You never quite outgrow this Balkan comfort food. My late cousin Leonidas Harvalias, who lived on Kéa long before we decided to move here, got the original recipe from one of the first Albanian immigrants who worked on the island.
I have changed it very slightly, and it has become part of our family’s permanent repertoire, one of our favorite casseroles. The name briani or briami, probably comes from the Persian biryan, which is also the ancestor of the more well-known Indian biryani. In the traditional Greek briami there is no rice, just a medley of summer vegetables baked in the oven.
Maria Kaneva in her book The Melting Pot: Balkan Food and Cookery, describes a baked rice, potato, and tomato piryan —the Bulgarian name— and writes that there are many versions of the dish, which can be traced to the Balkans in the Middle Ages. The Albanian version is much more interesting for me, because the rice is basically cooked in milk, and feta, along with peppers are giving it an additional flavor kick!
My friend Stamatia Stylou, a Greek-Albanian makes yet another version of the dish, with scallions and dill, instead of peppers, and no feta, which she served on the side. I make it often following her recipe, which I included in my Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts. Our friends love it as much as her young grandsons, who ask her to make it for them every time they visit.
Both these are ‘poor-man’s’ versions, but the flavors are rich despite their humble, vegetable ingredients. When lamb, kid or chicken were available, Stamatia said that they cooked and boned the meat, mixed it with the rice, and then baked it with a combination of broth and milk. It was customary to flavor the meat versions with chervil and green fenugreek instead of dill.
Briani was also made with chopped lamb’s liver and other innards. Stamatia’s grandmother even cooked briani with eel , whenever they happened to catch one in the local stream! The chilies in the variation are my humble addition to this dish. I always prepare it well in advance and let it cool before serving, which allows the flavors to come together.