Briyani, in Mauritius, is quite fittingly synonymous with celebration. Traditionally this dish is served at many special occasions and gatherings — weddings, engagements, religious ceremonies, having guests at home, the new year celebrations, office parties or even just for a picnic at the beach. The latter is probably one of the most typical Mauritian scenery, as I stroll down memory lane and recall the fascinating days of my childhood and teenage years. You would think that a picnic down the beach would call for light and easy meals, but for many families, spending a day at the seaside would also mean meeting relatives that they might not have seen for a while. For cause of merriment, a big pot of briyani placed on a camp fire, was the highlight of the day.
My fondest memories of this exquisite aromatic rice dish were of those that my mum used to make. Back then, it was not made vegan but like many dishes, briyani is easy enough to be made with vegetables and a vegan gravy base. In fact, a vegetable and soya version is a popular vegetarian favourite.
There exists many versions of biryani or biriyani (as it is most commonly known) and the Mauritian briyani, inherited from its partly Indian roots, has its own characteristics.
Fried potatoes are typical of the Mauritian version, along with a topping of fried onions, added at the final stage of the cooking process.
As for the gravy, the main spices and herbs consist of garlic and ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, garam masala, mint and coriander leaves (cilantro). Yoghurt is usually used as the gravy base however, my version here calls for coconut milk and tamarind paste instead. The texture of vegan yoghurt vary greatly from brand to brand and from the texture of real yoghurt; I have yet to find a brand that I like. Besides, coconut milk might be a more common ingredient available worldwide (or online) as compared to vegan yoghurt that may be of a rarer commodity in many countries. The tamarind paste that I am using is the type that you get in a block and usually available at Indian or Asian stores. Not only does tamarind add the required tang to mimic the taste of yoghurt but it also adds more dimension to the flavours. However, if you cannot find tamarind, you may use lemon juice as substitute. By the way, I previously made a post and video on how to deseed and prepare tamarind paste to use in other recipes, so you may want to check it out.
Apart from the blend of spices, what makes a briyani particularly exceptional is the rice — the best quality basmati rice is primordially a given. Typically, a portion of the rice is coloured yellow or orange which gives the briyani its distintive multicoloured aspect varying from deep orange to paler tints of yellow to pure white. Saffron threads or food colouring can be used to achieve this but, as far as the latter is concerned, I am not a big fan of artificial colourants. Saffron threads are the supreme choice to add colour, fragrance and flavour to the rice however turmeric can be a good substitute. While it may not be on a par to saffron, it does provide an equally satisfying hue, aroma and taste.
If you are new to soya chunks or otherwise known as TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein), a briyani is a great way to try it for the first time, if you are not allergic to or avoiding soy of course. But if you have tried it before and not liked it because of the chewiness, I urge you to try it again in this preparation before you decide to cross it off the pantry staples list. Very often it comes down to how these are being prepared and cooked. Every step counts in order to achieve an overall appealing texture — the gentle boiling not only rehydrates, softens and removes the raw beany taste but it also improves the texture, something that soaking alone does not do. These soya chunks softens pretty quickly so, as soon as the water comes to a boil, let them boil for a couple of minutes and then remove them from the heat and drain them. Washing them in cold water stops the cooking process immediately. Then comes the searing part until some of the moisture evaporates. Frying, with just a little oil at a relatively high temperature, firms up the texture and adds a slightly crispy coating that dissipates much of the chewiness.
Apart from potatoes, the most common vegetables that are used in the Mauritian plant-based briyani are carrots, cauliflower, green beans and green peas. The addition of okra really came to be from a request from one of our YouTube subscribers who wanted a recipe that would combine okra with rice. And hence, okra is the star ingredient in this briyani dish.
It is common tradition to cook the briyani in a special large copper or steel pot called a deg which is usually sealed, using a flour dough around the rim of the pot, to lock in all the steam. This allows for a meticulous slow cooking process that delivers one of the most exceptional dish you might ever taste. To make this at home, you can use a thick bottom pot and cook on low heat on the stove top. While some versions of briyani call for everything to be layered raw and then slow-cooked, my version here is a mixed of cooked and raw. I find that vegetables tend to get too soft if layered with completely uncooked rice. To keep the vegetables at their optimum state, I half-cook the rice and potatoes along with fully cooking the soya chunks. This considerably reduces the cooking time once everything is layered.
Quite seemingly, a briyani dish looks a little daunting to attempt. But it is neither more difficult nor time consuming than a curry. It is the spices and herbs that make the difference and the rest is basically just layering the rice to cook everything in one pot.
Watch the video for clearer and more explicit directions on the steps.
