National Rice Month: Shrimp Biryani at Khyber Indian Restaurant

September is National Rice Month, and in honor of this glorious grain, I've decided to cook and sample a few rice dishes in and around Houston.

I first tried biryani when I was traveling in Andhra Pradesh, whose capital Hyderabad is especially famous for a certain variant of the dish. Biryani is traditionally a South Indian dish, and because the only restaurant in my hometown focused on northern cuisine, I had been under the foolish impression that plain basmati was the primary form of Indian rice.

Not so much. There are hundreds of subtypes of biryani, but its most basic form consists of rice (usually basmati), vegetables, assorted spices (pepper, cardamon, nutmeg, etc.) and sometimes meat. Unlike other South Asian rice dishes, biryani comes together from separately cooked ingredients that exist in relative equal proportion. Preparation, unsurprisingly, can be quite time-consuming.

Obviously biryani is not the rice you use as a bed for a ladle full of curry. The striations in flavor would be overwhelmed with the addition of other complicated sauces, and the variations in texture are best appreciated if the dish is treated as a main course.

Many Indian restaurants in Houston offer standard chicken, lamb and vegetable biryani, though more sophisticated variants (like saffron) are harder to find. I recently tried the shrimp (jingha) biryani at Khyber. The restaurant advertises itself as a "North Indian Grill," but nevertheless offers a top-notch, albeit pricey ($17), biryani that's filled with golden raisins, almonds and massive shrimps. The rice is tender but not sticky, and the dried fruit and nuts punctuate the mixture with lovely bursts of soft sweetness and savory crunch. And though lacking in heavy spices, the dish still engenders a milder heat from its medley of seasonings.

I think Khyber's biryani is just about perfect as is, but those who enjoy their rice with a more risotto-style texture should add a few spoonfuls of raita to enhance the creaminess.

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