Lamb Biryani

Last month marked the thirteenth anniversary of my move to Steubenville. I was only supposed to be here for two years…three tops. God, however, had other plans.

When people ask me why I haven’t left yet, I usually tell them,  “I have many sins for which I need to atone.” I’m only half joking.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to love in this rusty, corrupt, polluted old town. There are beautiful babies and beautiful families; holy, generous, souls, who give more of themselves to God in a day than I’ll likely give in a lifetime; and brilliant scholars, who see the truth of the world more deeply than I’ll ever see it. There’s real friendship and real community, here. There also are $600 mortgages for 4 bedroom homes.

I’m not entirely sure which would be the harder thing to leave: the community or the real estate market.

So, that’s what Steubenville has. What it doesn’t have is beauty…and…culture….and clean air. It’s also seriously lacking an Indian restaurant. For me, this is almost as big a problem as the chewy water. Accordingly, in order to keep my sanity about me, I’ve learned to satisfy my cravings for Indian food in my own kitchen. And if I do say so myself, the results of my effort aren’t half bad.

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My Indian culinary skills have improved substantially over the years, mostly because I’ve gotten over my fear of Indian grocery stores. If you want to cook good Indian food, you need the right spices, and you’re not going to find those at Kroger.


Indian cooking has also taught me about the importance of layering spices. If you want a dish to turn out right, you have to put the right spices in at the right times. No just throwing everything in at the same time, reasoning that it’s all going to get cooked together anyways. Timing is everything. Which also holds true for most cooking…and most of life.


Curry Leaves

Spice Base


Today’s bit of foodie beauty, Lamb Biryani, is my favorite “Make Indian Food at Home” dish. I know it’s completely gauche to rave about your own cooking, but every time I make this dish, I can’t believe I made something this good with my own two hands. I start talking to the air or my guardian angel or whatever saint in Heaven is listening, both complimenting myself and thanking God for the gift of cumin seeds and cardamom pods.

(When I started this blog, I promised my friend Lindsay that I wouldn’t be one of those food bloggers who go into ecstatic raptures about grilled cheese. And I won’t. But if I hadn’t made that promise, there would be sonnets here instead of prose.)


Despite the long list of ingredients, this is a simple dish to make. The most intimidating thing about it is finding an Indian grocery store where you can buy curry leaves. If you can do that, you can do this. And trust me, you really, really want to do this.



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Lamb Biryani
Prep Time: 30 minutes Inactive, 30 minutes Active
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Serves: 8
Inspired by this recipe from American Masala



  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 10 cups water
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • half inch cinnamon stick
  • 2 bay leaves

Lamb Mixture

  • .25 cup oil
  • 1 lb. ground lamb
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 6 green cardamom pods
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 36 curry leaves, roughly torn
  • 2 Tablespoons dried mustard
  • 3 small cherry red hot peppers, diced
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 can coconut milk
  •  1/4 teaspoon cracked peppercorns
  • 3/4 cup chopped cilantro

Cooking Instructions

  1. 30 minutes before you’re ready to start cooking, put the rice in a bowl, cover with water, and soak for 30 minutes; pour into a colander, then rinse and drain.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°F
  3. Combine the water and spices for the rice  in a large pot; bring to a boil; add rice and stir; once it returns to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cover; cook for 6 minutes, then drain and set aside.
  4.  In a large skillet, over medium-high heat, cook the oil, peppercorns, cardamom pods, cloves, and cumin seeds until the cumin starts to brown ( about 2 minutes).
  5. Add the curry leaves, mustard powder, diced peppers, and turmeric. Stirring often, cook for 1 minute.
  6. Reduce the heat to low; add the coriander and cook for another minute, continuing to stir.
  7. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the ground lamb; cook until the meat is browned and there is no visible pink.
  8. Mix in the curry powder  and chickpeas; then stir in the coconut milk; bring to a vigorous simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced by 1/2, about 10-12 minutes. Stir in the pepper pepper and remove from heat.
  9. In a covered casserole dish, greased with butter, layer, 1/3 of the rice, 1/2 of the lamb mixture; and 1/3 of the cilantro; repeat; top with the remaining third of the rice. Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil and a lid.
  10. Bake for 35 minutes. Before serving toss and garnish with remaining cilantro.

