Cooking is an Act of Defiance

Cooking provides a familiar focus, even a break, and the possibility to recreate culture and share it in a part of the world that finds her, and people like her, distasteful.

By Sarah K. Khan
May 5, 2017 | , , , , , , , , , ,

The short film, “Surviving Surveillance, Catering to America: Beef Biryani,” is a visual morsel of Shahina Parveen preparing and cooking her popular Beef Biryani.

Despite her family’s ordeal as a result of the unjust 30-year jail sentence of her son, Shahawar Matin Siraj, Shahina refuses to give up the fight. As a food caterer, she creates and delivers complex, nuanced flavor and tastes. For Shahina, cooking provides a familiar focus, even a break, and the possibility to recreate culture and share it in a part of the world that finds her, and people like her, distasteful.

With her persistence to keep up the struggle for her son, and to share her culture in a not-so-welcoming foreign soil, cooking has become an act of defiance.



The word biryani, it is speculated, is derived from two Persian words – birinj, meaning rice, and biryan, meaning to fry or roast. Rice is often roasted in clarified butter before cooking it, to keep it from getting mushy since meat takes longer to cook than rice.

Sources claim the one-pot meal was ideal for armies. Others conclude the dish was only meant for Mughal royalty. Biryani is marked with a distinct cooking procedure — a sealed lid to properly steam the spice-laden rice and meat pieces together.

When I think of biryani, I think of layers – layered flavor, complex taste and multiple textures. That is what best constitutes beef biryani, or any good biryani. The first layer comprises onions sautéed with garlic and ginger. Next, numerous ground spices — characteristic of the sub-continent, like black pepper, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, cinnamon, clove, white and black cardamoms — are added at different times and cooked to coax out the flavor components that are both oil- and water-loving.

The beef cuts, already boiled simmered in spices, are tender and suffused with flavors from the seasoned water. Mixed with spices and the onion base, the meat cooks and simmers until the water evaporates and the oil separates. Added yogurt creates a thicker sauce, and spreads flavor in your mouth. Potatoes, in addition to long grain rice, provide a second vehicle to convey flavor and offer texture.

Stratum upon stratum of flavors bursts or blossoms as one chews and senses a morsel. And each bite contains meat, rice, potatoes, and multitudes of taste.

Ultimately, through the beef biryani, Shahina delivers royal flavor to ordinary people.

Watch Shahina tell the story of her family’s ordeal as a result of her son’s 30-year prison sentence here.


Sarah K. Khan writes and creates multimedia content on food and culture. Her research has taken her to live with Bedouins in Palestine, document the plight of Indian women farmers, traverse the world of Queens NY, and film women and food in Fez, Morocco. Along the way, she got some degrees in Middle Eastern history (BA), public health and nutrition (MPH, MS), and plant sciences (PhD). You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahkkhan, on Instagram at sarahkkhan and on her website

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