While the recent lockdown may have been challenging at times, it also enabled many to explore new cooking projects (sourdough anyone?) For Lydia Rehana, lockdown gave her the opportunity to raise money for a vital cause by cooking a dish she loves. Pasha Milburn spoke to her to learn more. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Lydia, who loves experimenting with different recipes in the kitchen, tended to only make her version of biryani once a year for friends. However, when the lockdown began, she realised the potential that the layered curry and rice dish had as a takeaway, and asked friends whether they would be interested in buying her biryani if the proceeds went to charity. After a resounding ‘yes’, Lydia got to work creating two options (veggie and meat) and adding home-made extras (coriander chutney, naan and an onion bhaji). 

Lydia serving biryani
PICTURE: Lydia Rehana 

Her biryani takeaway service was an amazing success with Lydia raising over £3,000 for her local ‘One Can Trust’ foodbank. As well as this, once a month Lydia has also been taking the time to provide biryani takeaway for the forty staff at her fathers’ care home – a kind gesture that takes about three solid days of cooking. 

Sugarpie Connection

Lydia is close friends with Lucy and Ray, owners of café Sugarpie Honeybuns (see Issue 141, I Can’t Help Myself) and has previously cooked biryani for them – for their wedding, and for a comedy night held at Sugarpie in January. Lydia had been planning to return to St Leonards for more biryani nights (and even a possible demonstration) but was unable to do so during lockdown. 

Lydia is no fan of a dry biryani and always strives for a curry that ‘oozes over like a volcano’

However, as more eating establishments are beginning to slowly open and find their feet again, and with the success of her biryani takeaways, it seemed the perfect time for Lydia to return. Lydia’s first takeaway biryani event was held last Friday and it went down a storm. A pleased customer told me, “This was a very special ‘take out’ and every detail was done with care, from the toasting of the nuts to the cooking instructions. I loved it!”

For those that missed out, Lydia reassured me that future events are planned, so watch this space. 

Onion bhajis

Biryani is generally understood to have originated in Persia (now Iran) as it comes from the Persian word ‘birian’ or ‘fried before cooking’. Now more commonly associated with Indian cookery rather than Iranian, historians think that the dish was brought to India by Muslim merchants during the Mughal Empire. Today in Iran the dish biryani no longer contains rice and is more commonly served as meat cooked in ‘rumali roti’ (a thin flatbread). Lydia, who has Assyrian ancestry and left Iraq in 1968 with her family to come to England, learned to cook her version of biryani from her mother. She has memories of her mother making “magnificent and delicious” biryanis for parties, as it was the perfect dish to prepare ahead of time and one that fed a crowd. However, when she asked her mum for an exact recipe she was encouraged to “play” with the flavours and find her own version. Lydia took the advice to heart and began altering the recipe to her own tastes, for example by swapping a more subtle mango chutney in place of the Branston Pickle used by her mother. Although Lydia’s biryanis often change and evolve, there are a few rules she always stands by: good quality ingredients (usually from her local butchers), a nice variety of spices, and a smattering of toasted nuts on top to add crunch and flavour. But the most important aspect? Lydia is no fan of a ‘dry’ biryani, and always strives for a perfectly moist curry that “oozes over like a volcano” when the dish is served. 

Check out @sugarpiehoneybunscoffeeshop on Instagram and Facebook for future updates on Lydia’s takeaway biryani events. 

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