Cook’s Notes

  1. The original recipe is vegetarian and the first time I cooked this, I made it that way. We were hungry an hour later. The second time, I tried adding chickpeas as well as the mushrooms. Same problem. The lamb I tried the third time around, and I’ve never looked back. But, if lamb isn’t your thing, substitute 2 pounds of sliced button mushrooms. And have some side dishes ready.
  2. If you want to save yourself a great deal of stress, read over the recipe, then group your spices and measure them out into individual bowls before you begin cooking. That way, when the cooking gets going, you’re just dumping one little bowl in and not trying to measure out six different spices in a 30 second span.
  3. The original recipe calls for canola oil. I’ve used that and it’s great. But, if canola oil bothers you on some existential level, try olive oil or peanut oil or whatever oil helps you sleep at night.
  4. I know not everyone lives near an Indian grocery store. The closest one to me is 30 minutes away. It’s almost always worth the drive though. Not only can you get the ingredients you need for authentic Indian cooking, but you can get rice and all sorts of spices at a fraction of the cost. And I do mean fraction. At my Indian grocer’s I can buy 10 pounds of high quality  rice for $7 and a pound of cumin for just $2.59. That’s how much I pay for an ounce of the stuff at Krogers. Even if you only go once or twice a year, you can stock up on all sorts of things that will make your tummy and your budget happy. Road trip!
  5. Curry leaves are awesome, and they make this dish. It won’t be nearly so tasty without them. The only place I’ve ever found them is in Indian grocery stores (in the refrigerators). I usually buy two packages at a time, and freeze whatever I don’t use. They’re still good in this dish, even after having been frozen for a couple months.
  6. You don’t have to put the cherry red hots in this dish. I’ve made it before without them, and it’s still good. But I had an overabundance of peppers in last year’s garden and am always looking for ways to use the ones I froze. This was a good way.
  7. Once the lamb is browned, you’ll be tempted to drain it to remove the fat. Don’t. First, because there won’t be much fat to begin with; lamb is a very lean meat. Second, because you want that fat, plus all the spicy goodness you’ve cooked it in, to help add flavor to the dish (and make it filling).
  8. This dish will have lots of whole spices in it, like cardamom pods and peppercorns. I love the way a peppercorn explodes in my mouth, but it’s not for everyone, so feel free to pick out the whole spices before serving the dish.



3 thoughts on “Lamb Biryani

  1. octoberrose says:

    Oooooh, this looks good. I’ve only ever cooked Indian food using powdered spices, perhaps it is time I ventured into the world of pods and seeds? (And there are some good Indian restaurants here in Pittsburgh, if you ever feel inclined to hop onto the highway. 🙂 )

    • Emily says:

      Oh believe me, I’m well acquainted with Pittsburgh’s Indian restaurants. I’m especially in love with Taj Mahal! Good luck with the seeds!

  2. Lisa Schmidt says:

    So my husband has a PhD in biochemistry and the only thing really to show for it beyond the monthly student loan debt payment (half joking, though he would say the same!), is the terrific memories and friendships we formed with the people he journeyed with throughout his program. Caucasian, male, and Christian, Joel was a minority. Most of his cohorts were international students, many of them Middle Eastern. Ever so often the department would have an international feast and we would all bring a staple or popular dish from our native land. I had plenty of occasion to try well-prepared, authentic Indian food, and I was hooked from the first bite. So this recipe looks like a keeper; I’m quite eager to try it! Thanks for sharing. Oh, and I can’t remember what recipe I first used that specified cardamom, but I echo your praise – what a unique smell and flavor.

    P.S., $600 mortgage for 4 bedrooms? Does FU need a PhD Biochemist Deacon with a charism for teaching bioethics, by chance? Cause I know a guy… 🙂

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