A Neurosurgeon’s Special Biryani and My Search for His Secret Ingredient

When I was barely 13, we lived in a place called Al-Kharj in Saudi Arabia. My father, a neurosurgeon, and my mother, a gynaecologist, worked at a hospital there.

Weekdays were gruelling for my parents. So, all of us waited for Friday, their day off from work. It was on this day that my father cooked a special biryani for us.

Every Friday, my younger brother and I woke up late. After a leisurely breakfast, my father would start making detailed preparations for the pièce de résistance, his special Friday biryani.

He would place all the ingredients side by side on the kitchen counter as if they were surgical instruments on an operating table: the basmati rice, marinated chicken pieces, onion, curd, ginger-garlic paste, red chilli powder, mace and a plethora of other spices.

I remember our kitchen looking like a scene from an operation theatre. My father was the operating surgeon, all scrubbed up and ready in his white kitchen apron. I was the head nurse, always standing beside him, ready to help. My mother performed her role as the assisting surgeon while my kid brother was like a medical school intern who watched from afar but dreamed of a bigger role for himself in the future.

My father used a big degchi to cook biryani. Once he poured oil into it and started frying the ingredients, an amazing aroma would fill the air. I loved the mouth-watering smells.

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I remember he would work on the biryani with what looked like the same level of discipline and finesse required to operate inside the human brain. His hands and eyes would move in rhythm as he used the spatula with focus and precision inside the degchi.

He would take a few hours to complete cooking the dish. He would then let the dish rest for some time just like a patient in post-operative care. By then, we would be hungry enough to eat straight out of the degchi.

“Can we please start eating?” my little brother would ask.

“Be patient,” my father would say.

My father would never let anything come in the way of his goal. When he was a child, he studied in a village school and then crossed two rivers to reach the city for his college education. Biryani or surgery, his determination always showed.

Even as we stood staring at him with our famished stomachs, he would carefully layer the biryani in a large serving dish. He would place a layer of rice followed by a layer of meat and top it off with a layer of fried onions and freshly chopped mint leaves. The outcome was pure ecstasy as we dived into platefuls of biryani at our dining table.

Those were some of the most delicious days of my childhood.

My father died at the age of 57. Sometimes, I cook him meals and leave them near his photograph at home. And, I continue with the biryani tradition for my family. Of course, Friday biryani has now become Sunday biryani for my husband, daughter and me.

I work hard to create the same taste that my father’s biryani had. In search of that familiar taste, I have tried my hand at making different types of biryani after downloading recipes from the internet – Hyderabadi biryani, Delhi biryani, Kolkata biryani, Sindhi biryani and Kutchi biryani, to name a few.

I keep wondering what that special ingredient was that he added to his biryani to create that unforgettable taste. I have watched so many biryani videos on YouTube. I have even noted down the biryani recipes used by celebrity chefs on TV. But I have not found that secret ingredient yet.

How I wish we had mobile phones in those days. I would have recorded my father cooking in the kitchen. Or, I could have just taken pictures of the ingredients and the dish. I could have even borrowed my father’s camera for this purpose. But in those days, one did not click pictures of food before eating it. So, all I have with me today are memories and aromas that refuse to go away.

Sometimes, I imagine that he must have placed the secret ingredient on the kitchen counter at some point. But I must have somehow missed it. Or, may be, he kept that one ingredient hidden in the kitchen cabinet.

My mother says I may never get hold of that elusive ingredient. She says I am not even looking for an ingredient. I am just looking for my father.

Smeeta Mishra is a communication and media studies consultant who loves to undertake gastronomical journeys. She tweets @smeetamishra.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty