The Singapore night was steamy, the air sweet with flower perfume. It had been an hour since I'd left the well-lit Raffles Hotel to follow a hand-scribbled map into the tunnel of night.
It seemed impossible that I could possibly find a restaurant that had been lauded by a friend a thousand miles and an entire culture away, on the dirt street of a residential neighborhood in the shadow of a mosque.
But just when frustration was overtaking hunger, the lights of an open-air restaurant, wooden ceiling fans twirling, came into view.
Clutching the wrinkled note scribbled with the name of the restaurant and a list of recommended dishes, I hesitated on the threshold.
The room was packed with men dressed in caps and long, white robes. One separated himself from the crowd and beckoned in the unlikely guest.
Once seated, I studied the wrinkled note. "I'll have . . . "
But one of the robed men put his index finger to his lips. "Chicken biriani," he whispered.
Assuming I had not spoken distinctly enough, I raised my voice. "No. I want . . . "
"Chicken biriani," was the response.
I cleared my throat.
"The dishes I would like to try are . . . "
He smiled, shook his head and said, "Chicken biriani."
With all eyes on me, I shrugged and smiled.
"And beer," he added.
As a reward, the dishes began to flow.
A tomato and cucumber salad doused with hot sauce. A plate of prawns. Dahl with vegetables. A plate of fresh pineapple. And the chicken biriani: a layered rice dish, fragrant with spices, was served steaming like the Singapore night.
The lone oddity was beer. It was from Denmark and cost more than the meal.
After a bite or two I applauded the chef, who had come from the kitchen to record my response. In turn, he and the other patrons applauded me.
Since then I have sampled chicken and lamb biriani in many restaurants. In India, the dish's country of origin, it was the first meal I ordered.
I have eaten it in restaurants in the United States as well as in my own kitchen. But none has ever been as good as that first, sweet taste in Singapore. Was it the food or was it the gift of it, the humor, the adventure?
Perhaps it doesn't matter.
Like many dishes from northern India, biriani was created during the great Mogul dynasty of the 16th-18th centuries. The Mogul emperors were food and art lovers as well as great builders (the Taj Mahal). They also folded the cooking styles of Persia, which they greatly admired, into the cuisine of India.
One of their finest creations, biriani is a steamed Persian-style pilaf layered with chicken or spicy lamb. When prepared for the emperors it was carefully assembled and elaborately garnished with nuts, fresh fruit and sheets of silver.
When making it at home we can skip the silver and decorate instead with foil. That is usually the alternative adopted by restaurants.
Today, Mogul cooking thrives in northern India. That makes biriani relatively easy to find in restaurants in Deli and Agra, from which the great Mogul emperors ruled. But one also finds it in hotel restaurants in Bombay and other large cities.
In India the long thin grains of basmati are used to prepare this dish, but other long-grain rice may be substituted if you cannot find basmati.
Even though the Moguls started vineyards with vines from Persia, this dish tastes better with beer or fruit juice than with wine, which is too subtle to stand up to the dish's strong flavors.
When ordering the dish in India, begin the meal with soup. All subsequent dishes are served simultaneously and can include raita (yogurt with spices and sometimes shredded cucumber), chutney, chapati, a flat Indian bread that looks a lot like a tortilla, and fruit juice or beer.
8 tablespoons clarified butter or oil
1 cup peeled potato chunks
2 large onions, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 (2-inch) piece ginger root
2 tablespoons raisins
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped
1/3 cup yogurt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 to 3 skinned and boned whole chicken breasts, cut in bite-size pieces
3 cups basmati rice
5 1/2 cups chicken broth
4 tablespoons clarified butter or oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/8 teaspoon saffron
5 black cardamom pods, bruised, optional
5 whole cloves
1 (2-inch) piece cinnamon
Pistachios, raisins and fresh fruit for garnish
In a large saucepan, heat four tablespoons butter and saute potato chunks until golden. Remove and set aside.
Add remaining butter and saute onion, garlic and ginger until tender. Add raisins, turmeric, cumin, cumin seeds, cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon salt and tomatoes and saute for few minutes, stirring frequently. Add yogurt, mint and chicken and cook about five minutes more, until tomato is tender. Set aside.
Wash rice in two or three changes of water. Drain. Combine with chicken broth and let soak 30 minutes. In large saucepan, heat clarified butter and saute onion until tender, about 10 minutes. Add rice and broth, saffron, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and one-half teaspoon salt. Stir and add reserved chicken mixture and potato pieces. Cover, bring to boil, turn heat to low and allow rice to steam until all liquid is absorbed, about 25 minutes. Turn off heat. Let stand five minutes before serving or stirring.
To serve, spoon rice onto large plate, sprinkle lightly with rose water and garnish with pistachios, raisins and fresh fruit of choice. Makes six to eight servings.