Emirati Recipe: Lamb Biryani (La-ham biryani)

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“Where are the Emirati restaurants in Dubai?”

When I first moved here, almost four years ago, I used to ask this question a lot.

I soon stopped asking because I would get the same responses over and over. Either, “I don’t know,” or “Emirati food is in Emirati homes,” or “Local House in Bastakia.”

There are scores of Lebanese, Turkish, Moroccan, a few Iranian plus other Arab nations but local Emirati restaurants? My almost two-year old toddler can count how many there are in Dubai. He can currently count to two, sometimes three, by the way.

Back in my working days, an Emirati colleague of mine told me about a now defunct Emirati restaurant by Safa Park and also recommended Local House. He made me write down three dishes that he said I must order when I get there: chobab bread, rigga pancake (?), and veal harees. At that time, the now famous camel burger hadn’t appeared on the Local House menu yet.

Part of the reason why I started my Emirati cooking project was because there was a lack of Emirati cuisine to sample. I still haven’t made it to Local House and since starting this project I often wonder if I should visit there but have been held back by many a friends’ negative review of the place. I think I will give it a try the next time I have a visitor in town to accompany me.

Some good news I’ve heard recently is that two new Emirati restaurants have opened up this year and I can’t wait to try them: Emirati N More (in the Cassells Al Barsha Hotel) and Al Fanar Restaurant & Cafe (in Festival City’s canal walk). If you’ve been to either, please let me know if it’s any good.

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It’s been a few months since I last posted an Emirati recipe attempt and it’s time to get back on track.

The last Emirati dish I posted was an Emirati Chicken Biryani and as it was the first time I had every made biryani, I wondered how and if the preparation and cooking process differed from Indian biryanis. In response, Mishti from Stovetop Dancing replied with this informative comment:

“Yup, this comes pretty close to the Indian Biryani. Although Indian biryani is almost never cooked with boneless biryani (except the contemporary invention of chicken tikka biryani). Apparently when chicken is cooked while on the bone, it is juicier; and since biryani is mostly dry, this helps counter that in a mild way.

You were right in taking out the whole spices, we always do this.

There are two ways of making it the Indian way. The “kachchi” biryani where chicken and rice are cooked together and “pakki” biryani (like the Emirati one) where the rice is almost cooked, chicken is also done and then they are layered and put on “dum” meaning pressure. The latter is much more common. For this, we seal the utensil in which the biryani is cooking with a flour dough. The vapour causes the dough to become like a chappati and it smells great:) In India, biryani is always served with raita, a yogurt based salad.

I think I was once told that Biryani originated in Persia and travelled to India with the Mughal empire. Also an interesting snippet was that Mumtaz Mahal (wife of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal in her honor) served biryani to the Mughal army since it was “complete nutrition” and the eggs were thrown in as extra protein for the soldiers. Who knows? :D “

Thanks Mishti for “geeking it out on food”!

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So my last Emirati biryani (chicken), which started off pretty disastrous and I thought it was going to be a complete failure, ended up being a huge success.

Whereas today’s Emirati biryani (lamb), started out very well, with great flavors, and properly cooked rice – so I had high hopes that it would top the last biryani attempt – but it ended up being a huge disappointment.

If you would like to try your hand at Emirati lamb biryani, please visit this link for the recipe and I hope that your attempt will be better than mine. Please come back and comment to let me know how you get on.

About this recipe, Celia writes:

A very popular daily meal, usually made in large portions for special occasions such as Eids, weddings and engagement parties. Serve with salad, limes, yoghurt and fresh herbs.

Right. It seems that I am forever changing the serving size of these recipes so let me begin to tell you about some of the changes that I made.

My eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets when I saw that the original lamb biryani recipe called for 6 cups of basmati rice. I was only making this for a small lunch party, not the large celebrations that the recipe was probably intended for.

For the previous biryani, I used 2 cups of rice and that served 10 people. Which would mean that 6 cups would serve 30!

I don’t have enough guinea pigs friends in Dubai to serve 6 cups of rice. Plus I didn’t want leftovers for a whole month. So I thirded (is that even a word?) the recipe and used 2 cups of basmati rice which I rinsed a few times and then soaked for a couple hours. Is the soaking supposed to make the rice fluffier, I wonder?

