We are sceptical. Biryani cooked in a bamboo stem sounds like a cheap gimmick. Since when did pots go out of fashion? This cafeteria-style halal eatery in a nondescript “adult-learning campus building” in Eunos claims to be the first in Singapore serving bamboo biryani. It says the method has roots in Indian tribal cooking, where the bamboo was used for its “health benefits and aroma”.
We are interrupted from our cynical train of thought when the waiter comes bearing a fat brown pole. Tick! Tack! Tock! He uses a thin wooden stick to hit the bamboo with short, sharp taps. A coriander leaf-studded hard-boiled egg plops out clumsily onto our plate, followed by an urgent tumble of golden and orange-hued basmati rice. Then, a pause. The server thwacks the bamboo more vigorously in a strangely mesmerising sort of percussion rhythm, coaxing a large hunk of bone-in Australian lamb shank to hurtle out of its bamboo prison. That was fun — and we're enveloped in a delightfully fragrant, meaty fog. But how does it taste?
Bamboo Biryani, $24 (feeds one hungry person, or two pax)
First, a spoonful of the tender, long-grain Indian rice. It is not floral and subtly flavoured like Hyderabad-style biryani (arguably the most famous version in the world). Instead, the slender grains, moistened with some of the lamb’s marinade, is robustly tasty: very faintly spicy, with a gentle tang. It’s so rich that we cannot discern the delicate flavour of the Iraqi saffron in it.
And instead of being prepared via the traditional dum method (where the rice and meat are slow-cooked together in a sealed receptacle over coals) the rice here is first par-cooked separately with clarified butter, mint and saffron, then slapped together with the lamb in the bamboo stem and sealed with a banana leaf for the final 25 minutes of cooking. So be prepared to wait.
The chilled — not frozen — lamb shank itself is earlier braised for two hours with “milder spices from Karachi, Pakistan”. The meat is fall-off-the-bone soft, fresh and naturally sweet, with zero trace of gaminess. Its savoury juices and light slick of spice-kissed gravy infuse the grains gorgeously. Never mind that 'authentic' Indian biryani rice is meant to be dryer, with no sauce — this is so flavoursome we can't stop shovelling it all in. We enjoy the egg, too, apparently often served with biryani in India.
This set meal comes with raita — chopped cucumber, onion and tomatoes tossed in a refreshing yogurt sauce, a piquant Arabic salsa and a strange dessert of sweet rice pudding called Kheer (not our fave). There’s also a glass of blueberry soda and hot honey lemon ginger drink to round off the meal. It's plenty, that's why this is the only dish we bother trying today. The bistro also serves other less exciting stuff like curries and assorted dishes, displayed at the counter.
Think of this as fusion biryani. “We wanted something that would cater to all the different races in Singapore,” says 99 Bistro’s marketing head, Hari Balaji VR. “True Middle-Eastern biryani, where the dish originated, is lighter-tasting. Yes, almost like a Hainanese chicken rice version of lamb with rice. In Chennai, where I’m from, biryani is spicier. So this is a mix of various styles,” he adds.
Interestingly, 99 Bistro is owned by parent company Eduquest International Institute, which offers culinary courses. This explains the air-conditioned dining room's clean and modern, if slightly sterile decor. The chef here is Syed Shah, 31, a host on Suria's cooking series, Siapa Master.
In case you were wondering — the bamboo stems imported from India are used only a couple of times before they begin to disintegrate and are retired. They have, after all, taken quite a beating.
VERDICT: **** We’ve never been more entertained by a plate of rice. This biryani is somewhere between a nuanced Hyderabadi version and an unabashedly full-bodied Malay-Indian hybrid. And the generous hunk of lamb shank means you don’t have to forage for scraps of meat. Super satisfying. $
11 Eunos Rd 8, #01-02 Lifelong Learning Institute (near Paya Lebar MRT), S408601. Tel: 6745-9958. Open daily except Sun, noon - 3.30pm; 5.30pm - 10pm. Last orders at 3pm & 9pm. www.99bistro.com