As a child, I discovered that classrooms were the best place to daydream, especially if one was lucky enough to sit by a window. But in case I was stuck in the middle of the class with nothing to look at except the oiled braids of my classmates in front of me, I could still escape into another world by writing about it, usually in a spare notebook.
It’s what I usually did whenever the class was boring and mind numbing, and one day, I was writing a story about a girl who loved to eat – one dish in particular - when my teacher realised that I was playing hooky while still in class. What was it that Indian teachers loved to say? Physically present but mentally absent? Yes, that.
She picked up my notebook from my hands and walked back to the desk and it felt like my stomach was telling me I needed to use the bathroom. But instead of berating me, she asked me to join her. Scared, I went up to her desk and wished I’d just doodled something instead of writing a story when she asked me what dish was I writing about because she’d never heard of it. I was taken aback. She’d read whatever I’d written? ‘It’s…like biryani but not biryani,’ I said tamely.
That intrigued her more. ‘What do you mean? How is it made?’ she asked.
I stared back at her. How is it made? How was I to know? I only knew that my mother made a dough with rice flour and hot water and sometimes I helped her roll it into oblong shapes that she cooked in a gravy. I had only recently discovered that this gravy was actually the biryani akhni. I shrugged, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t ask me to bring some the next day because I’d have a hell of a time trying to explain to my mother that I needed to take sutriyan to school. (As if it wasn’t enough that friends and teachers expected me to bring biryani for lunch every day.)
Sutriyan (the ‘n’ is not pronounced so the ending of the word is nasal) is something that I’ve grown up eating and never really given a second thought to until I realised I couldn’t explain what it was to someone who had never eaten it. Thankfully my teacher didn’t ask me to bring any and she let me off with a warning to focus on my studies, and I ran away from there.
But the incident remained in my head as one of the very first instances of food writing I had done, and which had been appreciated. After all, my teacher was certainly affected – she had said that my description made it seem real to her but she couldn’t understand the concept of biryani without the rice.
As someone whose life revolves around fixed schedules of rice for lunch and rotis for dinner (from the time I was little), any deviation from that excites me. It’s no wonder I would experiment at all the food joints near the office where I worked for a couple of years, for lunch, because they offered me escape from rice.
And sutriyan is a special something, that’s made usually on Fridays, at home.
Even though it’s rice based, it’s still something different! It’s a one pot dish - pretty much like all hipster dishes today. And it is a kind of pasta, well almost.
Sutriyan is made in two parts. The dough is mixed with really hot water and then kneaded smoothly. While the small oblong shapes are made by rolling small balls between your oiled palms, which are then rolled and flattened slightly into oblong shapes and arranged on a plate, the akhni is prepared in the same way as it is for biryani.
The same old happy procession of oil, whole garam masalas, sliced onions, chicken or mutton, ginger garlic paste, salt, chilli powder (no haldi), chopped tomatoes and coriander go into the pot, are cooked and a little water is added once the tomatoes are softened.
While this simmers gently, the rolled out sutriyan are added into the akhni and left to cook. It comes together into a saucy, delicious and thick gravy and the sutriyan are well, a little softer than al dente but eating this dish can get a little messy and undignified.
Well, it can’t be helped because people do tend to slurp it up.
The only problem with this dish is that the sutriyan tend to absorb most of the gravy and it becomes less saucy as a result. So if you reheat and eat the leftovers for dinner after you’ve had it for lunch, it’s not quite the same. But then in my house, you might wonder, what leftovers?
Rice flour – 2 cups
Salt – To taste
Hot water – 1 and half cup
Tomatoes – 4
Onions – 2
Chicken/Mutton – ½ kg
Yoghurt – 2 tbsp
Red chilli powder – 1 tsp
Salt – To taste
Whole garam masalas – Cardamom, Cloves, Cinnamon sticks
Coriander – a small bunch
Add hot water to the rice flour slowly and knead into a smooth and firm dough (Use a little more water if necessary).
Oil palms and roll out small balls. Elongate the balls and flatten slightly into oblong shapes.
Prepare the akhni as for biryani:
Heat oil, add whole garam masalas and saute the sliced onions until translucent.
Add ginger garlic paste and then the mutton or chicken.
Add chilli powder, salt and yoghurt and stir well.
Add chopped tomatoes and keep stirring till the tomatoes are softened.
Add chopped coriander and once the masala is reduced a little, add approximately 6 cups water and mix well.
Add the prepared sutriyan and stir gently or the sutriyan will break. Cover and let it simmer until the sutriyan are cooked.
Add more water in case the gravy has dried up. Serve hot.
All images courtesy: Andaleeb Wajid.