A Sumptuous Balkan Briani

You never quite outgrow this simple comfort food, which we make often and our friends love it as much as Stamatia’s young grandsons, who ask her to bake it for them every time they visit her in Kea.

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My friend Stamatia Stylou, from Livena, a Greek village in southern Albania, taught me this baked rice that comes in many versions, with or without meat. The term briani, from Biryani, brings to mind the popular Indian rice dishes. The word originates from the old Persian ‘beryā(n)’ which means ‘fried or roasted.’ As I found researching common words used for various dishes in the Mediterranean for a paper I did with Anissa Helou for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, in Pre-Ottoman Turkey the word retained the old Persian meaning. In his piece about the “Foods and Breads of the Selçuk Period” M. Zeki Oral writes: “Biryan means kebab. As biryans were mentioned in the plural in the Selçukname, we may conclude that there were several types at the feast”.

What we call briami in Greece today is yet another, completely different dish. A medley of summer vegetables: eggplants, zucchini, peppers, onions and occasionally tomatoes are mixed with plenty of olive oil, chopped garlic, dried oregano or other aromatic herbs, like wild fennel or savory, and roasted in the oven until slightly charred, caramelized, and tender. This briami is a popular Greek summer dish, often served at room temperature with crusty fresh bread to soak up the sauce, accompanied with feta cheese that complements the sweetness of the roasted vegetables.

The more common rice biryani, in countless versions with or without meat of poultry, flavored with plenty of spices and aromatics is cooked or baked all around the world: from Iran and India to the Philippine’s and Mauritius.

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Stamatia’s Balkan briani is a seemingly simple dish devoid of spices, flavored with just chervil, parsley and some black pepper. Yet it is deeply satisfying but needs to be cooked carefully because it can become mushy, something Stamatia hates. My friend is a wonderful cook and, as all cooks in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean, never measures anything; just knows how the rice should look when spread on the pan, picks from the garden the right amount of chervil, parsley and scallions, and adds the broth to cover ‘by a few fingers’ the rice. Trying to get a working recipe I had to stop her at every step, measure, then measure again, to make sure I got the portions right.

In my upcoming vegetarian book I have the creamy “poor-man’s” version of this frugal Balkan dish, which is flavored with scallions, dill, mint and other herbs. We love to make it in the summer as it is best eaten at room temperature.

When lamb, kid or chicken were available this sumptuous Sunday briani was cooked. A little meat is enough to flavor the rice, or one could use just meat or chicken bones, Stamatia told me. Sometimes chopped lamb’s liver and other innards were used, while her grandmother made briani with eel, whenever she happened to catch one in the local stream!

You never quite outgrow this Balkan comfort food, which we make often and our friends love it as much as Stamatia’s young grandsons, who ask her to bake it for them every time they visit.

See the Recipe: Lamb Briani with Chervil and Scallions

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