You could call it a broth or a mother sauce, the Yakhni is the base for many dishes and delicacies in the northern and north-western region of the subcontinent. There’s alchemy in it, to bring forth the layers of complex fragrances and flavours, but also, the most magical ingredient in preparing the most soulful Yakhni, is time
I was introduced to the Yakhni for the first time way back in 2007. It was on one of my trips to Kashmir that I came across the Yakhni. I remember that it was a cold February night. The houseboat we were staying at, on the Dal, was swaying mildly as the attendants brought in trays after trays of dinner, covered in shiny cloches, rotis and naans draped with embroidered cotton napkins. The wooden interiors shone rich and golden under the yellow bulbs of the chandeliers. It was a magical setting. Ghazal was playing. You could smell the roses that lined the houseboat windows in small pots. We uncovered one delicacy after another, the chef finally removing the biggest cloche with a flourish. It was Gosht Yakhni, he mentioned, and went on to explain what the Yakhni was. It wasn’t a dish, I remember him saying, but rather a foundation sauce, that can have different manifestations. He promised the Yakhni Pulao for next evening’s dinner. I was quite chuffed.
The Yakhni is a broth. While it pops up often in Mughlai and Indian restaurants in their gravy menu, the renditions are absolutely incorrect. Outside the north, “Yakhni” is equated with “Kashmir”, and is immediately served as a “white gravy”, and the waiter always warns “thoda sweet rahega”. While it has been popularised to have Kashmiri origins, the concept of Yakhni is prevalent in Pakistan and in Mughlai cuisine too. A close cousin, Akhni, is popular in Bangladesh. The Yakhni comprises slow cooking the meat with a set list of spices (balanced to alchemic perfection) and fat, to produce a nuanced stew that celebrates the flavours of the meat, is warmed by fat, and perfumed and flavoured by the spices. To produce a gravy, the meat will be separated from the Yakhni, the Yakhni will be strained to get the stock, and it will become the source of moisture to cook the gravy. For a Pulao, the meat is cooked separately, while the rice is cooked in the stock and then added to the cooked meat. Bangladeshis also prefer to add uncooked rice to the cooked meat, add the Yakhni stock to it, and allow them to cook together.
The spices are most commonplace, but it is the balance that is key. From coriander, fennel, cinnamon, to cardamom, bay leaves, cloves, and other companions, it doesn’t sound like that complicated an affair. I have cooked meat with Yakhni before, and it has always been a delectable affair. Last week, I wanted to pull off a grand Yakhni Pulao for the family — with a few tweaks to enhance the traditional recipe. For starters, after slow-cooking the meat for a while in the broth, I decided to pressure cook it, and leave the broth (without letting the steam out) to stew for a day. This is not asked for in the traditional recipe, but I figured that this would tenderise the meat to an unthinkable degree, pack every fibre with the fragrance and flavour of the spices, and also, infuse the broth with all the possible goodness from the spices. The next day, the meat was removed from the broth (so soft that it was almost falling off the bone), the broth was heated to liquefy the fat, and then strained to get a luscious, fragrant, fatty Yakhni. But, I stared at a bowlful of whole spices, refusing to want to trash them. How can I possibly reintroduce them into the recipe? As an experiment, I decided to blitz them into a smooth paste, run it through a sieve for extra smoothness, and then add it to the curd that was to be used for the second cook of the meat. Nothing gets me more excited than food waste management. Also, I realised, this was a great way to replenish any Yakhni essence that might get burned off while cooking the meat. The second cooking of the meat introduces alliums, shahi garam masala, and the souring agent — the curd. Alongside, the basmati rice is cooked in the Yakhni. It is a tricky process because you cannot throw out any starch and so you have to get your rice-to-Yakhni ratio exact. Once the rice is ready, you add it to the cooked meat, give it a soft mix, drizzle kewra water, meetha ittar, and saffron milk, and tightly cover it for a couple of hours at least. The final product is luxurious but light, flavourful but not overwhelming, packed with the goodness of spices, but not an attack on the senses.
The Yakhni Pulao is not a Biryani. It is not cooked by the dum process, and it doesn’t have many of the dry spices that the Biryani has. It also doesn’t have the potato. Personally, I love serving the Yakhni Pulao with a creamy-spicy Hyderabadi Mirchi Ka Saalan and a Burhani Raita. The Yakhni’s creamy softness complements the spicy kicks of the Saalan and the Raita really well.
The Yakhni, as I recently realised, is a journey of respect. You respect time, slowing down, and patience. You allow magic to happen without any micromanagement. In our world, patience and slowing down are luxuries, but they are necessary. If we could just zen out a little more, maybe, our lives could be as delectable as a Yakhni. Until then, we can just dig in.