DUBAI: People curious about what a royal biryani tastes like can sample a sumptuous plate prepared by Abdullah Alampadi, a.k.a. “Baba Biryani”, who joined the Orchid Restaurant at the Ramada Hotel & Suites in Ajman recently.
The 60-year-old chef prepared food for Ajman’s ruling family for over 30 years before joining the hotel. “Cooking for guests (at the 140-seat restaurant), is no different from my former job. The preparation is the same. It’s just a question of upsizing in the right proportions, especially when there’s a huge hotel banquet for thousands.”
Growing up in Kerala, India, Alampadi has come a long way since he arrived in Dubai on November 11, 1981. “I started as a kitchen helper. I’ve only worked there and nowhere else,” he said, referring to the ruling family’s kitchen. It was there that he learnt and perfected the art of making Emirati food, with Arabic biryani being his top speciality.
But the Baba Biryani moniker didn’t come to him until he joined Orchid. “I got the new name after I came here – about three months ago. People here started addressing me by that name after seeing that biryani is my speciality,” said Alampadi.
He is equally adept at other Emirati dishes and teaches trainee chefs at the Ramada such local favourites as Salona (mixed seafood, meat or vegetable stew), Majbous (rice and meat with spices and tomatoes), Balalit (vermicelli topped egg and spices, with veggies or chicken) and Umm Ali, a sweet dish made of bread, milk cream and honey topped with nuts and dried fruits.
Alampad has no qualms about revealing his culinary secrets. In fact he makes biryani-making sound so simple. Actually it takes many bits and delicate steps to make the perfect biryani (he prepares 12 types).
So what is the secret to a great biryani?
“The secret is that there is no big secret. Rice is the main component of Emirati food. But like in most things, it takes experience. You don’t want to leave anything to luck.”
He’s over-simplifying. For starters, about 20 basic ingredients go into a biryani – from Basmati rice to meat, garlic, nuts and lemon. One must also throw in fresh mint, scallion, parsley, fresh coriander leaves, yogurt, melted ghee (clarified butter) and cooking oil.
Then there’s also biryani masala, coriander powder, chili powder, anise powder, cumin powder, star anise, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves.
The ultimate biryani, of course, has saffron strands (at between $120 to $200 per ounce, depending on the source).
A key preparation detail must not be left out, too: The rice must be soaked for a few hours with diced carrots, almonds, cashews and raisins. Good preparation also includes proper marination – marinate the meat (chicken, fish or mutton) with the same spices. Then either they are fried or roasted in the oven.
“I prepare the gravy separately from the meat and I always ask for fresh herbs and spices that I blend myself,” he said. “Keeping the taste consistent, whether preparing for just two diners or thousands, comes to you with time and patience. But if you put your heart to it, it’s easy.”
None of his five children, though, has followed in his footsteps. His two elder sons are both IT managers and the rest are all professionals.