Mauritian Vegan Briyani with Okra and Soya Chunks (Textured Vegetable Protein)
Ingredients (serve 4)
17 pods [180 g or 6.3 oz] okra (ladyfingers), cut into 5-cm, 2-inch length
1 large [400 g, 14 oz] onion, sliced
3 - 4 [560 g, 20 oz] red or white potatoes, peeled and cut into 5-cm, 2-inch cubes
2 medium [200 g, 7 oz] carrots, cut into thick juliennes
3/4 cup [35 g, 1.2 oz] soya chunks (TVP or Textured Vegetable Protein)
8 - 10 bunches [80 g, 2.8 oz] fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped
5 - 6 stems [45 g, 1.6 oz] fresh mint, finely chopped
1/4 cup frozen green peas
2 cups [420 g, 14.8 oz] basmati rice
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cardamom pods
2 cups [500 ml] water
1 can [400 ml] coconut milk
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
1 tablespoon + 1/2 teaspoon cumin (ground)
1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste or minced
1 tablespoon garam masala
2 teaspoons coriander seed powder
2 green chillies (cut in half across or left whole for less heat)
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon tumeric powder
3/4 cup [185 ml] water
2 - 3 tablespoons oil
Salt to taste
More water as required to cook/soak
Add the soya chunks in a small saucepan and fill with water to cover them. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Once soya is rehydrated and soft, remove from the heat and drain all water. Rinse in some cold water and drain, then set aside. Do not over cook the soya chunks or they will become too soft and fragile.
While soya chunks are cooking, in another saucepan, you can start preparing the basmati rice. Rinse the rice a couple of times with cold water until water is almost clear. Drain all water, then fill with 2 cups of water. Add in the cardamom pods and one cinnamon stick. Place on medium heat and bring to a boil. Once water starts to boil and rise, turn off the heat and cover the pan. Leave aside as the rice absorbs all the water. (There is not enough water in here to completely cook the rice, so the rice will only be half-cooked which what we want to achieve at this stage).
While rice is cooking, prepare the vegetables and the other ingredients.
Remove the seeds from the tamarind paste (if there are any) by diluting it in a little water and smooshing the pulp between your fingers. Then strain the tamarind liquid either using a strainer or just scoop out the seeds with your fingers and squeeze them in your hand to drain out all the liquid.
Add one tablespoon of turmeric powder in the peeled and cubed potatoes. Toss and mix well until potatoes are well coated. In a large deep thick bottom pot (we will cook the briyani in the same pot), heat 1 tablespoon of oil on medium-high temperature. Add in the potatoes and stir to evenly coat with the oil. Let cook while stirring a few times until potatoes are cooked up to 75%. Remove from the pan and set aside in a bowl or plate.
Next, still on medium-high heat, add one teaspoon of oil in the same pot. Place in the pre-boiled soya chunks. Add 1/2 teaspoon of cumin powder and a tablespoon of soy sauce or tamari. Fry the soya while stirring occasionally until some of their moisture have reduced and the chunks have picked a slightly crispy coating. Remove from the pan and set aside on the same plate as the potatoes.
To make the gravy, heat one tablespoon of oil on medium-high temperature. Add one tablespoon of mixed ginger and garlic paste. Let it sizzle for about 30 seconds then add in half of the onions. Let this sweat for about 2 minutes, then add 1 tablespoon of cumin powder followed by the garam masala and the coriander seed powder. Let the spices roast for about 5 seconds then add in the coconut milk and the diluted tamarind paste. Stir and let the gravy thicken. This may take about 10 minutes depending on how thick the coconut milk is. Once the gravy is almost paste-like, add half of the chopped coriander and half of the mint. Mix and add a little water if too thick. The mixture should not be too soupy but rather thick. Add the chillies and the remaining cinnamon stick.
Turn off the heat before adding in the vegetables.
Add the potatoes and soya chunks to the gravy and mix well. Next add in the carrots and okra and mix well with the rest. Now remove half of this vegetable-gravy mixture from the pan and set aside in another bowl or plate.
Spread the remaining vegetables evenly in the pot and sprinkle with a little salt.
Fluff the half-cooked rice to separate the grains. Layer half of the rice on the vegetables in the pot. Spread the rice evenly to cover the vegetables. Add a layer of the remaining herbs, the coriander and the mint. Then top with a layer of the remaining vegetables (from the bowl). You can add a little salt and spread evenly.
Before adding in the final layer of rice, add a teaspoon of tumeric powder to the rice and carefully mix it thoroughly so that the grains are coated. They don't need to be evenly coated, in fact, it is good to have grains of various tints of orange and yellow. Now add the rice in the pot and spread evenly to cover the vegetables. Top with the green peas and 3/4 cup of water poured evenly around. Cover and start cooking on medium heat. As soon as some steam starts to form, lower the heat to a lower temperature and cook for about 12 minutes. Then turn off the heat
While the briyani is cooking, you can fry the onions for a final touch to this dish. In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil and add in the onions. Fry while stirring occasionally until onions are brown and caramelised.
Add the fried onions on top of the rice (i.e. after you have turn off the heat for the pot). Then cover and let the briyani stand for another 10 minutes before serving. Serve with a refreshing cucumber salad and assorted Indian pickles or try it with some coriander chutney.