I used 1 lb (450 g) of boneless leg of lamb that I cubed and boiled until tender (45 minutes). Instead of whole blanched almonds, I used slivered almonds because I was too lazy to blanch and peel the whole ones.

Sauteing the onions
Sauteing the onions

I bought yellow split peas for the first time. The bag from the grocery store (Carrefour) was labeled “Moong Dal” – they were the only peas in the peas/dal aisle that was yellow and split so I hope they were the right ones.

Celia’s instructions said to “boil and drain the yellow peas.” Since I have never prepared yellow split peas before, I wondered if I was supposed to (1) rinse them first? (2) throw them in the pot when the water is boiling? (3) throw them in the pot when the water was cold and bring to boil? (4) boil them for 5 seconds? 1 minute? 10 minutes?


Emirati Lamb Biryani
About to mix in the sultanas, almonds, peas, and tomatoes

A quick Google search resulted in me rinsing the split peas, putting them in water (enough to cover the peas), bringing the water to a boil and simmering the peas for 20 minutes.

No idea if that’s what I was supposed to do or not but that’s what I did.

tomato mixture
Cooking the onion-split pea-tomato mixture

“Boil cloves, peppercorns, cardamom and cinnamon in the water and add salt to taste. Once it has started to boil, add the rice.” For my chicken biryani, I had wondered if my rice would have been more fragrant if I had boiled the spices in the water first before throwing the rice in. But here Celia tells me to do exactly that.

I only boiled the rice for 5 minutes this time, instead of 10, and thankfully it did not come out overly cooked, sticky, and falling apart like the last time. Again, Celia does not mention if I’m supposed to remove the spices after draining the rice.

This time I decided to leave them in. Except for the cloves because I had discovered them on my kitchen counter while I was draining the rice so I never threw those into the pot in the first place. Sigh.

Well, better late than never. So in went the cloves with the already drained rice.

Biryani Rice
Drained rice and the forgotten cloves

I fried the meat in oil for a few minutes and tasted a few pieces – they were very good! It made me think that my biryani was going to come out special.

Frying Biryani Lamb
Frying the lamb

When adding the oil to the pot for the layering, the recipe didn’t mention whether I should heat the pot up first so my oil wasn’t fluid and just sat in one small area.

Maybe I was supposed to add more oil until it did cover the pot? I decided to not do that and heated the pot so that the oil softened enough to coat the bottom.

Layering the Biryani
Layering the Biryani

I layered as instructed.

But I wasn’t sure which layer I was supposed to end on – rice? meat? tomato-onion mixture? I decided to use the rice as the top layer.

Layering the Emirati Lamb Biryani

Saffron was soaked in rosewater diluted with tap water. I was supposed to “drizzle the remaining oil on top, then the saffron.” Here, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to drain the saffron and discard the rosewater – OR – if I was to drizzle both the saffron and rosewater on top of the biryani. Hmmph.

I decided to go halfway and poured half of the diluted rosewater onto the biryani plus all the saffron. Except the saffron just clumped in one small pocket of rice. I was hoping that it would dissolve as it cooked (it didn’t).

Soaking Saffron
Soaking the saffron in rosewater and water

“Cover with a cloth and tightly-fitting lid.” I didn’t have a clean cloth that wasn’t reeking with fabric softener so I used a few layers of dampened kitchen roll. I don’t know why I dampened it because I now notice that the instructions didn’t say “wet cloth” just “cloth.” Arg.

After simmering for 20 minutes, I removed the biryani from heat and let it rest for a bit.

Finally it was biryani sampling time. I had high hopes. False hopes now. The rice wasn’t too bad but the lamb, once moist, tender and tasty, came out dry, a little tough, and somewhat flavorless.

I did not enjoy the texture of the split peas and I couldn’t really taste the almonds. Maybe that’s why I was supposed to use whole, blanched almonds.

However, the next day, the almonds firmed up and added a nice crunch to the dish.

Emirati Lamb Biryani

I notice that Celia’s picture from this recipe has sliced egg in it. But it wasn’t called for in the recipe nor the notes so my lamb biryani has no egg.

Maybe this post should be re-titled: “Trials and Tribulations of a Clueless Girl in Dubai Attempting to Cook Emirati Lamb Biryani” Nah, too long 🙂

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I made this biryani back in June and Wee Scotch had not only started to throw toddler tantrums but was starting to get quite picky with his food so he refused to eat this lamb biryani no matter how hard I tried to bribe him with sweets and candy (not that I do that often!).

