lad, though with more hand sanitizer and overall fewer opportunities to catch salmonella. I have nothing against goats, though they should have something against me now, because I find them delicious. Especially in an Indian baked rice dish known as biriyani.

Goats have been a source of amusement, and a source of dairy goods, but have rarely entered my consciousness as meat you can eat. I like lamb, though, and those are far cuter. So, as I passed a stand at the farmer’s market promoting fresh goat, I wasn’t so much freaked out as I was worried it might be a tad stringy, and just unpleasant. Still, goat seems Middle Eastern and arguably thus geographically South Asian, and any opportunity to make biriyani is one I leap at with both Air Jordans.

So I spent a stupid sum of money on a 1.1-lb. hunk of frozen organic farm-raised grass-fed regularly massaged goat chuck, and I took it home to bake it in a rice and yogurt casserole that would make my imaginary Indian great-grandmother weep with pride.

Note, lest ye hate me for reminding you of the source of our actual food: The goat shown above is not the actual goat from my dinner, but rather a Dutchess County Fair prize winner from several years back who is no doubt lounging on a beach somewhere enjoying goat retirement.

The biriyani is my absolute favorite Indian dish, because it sounds so simple, a rice casserole, but there’s so damn much going on. It basically embodies all that I like about cooking, and is very hard to screw up. It’s got fried onions, almonds, raisins, peas, a spicy matrix of cilantro, garlic, ginger, green chilli, cumin, coriander, lemon and cinnamon (and usually cardamom too, though I forgot to add it this time). It’s aromatic and sweet, with a nice tang and a hearty texture. It’s a meal in and of itself, despite me liking to jam on it with some Indian bread.

My beloved Indian curry cookbook is called, not without reason, Best Ever Curry Cookbook. While I do challenge the editorial decision to include some non-Indian curries, and there are plenty of suggestions in there that would make my imaginary Indian great-grandmother curse and spit on the ground (assuming that’s what angry old Indian ladies do), I have never been steered wrong by the dishes in this book, and I can’t say that for other Indian cookbooks I own. I was sad to learn this particular book, which I think I got for a cheap-ass clearance price, is now out of print (but still available used). I obviously can’t copy what they say, but I don’t really want to. I am here to share my experience with this recipe, including the basic ingredients, with a million minor tweaks:

For the puree:
1 large onion
1-2 inches of ginger
4-5 cloves of garlic
1-2 Indian green chillies with seeds and white “pith” removed (jalapeños will work if you are stuck)
2 large handfuls of cilantro with the longest leafless parts of the stems pulled off

For the fried stuff:
1 large onion, cut in half then into thin half rings
2-3 Tbs. sliced almonds
1/4 to 1/2 cup of golden raisins
1/4 cup frozen green peas

For the flavor:
1 Tbs. cumin
1 Tbs. coriander (that is, ground coriander seed, not fresh coriander aka cilantro)
1 Tbs. salt
1/2 Tbs. ground black pepper
1/2 Tbs. garam masala (though if you want a more cinnamony thing happening, ease back on the GM and add straight cinnamon, freshly ground is always more potente)
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. Indian chilli powder (not to be confused with Mexican chili powder; more if you like it hot, less, or skip all together, if you don’t)
2-3 cardamom pods, opened for the seeds (some people include cardamom pods in the dish whole, but if you do, take them out before somebody eats one, for the love of God)
1 cup of plain yogurt
Juice of 1 lemon

For the rice:
1 1/2 cups basmati rice
4-5 cups of stock (chicken works, but I used a combo of goose stock and beef stock–don’t ask–and it was fine, just don’t be freaky and use fish stock, cuz that would taste nasty… unless you were making shrimp, clam and scallop biriyani, you friggin’ genius, but let’s talk about that another time)

And of course:
A 50/50 combination of butter and olive oil, as needed

The execution isn’t hard, but it does take a number of steps, most of which you can do inside a single enamelware Dutch oven.

1. Puree a paste of onion, garlic, cilantro and green chilli. Make it smooth, and make it strong. Go heavier on cilantro than you think. Since you’re cooking the crap out of it, even people who hate cilantro will be like, “Hey, where does that exotic-yet-familiar verdant tanginess come from?” Seriously, they will say those exact words if you use enough cilantro.

2. Fry the onions and that means putting them in your olive oil and butter combo and cooking them on high for a while, like 15 minutes. I think it’s smart, for temperature management, to add a little at a time, but get them all in there in the first 3 minutes, then try not to watch them too closely. When it comes to onions, the Gentleman from Tel Aviv once made me understand, burny = good. Fry the shit out of them, then pull them out, and throw in your almonds, raisins and peas. Fry them for a little while, so that the raisins puff up and the olives get a little dusky, but get them out quick, because almonds do burn, and charred raisins are not as good as you might think (you weirdo).

3. Chop up the goat meat (if you’re using goat–for this you can use any red meat, so stew-grade lamb or beef are fine). Brown the crap out of your meat in a combination of butter and oil. Seriously, don’t throw it all in there at once and watch a bunch of gray liquid bubble up. Add pieces one at a time, an inch apart at first, get them really brown on all sides, adding more as the heat rises, and pulling out the done bits as you go.

