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'Food and love should be shared': We tried 1 family's 80-year-old biryani recipe

Virginia Nazareth said her family expresses affection through food, and her grandmother's lamb biryani recipe had us feeling the love.
"I felt that sharing this recipe during such a lonely time was a way to honor my family," said Redditor Virginia Nazareth.
"I felt that sharing this recipe during such a lonely time was a way to honor my family," said Redditor Virginia Nazareth.Virginia Nazareth / Terri Peters
/ Source: TODAY

Growing up, Virginia Nazareth's grandmother would make a special meal for family gatherings: biryani, an Indian mixed rice dish flavored with fragrant spices such as saffron that, in Nazareth's family, almost always included mutton or lamb.

"It's great to feed a crowd," Nazareth, who lives in Canada, told TODAY Food. "At big gatherings, especially Christmas, we would have it with raita, salad, cooked veggies and sorpotel, and then we would all be sent home with leftovers."

Nazareth's grandmother had six children who each had three kids of their own, so family gatherings were indeed large. Recently, Nazareth shared the recipe for her grandmother's biryani with an even bigger crowd — members of the Old_Recipes subreddit.

"The recipe is at least 80 years old," Nazareth explained, adding that her grandmother even contributed the recipe to a cookbook about 30 years ago. "My grandmother was born in Goa, India and moved to Sindh, which was in India at the time but now is in Pakistan, in her late teens or early twenties. This is why the biryani has potatoes — Sindhi biryani has potatoes, biryani from other regions doesn't."

Virginia Nazareth's grandmother (center, holding baby) once contributed her biryani recipe to a cookbook.Virginia Nazareth

Many foods from India — including vindaloo — are some of my favorite dishes, so I couldn't wait to cook my way through Nazareth's family recipe. Although the original recipe calls for mutton, my husband and I made our version with lamb, as I had trouble finding mutton at local grocery stores.

The lamb worked just fine. In fact, the dish is so versatile that Nazareth plans on using bone-in chicken the next time she makes her own version.

Nazareth's grandmother starts her biryani recipe with a spice paste made from fresh ingredients and dried spices.Terri Peters

The recipe, which calls for lots of ingredients and is a bit labor intensive, reminded my husband and I of, well, labor — as in, childbirth. When we first plated it for dinner time, we said we'd never make it again, but after basking in its deliciousness and thinking about the process for a few days, we admitted we were eager to go for a second time soon.

In addition to creating a flavorful spice paste from ingredients like coriander, cumin and fresh mint, the recipe requires parboiling four pounds of rice, cubing four pounds of lamb and layering vegetables, rice and lamb into an enormous dish. In hindsight, we could have halved or quartered the dish to make less, but for the sake of authenticity, we followed Nazareth's grandmother's recipe to the letter.

Re-creating recipes from the Old_Recipes subreddit has taught me never to argue with the greatness of the grandmas who have come before us.

Marinated lamb, tomatoes and onion, all ready to become part of our biryani.Terri Peters

The result was a mouth-watering rice dish filled with decadent chunks of tender spiced lamb. We served ours with our favorite Instant Pot butter chicken and some store-bought naan, both of which were nice accompaniments to the dish.

While this 80-year-old recipe took a lot out of us, it was absolutely worth the hard work. The immense amounts of leftovers were even better the following day, and we're already planning our next foray into biryani-making.

We served our biryani with butter chicken and naan, but it's most commonly served with raita and salad.Terri Peters

As for Nazareth, she said she shared the recipe for a simple reason.

"I miss my family," said Nazareth. "My grandmother died many years ago, and my mother, Grandma's eldest daughter, passed away in late 2019. Now with the pandemic, I couldn't see my siblings, aunts or cousins for the holidays."

"I felt that sharing this recipe during such a lonely time was a way to honor my family," she continued. "In my family, food is one of the ways to express love and it's how you take care of each other. Food and love should be shared, especially when times are hard.

"If my grandmother were alive today, this is how she would have dealt with the hardships of 2020: She'd be one of those people baking and cooking nonstop and looking for people to feed."