[spicy review] Anni Dreams of Biryani by Namita Moolani Mehra and Chaaya Prabhat

Right now I am dreaming of the perfect Indian meal: To start, aloo tikki and samosas with a side of black pepper poppadums to wake up the taste buds, followed by chicken tikka masala or chicken korma with a steamy platter of vegetable biryani. Must also have some warm onion kulcha and garlic naan, and for dessert, gulab jamun. Mmmmm!

via Kuwait Times

Savory and oh-so-aromatic – Indian cuisine is all about the spices, many of which begin with the letter ‘c’: cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom. Let’s not forget mustard seeds, red chili, garum masala, and turmeric. An added bonus is that many of these also have valuable medicinal benefits.

Though I’ve never cooked Indian food at home, the young girl in this new picture book, Anni Dreams of Biryani by Namita Moolani Mehra and Chaaya Prabhat (Two Lions, 2022), has inspired me to give it a try. I’m impressed by her passion for cooking and determination to make the best version of one of her favorite dishes.

Vegetable Biryani via Piping Pot Curry.

When the story opens, we learn Anni lives with her mother and grandmother across the street  from the Biryani Café in Little India. From her kitchen window, she has a bird’s eye view of the comings and goings of the bustling neighborhood. She listens to the “constant chatter of busy bikers, curious tourists, and weary workers” – all of whom are there to eat café owner Mr. Arif’s (Uncle’s) famous biryani.

It was, after all, the best biryani in the world. 

Fluffy and fragrant. Spicy and succulent. Absolutely addictive.

Anni loves it so much she could eat the savory rice dish every single day. But Grandma deems it should be a once-a-week treat, so they only have it on Fridays. 

Anni can cook other wonderful dishes (curry, koftas, roti, raita), but somehow her biryani just isn’t as good as Uncle’s. If only she could discover the secret to his recipe! Only one thing to do: come up with a plan to coax it out of him.

So, every Friday, with pen and pad in hand, Anni pops into the café kitchen to casually ask Uncle a question about his method or ingredients. She first assures him that she is his “number one fan.” 

“Uncle, what makes your biryani a little spicy but not TOO spicy?”

“When browning the onions, how brown is brown?”

Though basically gruff and reticent (usually offering only nods and grunts), he patiently answers her questions at first. But after awhile Uncle has had enough. Why does she keep talking instead of cooking?! 

He’s right. It’s time for Anni to get to work, applying everything she’s learned from him. 

She gathers all the ingredients and cooks and cooks. When Ma and Grandma finally taste her biryani, they declare it the best – but Anni is still not satisfied. Something’s missing. 

Next time she goes to the café, she tells uncle she made biryani. While it was good, it wasn’t as good as his. She asks if there’s a secret ingredient she might have missed, showing him the recipe notes she’d written in her journal. He flips through it, then shoves it back in her hands. “VERY BUSY TODAY!” is all he says as he stomps off.

Anni is stunned and goes home to sulk, declaring there will be no more biryani on Fridays. Yet, she can’t stop dreaming about it. For days and weeks, “the sounds and smells still danced around her.” Finally she decides it’s time to snap out of it and complete her mission. But when she returns to the café, she is shocked to see that it has “Closed Forever.”

Oh no! 

She rushes home to ask Grandma what happened to Uncle, and strangely enough, she smells his biryani in their kitchen. Is she dreaming? What’s going on?

You’ll have to read the book to find out whether Anni ever discovers Uncle’s secret recipe. No doubt, this story will make you very hungry. Those who’ve never had biryani will definitely want to taste it, and those, like me, who already like it, will want to try making it.

Namita, who’s a food and parenting writer as well as a cookbook and children’s book author, was inspired to write this delectable story by a real-life grumpy biryani restaurant owner in Singapore’s Little India. 

She’s cooked up a zesty blend of culture, diversity, food heritage, family, and community that’ll surely inspire young foodies to explore new flavors and textures. Although Uncle’s secret recipe isn’t actually revealed, Namita has deftly woven common biryani ingredients into the narrative. Readers will root for Anni in her quest for excellence despite its challenges, and admire her measured approach and perseverance in attaining her goal.

Prabhat’s ebullient digital illustrations, rendered in a rich palette of warm and earthy browns, rusts, dark greens, golds, and burgundies, are straight out of the Indian spicebox, replicating the dazzling colors one might see in an open air market.

Love how she captures the spirit and vitality of Indian culture as well as the love of food traditions as they’re passed down through the generations. There are wonderful scenes of Anni and Uncle working in their own kitchens, with an abundance of ingredients (ginger, onions, chilies, potatoes, cilantro, mint) dancing across the pages. 

We get a good sense of Anni’s industriousness as she tries to piece together Uncle’s recipe; readers’ eyes will widen at Anni gleefully balancing atop a huge stack of pots, pans, and other cooking utensils. When she cooks, she cooks! Uncle, with his white mustache and beard, appears suitably brusque, though we sense he may have a soft spot for Anni, since he allowed her into his kitchen in the first place.

via Indian Spicebox

Backmatter includes interesting information about the origins of biryani, a description of its essential ingredients, and a link to a Chicken Biryani recipe at Namita’s Indian Spicebox website, where you can purchase organic spices and spice blends, and find out more about her published cookbooks. A portion of Indian Spicebox proceeds goes to funding hot lunches for underprivileged school children.

Organic spicebox kits are available at Indian Spicebox, Namita’s social impact business.

Namita describes the Indian Spicebox kits in this video:


written by Namita Moolani Mehra
illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat
published by Two Lions, September 2022
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 40 pp.

*Includes Author’s Note and recipe link

*Interior spreads text copyright © 2022 Namita Moolani Mehra, illustrations © 2022 Chaaya Prabhat, published by Two Lions. All rights reserved.

**This post contains Amazon and Bookshop affiliate links. When you purchase an item using either link, Jama’s Alphabet Soup receives a small referral fee at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!

***Copyright © 2023 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

15 thoughts on “[spicy review] Anni Dreams of Biryani by Namita Moolani Mehra and Chaaya Prabhat

  1. Thanks for this lovely little blog post. It is inspiring me to bring all four of my grandchildren over one Saturday and teach them the Italian recipes that my mom passed on! It amazes me how much of our cultures are passed on through food!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I dream of Indian cooking and do experiment every so often. This looks like an amazing celebration of food and culture. I wish I had had this a few years ago while on sabbatical. I had a number of second-grade students who would have appreciated this book.

    On another note, while I have a full spice drawer, I don’t have a spice box, though I’ve wanted one ever since watching The Hundred-Foot Journey. Thanks for the sumptuous post.!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, what beautiful illustrations this book has – and I love that a kid has a complex palette and isn’t afraid to indulge it. For many, the idea of seeing a grown-up older man in the kitchen will be new as well – but I love that it just IS – no comment needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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