Fusion food is tricky business. In the wrong hands, a dish that borrows from different cultures can turn into a muddled mess.
Ouita Michel, who presides over the kitchen at the historic Holly Hill Inn a half hour’s drive from Lexington, Kentucky, knew she was navigating potentially rough terrain when she decided to create a dish to please the families of both a Pakistani bride and her Kentucky groom, who got married there this summer.
The result is hoppin’ John biryani, a union so delicious you might wonder why no one thought of it before. A spice-perfumed cousin to rice pilaf that made its way to India and Pakistan from Persia, biryani comes in a thousand variations but has much in common with the Southern New Year’s Day staple. Both are dishes built around rice, fortified with beans, meat, or vegetables, and often trotted out for special occasions and holidays.
Michel, whose parents moved to Lexington when she was still in elementary school, was headed for law school before she found her calling in a New York kitchen. She enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, and on the first day met her future husband, Chris. On a trip home to plan their wedding, Michel realized she didn’t want to go back to New York. Now she has an empire that includes four other Lexington-area restaurants; Chris runs the business side and serves as wine guru.
The first version of Michel’s biryani, prepared in a customary vegetarian wedding style, was a hit. But she kept experimenting, adding her favorite Kentucky bacon and country ham, mixing in chopped roasted pecans, and brightening it with fresh parsley and green onion. She starts with long-grain rice, preferably the Southern-grown basmati variation called Texmati, then gently stirs in hoppin’ John’s traditional black-eyed peas (fresh or frozen), cooked with bacon and ham stock, as her mother taught her.
“She was from Wyoming, so when she moved to eastern Kentucky, the whole black-eyed pea thing was new to her,” Michel says. “But she was a fabulous cook, so she figured it out pretty quickly.”
When making this biryani at home, feel free to adjust ingredients here and there, depending on what’s on hand and personal preference. Although Michel likes bits of whole spice in the dish, cooks looking for convenience can substitute ground spices.
“It’s kind of fun to make it different every single time,” she says. “This is the kind of dish that can evolve and become part of the family culture.”