Not to worry! Wee Scotch’s girlfriend was quick to step in to pose for the photos and save the day.

[galobj viewid=5]

Scotch said that the lamb biryani was “good” but I think he might have just been humoring me knowing all the effort that I put into making it.

We had TONS of leftovers and I ended up throwing out all the lamb (too dry) and using the rest of the biryani as a side dish for a chicken curry.

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Previous Emirati recipe: Emirati Recipe: Chicken Biryani (Biryani de-jaj)

Up next: Shrimp Fried with Spices (Ro-be-yann nashif)

Note: This post is part of my Cooking Local project.

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  1. Hey Sandy your food blog is interesting to read. I did not know the unavailability of emirati restaurants. Let’s talk about Biriyani, in my experience the Indian biriyani is more spicy. Both has its own unique smell and taste

  2. Yes, been to both places you asked about and the one at Emirate Palance in Abu Dhabi.

    They are all bad and not authentic Emarati food EXCEPT Al Fanar. If you want to try what is cooking in all our houses, that place is a PERFECT copy/paste of our cooking. I have been there twice a week for the last 3 weeks because its so good. And aside from a very few issues (The farni was too watery, the Sago isnt as well made as it should be) the items on the menu are 100% authentic and damn good)

    Highly recommended.

  3. To begin with, your Biryani looks mouthwatering, want to dive in :))

    I agree with you, there has to be restaurants dedicated to celebrating Emarati Cuisine. The authentic food of this country is delicious. If you had a chance to have it home cooked, gosh the food is Divine! However restaurants don't do it justice! A shout out for Emaraties to show case the home-cooked quality authentic food, because it is real good!

    With that said, Arabic cuisine in general has to be brought forward. Arabic cuisine is so diverse and varied that it must not remain limited to the Mezze and grills! Most non-Arabs think the cuisine is so limited, and that is the doing of repetitive offerings on behalf of eateries! The cuisine includes many other concoctions like casseroles, stews, rice based dishes that are different from region to another, and there is also the very loved – Sawani : meaning bakes and roasts… It is a pity to stick to one section of the cuisine over and over and over. Authenticity and good food do exist 🙂

    So Horay for your initiative and your project on Emarati Cuisine, you are trotting into a road seldom explored, and so rewarding… :))

    1. Thanks Dima for the words of encouragement. I really hope to be able to explore more Arabic cuisine in my kitchen while I'm still in Dubai and the ingredients are easily sourced.

  4. Appreciate you doing all the work to help educate me with Emirati cuisine. I too would like to know a lot more about the food of my host nation for 12 years. I'll come to the restaurant anytime you're going!

  5. Do you mean regaag (????) pancakes? I have a post with pictures of them somewhere on my blog.

    I have a friend who said you can get them at the Falcon centre, although I am not sure where that is.

  6. I saw Al Fanar this week and got super excited, still have to try it!

    Couple of things I'd have done for this biryani…of course, based on Indian biryani principles, not Emirati…but maybe you can design a hybrid? 😉

    1) Coat the lamb in a tablespoon or two of ginger garlic paste, and then pressure-cook it (get a pressure cooker woman!) with just enough water to cover the meat. Leave for 2 whistles.

    2) Put the pressure-cooked meat right on the base, and then cover with the other layers. That way the meat is not exposed and won't dry out.

    3) Before you add the rice, cover the meat with a thin layer of golden brown crispy onions (easier to buy store bought ones…they get soggy sometimes when you make them at home). Now cover it with rice.

    4) Heat the saffron in milk (in a spoon over the stove or in the microwave, 20 seconds)…then make holes with a nice long ladle through the rice/meat layers, and drizzle in the saffrony milk into the holes. That helps the flavor drench all the way through. (These are just temporary holes you're making with the spoon so you can pour something through, nothing crazy…)

    5) Take melted ghee, and similar to the saffron, make holes through the layer and pour the ghee in. Adds a TON of flavor and moistness.

    When the biryani is done, then sprinkle with more fried onions and cashews and boiled egg halves.

    There…that's how you'd bastardize the biryani from one region with the strategy from another 😉

    (I <3 Wee Scotch's girlfriend – tooooo cute!)