Ramadan favorite

Searching for the best biryani in Houston: Three great places to sample the South Asian favorite

Searching for the best biryani in Houston: Three great places to sample the South Asian favorite

Ruchi Murkejee, Biryani, August 2012, woman, Sheikh Chilli's, Indo- Pakistani Restaurant, Enjoying Sheikh Chilli Mutton Biryani eating with my hand best way to eat biryani
Enjoying Sheikh Chilli's mutton biryani eating with my fingers - the best way to eat biryani Courtesy of Lights Camera Action
Ruchi Murkejee, Biryani, August 2012, Sheikh Chilli's, Indo-Pakistani Restaurant, food, rice, Chicken Biryani from Mezban
Chicken biryani from Mezban Courtesy of Lights Camera Action
Ruchi Murkejee, Biryani, August 2012, Sheikh Chilli's, Indo- Pakistani Restaurant, woman, food, Chef Kiran Verma displaying her favorite Biryani Food
Chef Kiran Verma displaying her favorite biryani Courtesy of Lights Camera Action
Ruchi Murkejee, Biryani, August 2012, Sheikh Chilli's, Indo- Pakistani Restaurant
Sheikh Chilli's Indo-Pakistani Restaurant Courtesy of Lights Camera Action
Ruchi Murkejee, Biryani, August 2012, woman, Sheikh Chilli's, Indo- Pakistani Restaurant, Enjoying Sheikh Chilli Mutton Biryani eating with my hand best way to eat biryani
Ruchi Murkejee, Biryani, August 2012, Sheikh Chilli's, Indo-Pakistani Restaurant, food, rice, Chicken Biryani from Mezban
Ruchi Murkejee, Biryani, August 2012, Sheikh Chilli's, Indo- Pakistani Restaurant, woman, food, Chef Kiran Verma displaying her favorite Biryani Food
Ruchi Murkejee, Biryani, August 2012, Sheikh Chilli's, Indo- Pakistani Restaurant

It's that time of the year when many of my Muslim friends are fasting for Ramadan, an Islamic ritual during which Muslims around the world spend the daylight hours in a complete fast and break it only in the evening. And it is during this time, that my foodie instinct drove me to search for the best biryani in H-Town.

The word "biryani" comes from the Persian word beryā(n), a Pakistani and Indian delicacy. I sometimes compare biryani to the Spanish dish paella. The recipe consists of rice, spices and meat (mostly goat meat and chicken). Although the ingredients do not change dramatically, the biriyani found in different parts of the Indian subcontinent vary greatly in taste; they can be hot or mild, dry or wet.

 Although the ingredients do not change dramatically, the biriyani found in different parts of the Indian subcontinent vary greatly in taste; they can be hot or mild, dry or wet.  

My quest to find the best biryani and an awesome pairing with shami kebabs (finely ground spicy goat meat patties) started near Hillcroft and Harwin at the epicore of Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District.

First stop was Mezban, a Pakistani and Indian restaurant at 6655 Harwin Dr. that is quite popular among all ethnicities, but its attendance is highest during iftar. ('Iftar' refers to the meal served at the end of the day to break the fast during Ramadan and it is often done as a community with friends gathering together.)

Mezban offers chicken biryani for $3.99 and goat meat biryani for $8.99. It can be enjoyed solo or with different types of kebabs like shami or reshmi. Another common biriyani condiment is raitha, a yogurt based sauce.

Growing up in the northern part of India helped me to discern great biriyani. Sheikh Chilli's restaurant at 6121 Hillcroft is one of Houston's best-kept secrets for authentic goat meat biryani. The restaurant is not a fancy place to sit down and dine, but the trip to pick up an order of biriyani to go is well worth it.

Made with a wide array of spices like cumin, cardamom, nutmeg and pepper cloves, and rice in ghee (clarified butter), this popular dish is made in many ways in India. Each state has its own recipe. The most popular ones are Lucknowi and Hyderabadi biryani.

Sheikh Chilli's restaurant may not be fancy but for $6.99 a plate, the mutton biryani is rich in flavor and looks. But be warned, it is spicy.

My last stop was Kiran's Restaurant & Bar at 4100 Westheimer for an upscale tasting. Chef and owner Kiran Verma made special arrangements for me to try both the chicken and the lamb biryani along with shami kebabs. Biryani is the most popular dish at Kiran's and she has also been hosting iftars.

Verma takes extra care to make sure the meat is fresh and the spices are not overpowering, keeping in mind the diversity of her customers. Both the chicken and lamb biryani had a distinct taste with raisins and cashews. The price is higher (around $18 for the chicken ciryani; $22 for lamb) but the food is lighter on your tummy.

Happy Ramadan and enjoy your biryani pick!

Ruchi Mukherjee is a lifestyle feature journalist for TV Asia and host of Lights Camera Action, an online magazine that covers Houston Indo-American society news.