4. When all the meat is browned and removed from the Dutch oven, reduce the heat a bit, add a little more butter and oil as needed, and pour in your puree, cooking it until it browns just a little. Add all of the spices I listed, then turn down the heat and whisk in the yogurt, a little at a time, till it’s all in there and it’s nice and creamy. Add the lemon juice. Throw the meat back in, mix it all together, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, and cover it, checking it every so often for the next 45 minutes, mainly to make sure the shit isn’t burning and sticking to the bottom.

5. At some point, soak the rice in water for like 20 minutes, then drain it. In a pot, bring the stock to a boil, and add the drained rice, maintaining a gentle boil as you cook it with the lid on for 5 minutes. I was surprised that the cookbook mentioned this, and I kept peeking under the lid to make sure a boil-over wasn’t imminent, but I can tell you it put the rice in a very favorable disposition for the biriyani. If there’s one thing you can royally fuck up in a biriyani, it’s rice–I have made super tasty versions with chalky underdone rice before, so I know the dangers here.

6. While you’re working on the rice, preheat oven to 325. When the rice is boiled, drain it. Again, kinda weird thing to do when cooking rice, but trust me, if you soaked it then boiled it, you’re good on liquid content. Pour it over the goat meat simmering in yogurt (uh, yeah, that’d be totally non-kosher, in case you were wondering), and top the whole deal with your fried goodies. “Dot” the top with butter, then cover it again with a heavy lid. (Some people say put foil over the food then cover, in case you don’t trust your Dutch oven’s lid.) Throw it in the oven for 40 minutes and you are home free. Seriously, whatever happens, just pat yourself on the back now, cuz the worst is over.

7. When your timer goes off after 40 minutes, yank that casserole out of the oven, grab your biggest bowl, spoon every bit of it gently into that bowl, and again gently toss all the ingredients until they achieve a harmonious brown texture, flecked by maybe tiny bits of green, and a shiny golden raisin here and there, now cooked and fit to burst.

8. The cookbook I know and love said to use chapatis, but when I made chapatis (pre-rolled discs of dough that you fry on an omelet pan) and admitted on Twitter to eating my goat biriyani with chapatis, I received this admonition from a friend and colleague who’s from Delhi (hint, read from bottom to top):

So when you make goat biriyani, eat it with raita or nothing at all, lest you risk suffering such mortifying public humiliation.

So, how was it?

Honestly, I know I often come out of these situations with plenty of “gonna do this better next time” type of notes, but not this time. It was damn fine. In fact, Jenny doesn’t want to deal with a lot of mysterious textures, and certainly doesn’t want to deal with mystery meat, but she ate plenty of it, two days in a row, and even said she enjoyed the goat meat. I was afraid it would be sinewy–it sure was when I was cutting it up–but the nearly two hours of cooking seemed to have broken down all the nasty bits, while spreading the delightful flavor–more mild than lamb, as a matter of fact–throughout the dish.

Oh one last thing: Always make more than you can eat on Day 1, because like most Indian food, this stuff is 2X as good the day after.

BONUS POP QUIZ: Name the sources of the following goat-related pop-culture references I didn’t use in this post:

1. “Totes McGoats”
2. “That goat has devil eyes!”
3. “Son of a motherless goat.”
4. “Go fuck a goat!”
5. “An evil petting zoo?”

Scroll down for answers…

1. I Love You, Man
2. “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet” – SNL
3. The Three Amigos
4. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
5. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery


6 responses to “Goat Biriyani: From the Petting Zoo to My Mouth

  1. Gentleman from Tel Aviv

    Don’t mean to pry, but after the meal, your bellies full of goat meat, did you get into the hot tub? But seriously, this looks good enough to eat! Please keep the goat dishes (and quotes) coming!

  2. Gentleman from Tel Aviv

    So to elaborate on my previous comment, this is a seriously important piece for several seriously important reasons:
    1) It involves no green vegetables
    2) The vegetables that are there are so well cooked that even their mothers wouldn’t recognize them
    3) It involves meat
    a. goat
    4) It mentions me
    5) It highlights your need for international culinary advisors (ICAs) to call you on your occasional gastronomic blunders, enrich what are already very rich (in ideas and calories) texts, and spread your fame across the globe

    Good work, amigo!

  3. Brilliant – very nicely done… and you’re dead on right about some of the subtle but super important things (like heavy, heavy on the corriander; onions burnt = good; etc.)

    I’m emailing you a recipe that’s very different route to something similar… tell me how you like it!

  4. Biriyani, according to me, if done well is one of the hardest Indian dishes to prepare. I have made it several times and still have not been able to master it.
    Sounds like you did a brilliant job and I’m going to add your recipe in my collection, because its so detailed and precise.

    Tip 1 – I usually marinate my goat or chicken in yogurt overnight before cooking ( it makes it really tender).
    Tip 2- As a garnish put crispy fried onions on top, they taste yummm.

    Overall great job, you make me proud.

    • Thanks Pooja! I will keep your tips in mind when I try out Saurabh’s mom’s biriyani recipe–the one I’ve been waiting for for like 5 years!

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