Dish of the Day: Sabrina Ghayour's lamb biryani

Melissa York
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Picture: Liz & Max Haarala Hamilton

PERSIAN food is much lighter than people expect and it’s the least spiced food in the Middle East. It uses an abundance of fresh herbs, lemons, tomatoes and molasses and we tend to eat a lot of lamb, chicken and fish. It’s a really good place to start if you don’t have Middle Eastern food very often or you don’t like spicy dishes. It’s very simple but packed full of flavour.
Biryani has its roots in Persian cooking but I still meet a lot of Londoners who think it’s an Indian curry. Everyone loves it and it’s so easy to make. You can also make lots of it and it’ll keep in the fridge for two or three days.
At my supper club, Sabrina’s Kitchen, I make five dishes and there are three bowls of each dish so you can eat your body weight in food. That’s how we eat in the Middle East. We don’t really have puddings because we fill up. I put the Greek, Turkish, and Jewish cultures in there, too, when I say you share eight to 15 dishes and then you have no room for dessert apart from maybe a piece of fruit, some tea and a mouthful of baklava.
Both of my parents are Iranian and I was born in Iran but I moved over here when I was two-years-old. As lucky as we are in London to have so much diversity of culture and cuisines, I still think there are some that don’t work that well in a restaurant. There are around 40 Persian restaurants in London but they’re not very well known. That might be because Persian food is very homely. It’s like going for a Sunday roast, it’s just done better at home.
I used to work in the City on Lombard Street, then I did corporate events opposite Coq d’Argent. You tend to get into a mundane routine when you work in the City, you’ll eat a chicken salad for lunch and then you’ll come home, it’s late, and you just want to make something quick. Persian food is good for that because it’s quite straight forward to cook.
I began to write recipes down when I started doing my supper clubs and my cookery lessons. So by the time I got my book deal, I already had 60 per cent of it written. I also have a family that demands new food all the time. I like leftovers, but they don’t so I find that I’m always creating new dishes.
I never think of what other people like to eat, I think of what I like to eat and that has always stood me in good stead. I am really touched by how much people seem to like Persiana. It’s gone to number two on the Amazon book chart so it shows that people are ready to try something different. Nigella Lawson tweeted that she was counting down the days until my book was out and I was like, “What? I’m counting down the days until your book is out.” It’s just crazy and I still can’t believe it.
Persiana is on sale now for £25, published by Mitchell Beazley
Lamb Biryani
  • 250ml vegetable oil
  • 6 large onions
  • 800g boneless lamb neck fillets, cut into 2.5cm chunks
  • 1 tbsp green cardamom pods
  • 6 black cardamom pods
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2tsp tumeric
  • 2tbsp cumin seeds
  • 4 cinnamon sticks, each 7cm long
  • 200g greek yoghurt
  • sea salt
  • 600g basmati rice
  • 2 generous pinches of saffron threads (optional)
  • 2 tbsp boiling water
  • 125g butter

  • Pre-heat a large saucepan over a medium-high heat and pour in 250ml vegetable oil.
  • Chop four of the onions in half, then thinly slice into 5mm thick half moons. Fry the onion slices in the oil, stirring every few minutes, until they are golden brown and crispy. Using a slotted spoon, drain on to a plate lined with kitchen paper and set aside.
  • Pour out the oil, leaving behind just enough to coat the base of the pan. Roughly dice the remaining two onions and fry them over a medium-high heat until translucent.
  • Add the diced lamb and sear it until it begins to brown. Put in the green and black cardamom pods, bay leaves, turmeric, cumin seeds and cinnamon sticks, and mix well.
  • Pour in just enough boiling water to barely cover the meat, reduce the heat to medium and cook the lamb for about 1½ hours until just tender. Leave to cool.
  • Once cooled, add the yogurt to the lamb, and season generously with sea salt.
  • Preheat a large saucepan over a medium-high heat. Fill the pan with boiling water and add the rice with a generous handful of crumbled sea salt. Boil for 6-8 minutes until the rice is parboiled. You will know it is parboiled when the colour of the grains turns from the normal dullish white to a more brilliant white and the grains become slightly elongated and begin to soften.
  • Drain the rice and rinse it immediately under cold running water for a couple of minutes to wash off the excess starch until it is cool. Line the bottom of the saucepan used to parboil the rice with some non-stick baking paper and set aside.
  • Grind the saffron (if using) with a pestle and mortar, then pour over 2 tbsp of boiling water and leave to infuse.
  • Back to the rice: return the paper-lined saucepan to the hob and pour in a generous drizzle of oil with a couple of good knobs of the butter. Add 1 tbsp crushed sea salt. Scatter in just enough rice to cover the base of the pan with a good layer. Drizzle a little of the saffron water (if using) over this layer of rice.
  • Take the yogurt-marinated pre-cooked lamb and divide it into two portions. Layer one portion over the rice, then cover with a thin layer of rice, sprinkle over some more saffron water (if using), then add a generous layer of crispy onions and dot more butter on top. Repeat the layers until the rice, lamb, crispy onions and butter are used up.
  • Wrap the pan lid in a tea towel, cover the pan and cook the rice on the lowest temperature possible if using gas, or low-medium heat if using electric, for 30-45 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. When ready to serve, either flip the rice on to a serving dish or decant on to a serving platter, then scrape out the crispy tahdig from the base of the pan and serve it on top of the rice.

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