My first catering job: biryani, food, art and life.

Written by Chrisantha Chetty

Biryani being dished up

I had my first official catering job on the 26 March for the Graduate School of Architecture’s Design Seminar, hosted at The Coloured Cube. The menu was chicken biryani, vegetarian biryani, dhal and a variety of salads. Biryani is a rice and lentil dish with meat or vegetables that is infused with a large variety of spices. I received many compliments on the food and had very interesting conversations relating to food.

This experience re-enforced the importance of food as a means to bring people together. There were many discussions around food demonstrating it’s vastness as a subject. Food may be related to anything and everything. From seed to plate, it covers an array of practices, research and beliefs. The greatest pro, for me, is that everyone has an opinion about food and often feel free enough to express it.

Biryani is a good example of how food can be used to explore histories, practices and cultures. I have used biryani and other foods as a tool in my art practice for many years now. It began as a way to entice audience members to engage with my work. This developed in to an exploration of food as a medium, subject and concept. I use food as a way to question histories, challenge conventions and disrupt accepted notions.

how to eat biryani with your hands

In 2016/7, I did a series of interventions in a variety of locations titled: (name of place) biryani. Each intervention comprised of a biryani recipe that was unique to its location. The aim of the work was to encourage people to access art in new and alternative ways. To use all one’s senses in experiencing a work of art. It was an interrogation of my identity through an exploration of de-colonial practices related to the preparation and consumption of biryani. The work comprised of a video installation. There were pots of biryani, dhal and salads made available on a table with a video projected above. The video showed my hand demonstrating a collection of movements that is used to eat biryani. The audience were invited to dish out a plate of food and encouraged to eat it with their hands. There were copies of the recipe, with a brief bit about the origins of the dish, accessible for the audience to take.

How to eat with your hands video still 1How to eat with your hands video still 2
How to eat with your hands video still 3How to eat with your hands video still 4

The origins of biryani is highly disputed amongst culinary historians. It is a common belief that it has Persian origins- being introduced to north India during the rule of the Mughal dynasty. However the dish has been traced back to 2 C.E in south India where it is believed that Tamil cooks served this meal to military soldiers before battle. The dish may have been introduced in the north of India but is extremely popular in the south, with many more varieties available. It has travelled to different parts of South Africa and been adapted to form new, different and distinct flavours.

The consumption of biryani is quite varied. It is a popular dish served at weddings and can be extremely decadent. Contrastingly, there are versions of it, including tinned fish biryani, that may be considered peasant food. A food for celebration and/or the everyday, biryani has travelled to many parts of the world. In Durban amongst the Indian community it is common practice to eat it with one’s hands. This is a practice that travelled with many Indians from the south of India where eating rice dishes with one’s hands is an ordinary everyday activity. I find it curious that although many Indian South Africans, especially the younger generations, do not speak any Indian languages, they eat similar food and still practice eating with their hands.

When it comes to the preparation of biryani each person makes it their own way. The range of spices and ingredients may vary. It is one of those dishes that people take pride in cooking and often this means it can take a long time to prepare. I have been lucky to learn how to make biryani from a few skilled cooks which I then combined to form my own recipes. I would like to end by sharing my vegetarian biryani recipe. I hope it brings you joy in the preparation, sharing and consumption of it.

Chrisantha’s vegetarian biryani

Ingredients: (4 to 6 persons)
1.5 cups rice
0.5 cups brown lentils (3⁄4 if you really like lentils)
4 potatoes
2 cm ginger (optional)
4- 6 cloves garlic (depends on taste)
2 tomatoes chopped fine
2 onion
200g green beans
250g peas
2-3 carrots
1⁄4 white cabbage
+- 3 chilli (depends on taste)
oil to cover the bottom of the pot
3 tbs butter (for potatoes)
Salt (for taste)

1 tbsp red masala (chilli powder)
4 tbsp tumeric
1 tbsp dhania powder (corriander)

4 tbsp biryani spice mix or:
2 bay leaves
2 big cinnamon stick
1 tbsp whole jeera (cumin)
1 tbsp whole soomph (fennel seeds)
3 tbsp mustard seeds
6 cardamom pods
4 whole star anise
8 whole cloves

– boil brown lentils with ½ tbsp tumeric until cooked (separately)
– peel and cut potatoes into quarters
boil with ½ tbsp tumeric, ½ tbsp mustard seeds and salt until soft but still firm
drain excess water, add butter and bake in the oven until crispy (separately)
– boil rice with 1 cinnamon stick and 1 tbsp tumeric until cooked (separately)
– fry whole spices until mustard seeds pop.
fry onions, chilli and some of the garlic until golden brown
add ginger, the rest of the garlic, masala and 1 tbsp tumeric and fry for a minute
add cabbage and fry until slightly brown
add tomatoes and cook until soft (you might have to add water so it doesn’t stick)
add vegetables and cook fully
add water if it gets too dry
– mix all ingredients together in one pot
optional: bake in oven for 15mins
If you want to go old school: don’t cook your rice fully and bake for longer.

Related links:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *