I always hold deep contempt and suspicion for things that are loudly labeled, and people who do the same (like reporters who label themselves investigative journalists but post statuses in preparation for pre-begging trips to politicos).
Ritika Dowlani, who I don’t know from Adam, does not put “authentic” before the words Indian food but Saturday I ate the chicken biryani and it took me back to sunny Singapore.
Back to those days eight years ago when I roamed the tiny little dot of progress that Filipinos have been flocking to, back to those days when minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew was still alive.
Back to those days when I, in a fit of tibak idiocy, threw away a biography of Lee Kuan Yew signed by the man himself.
I was that stupid.
Back to Ritika’s biryani.
Open the plastic box holding the P450 three-people serving (depending on one’s appetite) and the scent that wafts out hits you like the sound of bells before the Oratio Imperata.
Garam masala! My food memory screamed, grabbed, shook my shoulders and brought me back to an Indian eatery in Singapore’s Little India where my best buddy Vaishalli (yes, she is an Indian) brought me for lunch.
Vee, as I fondly call her, was my best bud and fellow during a three-month Asia Journalism Fellowship at the Nanyang Technological University.
Then the rice.
Soft, yellow, long. Each grain separate from the other, like people with social distancing in a supermarket queue.
Yellow after being steeped in a curry mix, not for being pro-Cory, the rice had the softness of bihon or sotanghon noodles.
The use of garam masala and rice, the basmati variety, showed the cook’s care and concern for the eater.
Care. Concern. A bit in short supply nowadays.
I digress. To the taste now, ajora mismo!
The fried chicken pieces, bone-in cuts of thighs and legs, rested on top of the rice.
Bite into it and one feels the softness of the meat and smells the layers of flavors that spring out like people after a long quarantine spell.
This is proof that the cook is guilty of using yoghurt and garam masala in marinating the chicken.
Yogurt (yoghurt if you are British), a milk product, softens the meat, and lessens the poultry smell.
The meat does not become as mushy, however, like those local telenovelas with vertigo-inducing camera movements.
In case you are wondering, garam masala is a spice blend almost synonymous to Indian cuisine, as widely used as well… vetsin or Magic Sarap in the Philippines.
It is a mix of whole cinnamon, mace, peppercorns (paminta as we know it), coriander seeds, cardamom, and cumin seeds.
It is to India as berbere is to Ethiopia or five-spice mix is to China or, in a way, Tajin is to Mexico.
My wobbly lower tooth nearly got broken when I bit a fragment of the cinnamon stick.
Not Rikita’s fault though but mine as I plowed through my serving like a just-released curfew violator.
Don’t fault me.
It was 1pm, I haven’t eaten breakfast and Banjo and Hannah were about to outstrip me with their seconds.
And I ate with my bare hands (after careful washing with soap and water).
Eating biryani, at least for me, brought back memories, like stepping into a nostalgia shop filled with Voltron and Voltes Five action figures, Tancho pomade, Kaypee Shoes and VHS tapes.
It is said biryani, from the Persian word birian, traces its roots to the Muslims in the subcontinent and is popular among Indians living abroad.
Pethaps to bring them back home.
Like what we Filipinos do when cooking adobo overseas.
Every now and then, I pick out a bay leaf, a recado as we call it, pop a raisin or a cashew nut resting among the rice grains, spoon the accompanyimg yogurt sauce onto the mix that drips off my fingers that I then wipe off the chicken meat.
The taste of Ritika’s biryani is nuanced, like a well-written investigative report, each handful a different blend of flavors.
Chew on the meat and salty, spicy and heat tease your tongue like toddlers running around their uniformed yaya.
Throw in the rice and the sweetness from the raisins and caramelized onions balance the saltiness and tame the heat, like lovers in a sweltering evening as the pumping sound of a decade-old airconditioner punctuate the silence (and what were you thinking?)
In the end, after three heaps each of carbs and protein, Ritika’s biryani made this reporter think: it is the pops of color and flavor, like the uncertainty of life that make it worth living and brings the excitement.
This dish had it.
Is it good? Yes.
Is it worth the price? Yes.