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You Are What You Eat – Reclaiming my South Indian Heritage

Food can be a way of preserving culture and maintaining a connection to home in a foreign place, as was the case in my family. In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’m sharing a favorite family recipe to open a window into my heritage.

Food is an important part of culture, and for me, like many people, food is a part of my identity. Our tastes and preferences are often shaped by our lived experiences – for example, I love spicy food because most things I ate growing up had a healthy splash of chili peppers. And for immigrants, food can be a way of preserving culture and maintaining a connection to home in a foreign place, as was the case in my family. As a first generation Indian-American, the food of my childhood consisted largely of curry, rice and lentils – the staples of South Indian cuisine. While I ate my fair share of pizza and chicken nuggets too, the food that I most deeply associate with home are dishes like dosa, rice, sambarmasala and chettinad chicken.

For me, food has also been the one consistent connection I’ve felt to my South Asian roots. Growing up first generation, I just wanted to assimilate, particularly during my teenage years – I felt like being white was cool, and being Indian wasn’t. In my efforts to be like everyone else, I put most elements of my heritage on the backburner, whether it was language, traditions, or clothing. But I never lost my love for the food. There’s something special about recipes and dishes that have been passed down, prepared and eaten generation after generation – it evokes warmth, and an irreplaceable sense of belonging and connection, even if I’ve grown up thousands of miles away from the land my family comes from.

I’ve spent my twenties reclaiming my heritage, and one of my favorite ways of doing that has been to make the recipes my family has passed down to me for my friends – it’s an opportunity to open a window into my culture from by sharing the memories I associate with different dishes and explaining the preparation and traditions. In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I share the recipe for my comfort food of choice – a heaping serving of my mom’s chicken biriyani, a fragrant rice dish made with spices, saffron and a meat such as chicken, goat or lamb – in the hopes that you’ll get to experience some of the joy I do each time I have it.


Dry roast powder ingredients: (you can also pick up a pre-mixed spice mix from your local Indian store)

1 tsp of cumin powder 1 tsp of coriander powder 1 tsp of turmeric powder 2 ½ tsp of chili powder 3-4 tsp of Shan Bombay Biriyani mix 3 bay leaves 2 small cinnamon sticks 1 star anise 3 cardamom pods 3 cloves

Directions for dry roast powder: dry roast all of the powder ingredients in a pan on low heat until you get a nice aroma. Turn off stove and let it cool.


Marinate the chicken (or protein of choice)

Chicken/protein ingredients:

2 lbs of chicken with bone (my mom typically asks the butcher to cut a small whole chicken for her) 1 cup yogurt 1 small bunch of fresh cilantro leaves (save a ¼ of the bunch for garnish) ½ cup fresh mint leaves 1 tsp of garlic paste 1 tsp of ginger paste Juice of 1 fresh lemon Salt Dry roast powder

Directions for marinating chicken/protein:

  1. Add fresh lemon to the chicken
  2. Add the yogurt, dry roasted powder, ginger/garlic paste, salt, fresh mint + cilantro leaves.
  3. Mix and let the chicken marinate for 30 minutes or overnight in the fridge.

Ingredients for rice:

2 ½ cups basmati rice 2 1/8 cups water Big pinch of saffron 3 tsp milk 1 tsp salt 3 tsp oil

Cook the rice:

  1. Wash the rice 2-3 times and soak in the water
  2. Warm the milk + saffron in a microwave for 10-15 seconds add to the rice
  3. Add salt and oil and cook in a rice cooker
  4. Once the rice cooker has turned to “keep warm” disconnect and open the lid to cool

Ingredients for fried onions – optional (you can also buy these)

1 red onion (julienned) 4 tbsps chickpea flour 1 tbsp rice flour Salt to taste


Mix all of the above ingredients and deep or shallow fry according to your taste.

Putting it all together:

  1. In a wide pan, heat 5 tbsp of oil
  2. Once warm, turn the heat down to medium and add chicken, a layer of fried onions, cilantro and then the rice
  3. Top off with more fried onions and cilantro
  4. Reduce heat to low
  5. Wet a cheese cloth and wrap the lid of the wide pan and cover the dish
  6. Cook the biriyani over low heat for 40-45 minutes
  7. Open the lid and mix the layers before serving

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