A proper Indian biryani is one of the finest rice dishes of the world, a vast, smoking mound of seasoned basmati rice cooked with meat or vegetables. Pakistani cooks sometimes make great biryanis, superheated and fragrant with spice, although the versions in Los Angeles restaurants are definitely starches to race through on the way to the meat; a savory type of chicken biryani called dun buk htamin, cooked with cashews, raisins and vegetables, can be the best dish in most Burmese restaurants. When I am hungry for biryani lately, I sometimes go for the biryani-like plov at the Uzbekistan Restaurant in Hollywood, whose primal blast of garlic, lamb and imported wild cumin may be powerful enough to qualify as an alternative energy source.
The best biryanis in India itself are often acknowledged to come from Hyderabad, a prosperous, meat-eating city in the middle of vegetarian south India, a modern urban center famous for freshwater pearls, graceful minarets and sizzling kebabs. Hyderabad is one of the world’s great multicultural cities, an international crossroads that has over the last thousand years absorbed Arabs, Afghans, Iranians and Turks. It also has one of India‘s largest concentrations of scientists and software whizzes: The local boosters like to call the city ”Cyberabad,“ and there is a significant Hyderabadi presence in Silicon Valley.
As a Muslim stronghold in an extremely Hindu part of India, Hyderabad has a fairly peculiar cooking style. On the one hand, there is probably a bigger variety of vegetable preparations than you will find in any other part of Muslim India, southern Indian concoctions flavored with tamarind, mustard and tons of hot chiles. The most famous Hyderabadi vegetable dish is probably mirch ka salan, a sharply sour stew that actually features hot green chiles as a vegetable. On the other, there is a brand of fairly unmodulated Mogul cuisine that is basically the stuff you’ve eaten at a dozen Los Angeles restaurants, rich, meaty food that is more or less indistinguishable from Pakistani cooking — although in deference to the neighbors, the meats involved are usually chicken and mutton. The signs outside posh Hyderabadi restaurants tend to advertise ”vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.“
I have always been fairly curious about Hyderabadi cooking, poring over the thin-leaved cookbooks that sometimes make it onto the shelves of local Indian groceries, marveling at the descriptions of the delicate biryanis, gently cooked in heavy vessels whose lids are sealed with slender strips of dough. With the possible exception of the first few weeks of a plush Artesia restaurant that quickly went over to a basic northern Indian menu (and that last year changed over again, into a southern Indian restaurant called Woodlands), the cuisine has been almost impossible to find in the Los Angeles area.
Now there is Shan, a newish restaurant in Artesia with a largely Muslim clientele, big family groups powering through sauced mutton feet and grain-enriched lamb stews, the sizzle from a dozen tandoori platters drowning out the Indian film music that drones from speakers overhead. Shan, which is probably the only place right on the Little India strip that boasts of halal meat, understandably draws a mostly Pakistani crowd, eager to get their hands on the highly spiced mutton chops crusted black from the grill, the delicious tandoor-cooked chicken, the creamy, Mogul-style chicken korma. Shan is not a bad place to try the fiery lamb stew called nehari or minced-lamb seekh kebabs, although those dishes may be prepared more deftly at the nearby Pakistani restaurant Shanahwaz.
But if you look carefully and ask around, you may discover the slew of Hyderabadi specialties that hides among the usual Pakistaniana. There is bag hare baigan, a luscious braise of eggplant cooked down with tamarind, nuts and garlic, and a definitive mirch ka salan, jalapeño peppers simmered in a tamarind gravy until it is almost impossible to discern vegetable from sauce. You will find a tasty version of Chicken 65, a popular Hyderabadi happy-hour snack that falls halfway between Chinese and Indian cooking, bits of chicken marinated with chile, garlic and coriander, then wok-fried to almost the consistency of jerky, overcooked perhaps, but not bad for that.
And of course, there is biryani, a splendid plate of food, a giant heap of rice stained yellow with saffron, a little shiny with grease, sizzling with stinging handfuls of cinnamon, cloves and garlic, and enough cardamom to flavor your breath for days, plumped out with what must be a half-pound of crisped lamb — or vegetables, if you insist. It may not be the delicate dumphukt biryani that is currently fetishized by England‘s glossiest food magazines, but Shan’s biryani is powerfully delicious.
18621 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 865-3838. Open Tues.–Sun. 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$24. Lunch buffet, $7. No alcohol. MC, V.