It is a story that is several centuries old and has its roots in migration from Yemen to Hyderabad in India (1724-1948).
It is the story of Zurbian or Zurbiyan, a biryani with its past in the culinary heritage of Deccan India.
We chanced upon it in the Heart of Sharjah, where Yemeni poet Essam Nasir Aldanmi had just merged a melody of flavours into one dish, the finale of which had included spreading out saffron-infused rice over meat, lavishly topping it with caramelised onions, fried raisins, toasted cashews and almonds, and leaving it to cook in its own steam.
He was demonstrating at a pavilion showcasing traditional cooking at the 18th edition of Sharjah Heritage Days.
Aldanmi was about to open the lid, and necks craned forward in anticipation. No one was left disillusioned. Noses met with an enticing aroma of delicate spices, eyes with a rich palette of colours - white of the long-grained basmati, yellow of the saffron-streaked grains, and red of the stew-bathed rice.
This concoction of perfectly spiced rice and tender, juicy, fall-off-the-bone meat is the Yemeni special occasion dish Zurbian or Zurbiyan, often made during Ramadan and Eid.
A bite of luxury
The dish, Aldanmi, an executive at the Sharjah Institute for Heritage, said, dates back to the time of the British colonisation of Aden, and it was soon the most popular meal in southern Yemen. “Yemeni cuisine is rich in dishes and foods that are distinguished by their flavours, and Zurbian is among the most famous and most important ones,” he says. “Adeni people treat it as a luxury - served at social events and holidays, and on special occasions such as welcoming and honouring guests and travellers, fulfilling vows, giving alms, weddings, etc. It is also a go-to iftar dish in Yemeni households during Ramadan.”
Zurbian consists of rice, potatoes and meat - some prefer to use chicken instead, explained Aldanmi. Spices are added, such as cinnamon, cumin, fennel, dried lemon or loomi, curry powder, red peppers, cardamom, black pepper, saffron - they are mixed with yoghurt to prepare the meat marinade. Caramelised onions are an important component. “Previously, the Zurbian wasn’t commonly made at home. Only Aden’s most popular chefs - Hanif, Bawazir, Al Bahri, Ali Majed - knew the secrets of this dish, which are mainly the meat, spices, and yoghurt, and which needed to be mixed well with meat and put aside for eight hours before cooking slowly and patiently over a low flame.”
But, despite all these flavours, Zurbian’s fame is owed to another distinctive quality - that the rich flavour of the dish rely on the fat of the meat being used to cook it rather than added fats.
Like the biryani, but not…
Similar to the biryani, the Zurbian has also been heavily influenced by the Deccan traditions of India, beginning with the caramelisation of large quantities of onions. “Both dishes are heavily influenced by Indian cuisine. The Zurbian is popular with the people of Aden, and that is why it was known as 'Adeni Zurbian', which usually consists of lamb, rice and potatoes. The meat is just slightly overcooked, which helps make it fall off the bone, incredibly soft and easily eaten by hand. We add yoghurt, garlic, cardamom, bay leaf, cloves, and other spices such as cinnamon, cumin, pepper and salt,” he said
Aldanmi contrasts this with the biryani, an Indian dish that’s ubiquitous across the UAE and Gulf nations. “This rice dish can be prepared with either chicken or meat, and a spice mix popularly known as Indian biryani spices available in shops across the country. This spice mixture is different from that of the Zurbian. Seven spices including turmeric and coriander are mixed together in a ratio that is often a family-held secret, and it is this traditional blend that guarantees the authentic flavour of Zurbian. And Zurbian’s use of potatoes makes it slightly different than the biryani.”
Like the Mandi and Madhbi dishes, which are a firm part of Yemeni culture, Zurbian has also gained popularity in the UAE due to the many Yemeni restaurants that offer it. “There is no doubt that everyone who tastes this dish admires and loves it very much,” Aldanmi said.
Want to prepare the Zurbian at home?
Aldanmi said a crucial requirement is high quality meat. He recommends Somali lamb due to its fat content, perfect for the dish. Another important step is the meat marination. And patience is key for its preparation, from start to end. “The meat should be allowed to rest in the mix of spices and yoghurt for at least eight hours as that lends it a distinct taste. And the Zurbian has to be prepared at a low temperature to ensure the meat or chicken is cooked to perfection. The meat needs to be cooked patiently.”
Usually, there’s another finishing touch - ‘live’ charcoal and ghee placed in an onion piece on top of the rice. “This smoky aroma gives a new depth of flavour to the dish.”
Authentic Zurbian Recipe:
Serves about 6
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
A large amount of meat or chicken (about 1.5 to 2kg)
Salt to taste
2 tbsp crushed garlic
1 tbsp each of turmeric, cumin, ground cardamom and cloves, black pepper powder
5 whole cardamoms
1 tbsp powdered coriander
1 cup water
1 heaped tbsp yoghurt
3 cups of rice
2 whole cloves
1 stick of cinnamon
2 dried bay leaves
2 cups of chicken or meat broth
1. Heat oil in a large cooking pot.
2. Caramelise the chopped onions until soft.
3. Add the meat or chicken pieces next, along with salt, crushed garlic, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, whole cardamoms and dried coriander. Stir the ingredients well.
4. Add water and yoghurt to the mix, and bring it to a boil.
5. Next, lower the temperature and leave the ingredients to cook on a low temperature for at least half an hour until the chicken or meat is cooked.
6. Once the meat softens, stop cooking and set aside.
7. In another pot, parboil the rice along with quartered potatoes and all the whole spices in the protein broth until the rice is cooked half way.
8. Strain the rice and potatoes using a large colander and add to the pot containing the cooked chicken/meat.
9. Stir all the ingredients gently, mixing them well. Even out the mixture and seal the cooking vessel well with tin foil, before covering it with a lid.
10. Cook on low-to-medium heat until all the ingredients are fully cooked.
11. Remove the lid and aluminum foil cover. For a more flavourful dish, let the Zurbian sit for 10 minutes before serving.
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