It all happened one afternoon when I was due to meet some friends at a cafe around the Dunlop Street area. I got there early so I decided to sniff out the place for good food. Then I spotted a big banner in front of Bismillah Biryani that claimed to serve the best dum biryani in Singapore. I was a little sceptical but decided to try it anyway. The restaurant owner, Arif, has been running the restaurant for many years.
Having retired early, he said he was running the business to show Singaporeans what a "real" biryani is about rather than just making money. According to him, the key to a great biryani is basmati rice which is arguably one of the world's most expensive rice. As such there are many attempts to use other types of rice to pass off as basmati. You can't really blame the hawkers if they are to sell a plate of biryani for $3 or more. The most obvious characteristic of basmati is its ability to elongate to at least twice its length when cooked. However, it is not just the lengthening of the rice during cooking that makes a basmati a basmati. The other key characteristic is an alluring fragrance when cooked. There are many fake "basmatis" out there that are cooked with cheap long grain rice that lacks the fragrance of real basmati. It is hard to tell unless you are familiar with basmati rice. A good basmati rice needs to be aged for 2 years in order for the rice to dry properly. When the rice is dried, it should be opaque. The reason you need to age the rice properly is because a dry grain is the key to a great dum biryani as it would readily absorb all the flavours of the spices.
Now, in Singapore, biryani is often called nasi briyani (bri instead of bir). Being an Indian dish, the Malay word, nasi shouldn't even be there. But this shows how biryani has evolved to become a Singaporean variation which incorporates the local Malay influence. So in recent years, some people have tried to differentiate their biryani by calling it "dum" biryani. The word "dum" means that the biryani is cooked by baking the rice with the meat and spices in a large pot. According to Arif, the word "dum" is redundant since all biryani is supposed to be "dum" biryani.
The real dum biryani takes a lot of skill in order to get the temperature and cooking time right so that the meat is tender and the rice is not overcooked. A lot of "dum" biryanis actually take short cuts by cooking the rice and the curry separately and combining them together in a big pot to finish off the cooking process. Arif claimed that he is the only person who cooks the rice and the marinated meat in the pot over a charcoal fire with charcoal on top of the pot as well.
I have always said that there is only one ingredient needed for a great dish and that is "passion". It is passion that drives someone like Arif to purchase a professional spice grinder to grind his own spices and procure a whole sheep so that every pot of biryani he cooks contains meat from the same animal. It also takes a lot of confidence not to use any butter or ghee to flavour the rice but to depend solely on good quality spices.
The biryani rice here was cooked well that it absorbed the fragrant spices that it lingered in the mouth for quite a while. I found the mutton to be excellent. It was tender and fragrant and did not have that gamey flavour because the meat had been blanched in hot water before it was marinated. Amazingly the rice was quite light since Arif didn’t use a lot of oil or ghee in the cooking. He did not douse the rice with curry. To do that would be to do injustice to already aromatic and flavourful rice. So if you are expecting to eat your biryani that way, you might be disappointed.
50 Dunlop Street
Opening hours: Daily: 11.30am-10pm