Vegan Monday: Spicy Biriyani

Not only do I love spicy food, but I love the word "spicy". In cooking, it so often denotes when something is hot or sharp in flavor, but I get excited when I see true spicy spices like cinnamon working hard and in tandem with more traditional definitions, turning something that would otherwise be a bit bland into something "awake" and exciting.

That is what I thought about when I was making this biriyani last Thursday. I had seen the recipe at Saveur quite a long while ago, and bookmarked it. The original recipe calls for chicken, but seeing as I had a block of tofu that needed using, I decided to marinate and bake it using the same flavors called for in the chicken. I then upped the amount of peppers in the rice, using a combination of jalapeno, red, orange and green peppers. Though you would be hard pressed to see them in the final picture, they are there I assure you.

I pressed the tofu to remove any additional water (I like our local Simple Soyman brand best) for about an hour before marinating and then baking. Since I had the time, I actually let the tofu sit for several hours in the marinade before baking it, but you probably wouldn't have to. I also was happy to discover that I could practically "juice" a jalapeno by grating it on the microplane - and it also allowed for less cleanup.

I baked the tofu and made the rice separately, and then tossed them together to serve. Even my Husband liked this (and had 2 servings!), a huge boost to my ego after he came from a shopping trip in which he purchased jam. (I have an entire shelf dedicated to homemade jams and jellies in my basement...) To store the leftovers, everything was combined. It was even better cold a couple of days later.

I don't really measure things when making baked tofu... I just add as much as I feel like, and make sure not to use too much oil so that the tofu develops that little bit of crispness around the edges as it bakes. That said, the spice mix below is approximate!

Spicy Baked Tofu
  • 1 package (16 oz or so) firm tofu (not silken)
  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 3/4 of a jalapeno, grated
  • 1/2 t. ground coriander
  • 1 T. grated ginger root
  • 1-2 t. cassia cinnamon
  • salt and pepper to taste
Cut the block of tofu in half horizontally (the Simple Soyman blocks are almost square sometimes...) and press between two towel lined plates for at least a half hour to remove any excess moisture. Meanwhile, mix remaining ingredients in a glass baking dish (9x9 works well).

After pressing, cut the two halves in half horizontally again, so you have 4 slabs about 3/4 inch thick. Dredge in marinade, and coat all sides well. Let sit for awhile, or bake right away as you prefer.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake the tofu for 30-40 minutes, flipping over every 10, until the marinade has absorbed and the tofu looks semi-dry and "baked".

I ate a half of a square while working on the rest of the recipe:

A lot of the same flavors appear again in the rice, and the same thing applies. You can add or subtract as you like. The original recipe also called for soaking the rice. I have read that some types of basmati need soaking, and others don't. I typically don't soak the Tilda brand that I use, but did this time, just to follow instruction. You can or not - if you choose to, just soak for 20 minutes, then drain and rinse and proceed with the recipe.

Vegan Spicy Biriyani (adapted from Saveur)
  • 1 c. basmati rice
  • 2-3 T. coconut oil
  • 2-3 chiles de arbol, crumbled by hand
  • 1 medium onion (I used a white one), chopped medium
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • ginger root, about 2 inches, grated
  • 2 t. cassia (Saigon) cinnamon
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced and/or chopped finely
  • 1/2 red pepper, finely diced
  • 1/4 orange pepper, finely diced
  • 1/4 green pepper, finely diced
  • a lot of cilantro
  • salt and pepper
(If you would like to put it in the oven to bake, you can time it to go in around the same time as the tofu is coming out: preheat the oven, or reduce the heat, to 350. You could also do the whole dish on the stovetop, the cooking times would be about the same. I used the oven for this instance.)

In a large, lidded saute pan, heat the coconut oil. Add the onion, sliced garlic and spices, and saute until the onions soften, about 6 minutes. Towards the end of the saute time, add the peppers, and let sweat for a minute or two.

Add the rice, along with 1 1/4 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt (you can add more later if you like). Bring up to a boil, and (if cooking on the stovetop), reduce heat to low and cook covered for 15 minutes before checking to see if the rice has absorbed most of the liquid and that it is tender. I like to let it sit off the heat for about 10 minutes with a kitchen towel between the lid and the pan to let it continue to steam. If you are baking it, after it boils, pop the lidded pan in the oven, and let it bake for 15-20 minutes, checking on progress of the rice around the 15 minute mark.

Using either method, let it stand several minutes before eating, and toss with the tofu and lots of chopped cilantro. In our case, you will also need to serve with a bit of Mae Ploy Sweet Chile Sauce.

With all the focus on local eating, I should be ashamed that I insist on foreign basmati rice. A few years ago, when I discovered that cooking rice wasn't a science that I needed to attend school to get to know, I visited an ethnic grocer looking for the famed Tilda brand of basmati rice. At that time, I couldn't find it, and went with Swad, a similarly delicious import. As with most specialty foods that at one time seemed scarce in my neck of the proverbial woods, Tilda is now relatively easy to find, and worth every extra cent it costs. All of the flavor of the faraway place can be found in that rice, and when I eat it, I think of the many many people worldwide who have a staple diet of rice. I also think of all the foods in that part of the world that I've never experienced, or that in general, I just know so little about. It has an overwhelming amount to offer me! Maybe that will be my next adventure: the foodstuffs of India and surrounding regions. I like not knowing what comes next from my kitchen... I'll likely wait a bit to embark on a new full-out obsession, since the sourdough is overtaking me and my reading habits lately.

(Lastly, an extra special thank you to Mary-Catherine for telling me that you like my Vegan Mondays. It really inspired me to get my act together and think consciously about making one interesting vegan thing a week to write about. I'm not eating a meat-heavy diet, but it's nice to have that extra little nudge of encouragement! :) )