Bakra Eid is a time to spend with family, in prayer and, as the name would suggest, with goats. The Muslim holiday honors the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail in obedience to Allah’s command. Jews and Christians may remember the punch line from Sunday School: at the last minute, Ismail was replaced with a lamb, and father and son were left to feast on delicious kebabs together in the desert. Known as Eid al-Adha in Arabic, or Feast of the Sacrifice, South Asians call the holiday Bakra Eid – bakra means goat in Hindi and Urdu.
We were fortunate enough to celebrate Bakra Eid with our friends the Hussains in a Muslim neighborhood in Kolkata. The first item on the day’s agenda after the morning namaz was slaughtering four goats in honor of each of the household’s women. After the kurbaan (sacrifice) was performed on the Hussains’ terrace with the blessings of the local mosque’s imam and the help of a neighborhood butcher, we settled down to a hearty breakfast of goat brain curry, chicken stew, potatoes, and paranthas drenched in ghee. To aid digestion, we sipped sugary tea and listened to the sounds of the street – goats bleating before the inevitable, crows cawing as they contemplated how to get a piece of the action, and kids screaming with joy like the ones we witnessed sitting on a cow to hold it down for the butcher’s blade.
This breakfast was not all the man who prepared it had up his sleeve. The Hussains’ cook, Shaik Azad, or Azad Mama (mama is Hindi for uncle) as he is affectionately known, is a mutton biryani master. Bakra Eid, when freshly slaughtered goat abounds at the Hussain household, is the perfect day to find yourself in Azad Mama’s kitchen. While Begum Hussain and a few helpers neatly allocated the meat of the four goats into portions for relatives, friends of the family, and poor members of the community, Azad Mama shared his life story and his biryani recipe.
Born in Hatgacha, a small village an hour outside of Kolkata, Azad Mama came under the employment of Anwar Ali Sheikh, the Hussain’s patriarch, when he was 8 years old. Azad followed Ali, a tea exporter and member of the West Bengal state legislature, to Kolkata where he ran errands and served tea to guests – the most basic task of being a chai wallah. As he grew up, he watched the family’s cooks work in the kitchen and experimented with recipes of his own. “I’ve always liked to try new things,” he said. “I’ll cook prawns one way, fish another, and just see how it turns out.” Today, the biryani turned out delicious, its fragrant aromas filling the entire five-story building, masking the smell of goat meat coming from the roof.
Azad Mama’s Gosht Biryani
Mutton (freshly slaughtered if possible), 1 kg bone-in, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
Basmati rice, 2 cups
Onions, 6 medium-sized finely sliced lengthwise
Vegetable oil for frying onions
Potatoes, 6 medium-sized peeled and halved
Ghee, 6 tablespoons
Red chili powder, 2 tablespoons
Turmeric, 1 tablespoon
Yogurt, 2 cups
Ginger, 5-inch piece, ground into a paste
Garlic, 8 medium-sized cloves, ground into a paste
Biryani masala, 2 tablespoons (Azad Mama buys his blend from a local masala wala; here is a recipe to make your own)
Green cardamom, 10 pods
Milk, ½ cup
Saffron, 8 strands
Atta flour, ½ cup
- Pour enough oil into a kadai or deep pan to cover the onions. Fry onions until they are brown and crisp. Drain and set aside.
- Mix mutton with yogurt, garlic and ginger paste, 2 tbsp biryani masala, 1 tbsp red chili powder, about a quarter of the fried onions, and salt to taste. Marinate for an hour.
- Soak saffron in warm milk. Set aside.
- Rinse rice, then soak in cold water for 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Boil potatoes in water with 2 tbsp ghee, 1 tbsp turmeric, 1 tbsp red chili powder. Drain and set aside.
- Heat 2 tbsp ghee in a pressure-cooker or a thick pan. Add marinated mutton and cook on high heat for 5 minutes. Add 1 cup water, cover and let cook on medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add potatoes to the mutton and let simmer on low heat until gravy is thick. Transfer to a dum if you have one; if not your widest pot will do.
- Parboil rice five cups of water, cardamom and salt to taste for 10 minutes, or until about ¾ done.
- Strain rice and layer over mutton and potatoes. Add remaining fried onions. Dot the rice with 2 tbsp ghee. Pour saffron milk over mixture.
- Cover dum or pan. (Optional: To maximize the flavor, make bread dough in advance and use it to seal the lid shut.)
- Serve with cucumber-onion raita and enjoy!