“Biryani won’t divorce you, nor betray you; Biryani won’t cheat on or fight with you-then why can’t I just marry Briyani.” These are my ulterior emotions when I see or hear anyone talk about Briyani. Biryani has been not only satiating hunger for centuries, but also bringing happiness to our stomach. And India offers much on its culinary plate, with its local and hyperlocal varied styles of Biryanis. And we have been spoilt with options when it comes to experience this melting pot of flavours called Briyani. But have me warn you Briyani has its loyalists to a flaw. Why am I writing about Biryani, well my taste buds are dying to try out the tantalizing aroma of this vibrant cuisine.
Nevertheless, Shravan months & Corona have limited me to write & satisfy my desire for Biryani. Considerably, I tried out this elegant cuisine first in Lucknow, and I was in love, though subsequently, I did try Biryani’s of Kolkata, Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai as well. Yet, there are still many more stories of Biriyani to be explored in other cities of India. The origin of Biryani is uncertain; even so, it is believed to be in Persia before landing up in India. Biryani is derived from the Persian word Beryan-means food ‘fried before cooking,’ where Birinj is the Persian word of rice. There have been various rumours with the origin of Biryani, the most committed one is associated with Taimur- the Turco-Mongol legendary conqueror of the 14th C. The army of Taimur with them brought not only their culture’ but also delicacies that included Biryani. It was a war campaign diet, where the military would dig a pit, heat it, place an earthen pot in that pit filled with rice and meat- this eventually evolved as Kacchi Biryani. A simple cooking method helped drained soldiers in retaining their energy and nutrition. But impact came with several chapters of history, when the fame of a delicacy rose, along with its ingredients. It became a food of Royals from the menu of the battlers. From its ease of cooking, it gained complexity of the procedure century by century.
There is some other legend that an Arab trader who frequently visited the southern Malabar coast, has brought Biryani to India. There are records in Tamil literature as early as the year 2 AD about a rich dish known as Oon Soru. This dish is made of rice, Ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was utilized to feed military warriors. The southern origin Biryani was derived from Pilaf or Pulao, as it is recognized in the Indian subcontinent. All the same, the modern Biryani developed in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Empire. In that respect is one popular theory, Mumtaz Mahal, the most beloved wife of Shah Jahan, once visited the barracks of Mugal army and saw the diminishing health of the soldiers. Then she developed an inexpensive dish that was a complete meal, a balanced diet and well cooked-and the result was Biryani of course! But Pukki Biryani to feed the malnourished army. It was cooked in Dum since most of the layers were pre-cooked before being placed in a handi, several heaths were used, and this reduced the cooking time too.
Considerably, these legends were not enough when I stumbled upon another folklore that explains Biryani’s widespread. A traveller from Hyderabad on his maiden journey to the land of deserts – Dubai, stumbled upon a clan based in the Al Bastakiya district. Upon his arrival, he gave some spices that he brought from Iran to the tribe’s head chef in exchange for a night’s stay. That night the clan was attacked by a group of bandits. Then the village head asked everyone to conceal in the nearby cave along with few goods that could help them sustain for a few more days. Subsequently, after a couple of days, there was a lack of food, as products were getting over. So the cook came up with an innovative idea to solve the food crisis. He held a huge clay pot, made three layers in it consisting of rice, meat and some gravy on the top, then added hot water into the mixture and hid it beneath the warm sand. The entire pot of rice along with some spices and meat was cooked well under the high temperature of the desert sand. The enthralling aroma of the Iranian spices & rice enchanted the villagers. And the traveller spread the recipe while coming back to his home.
But there is still a question how did this inexpensive, lower-class meal makes its way to the Nawabi table? Well, history has an answer to it.
Biryani made its introduction in India long back, but a story says that Awadh once suffered from a feminine. And the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daulah, ordered his people to construct an Imambara, this kept them busy day & night. He also created arrangements of food for the workers, which was, of course, Biryani. It was cooked in large Handis, where the meat layered was with raw rice and hot charcoal on top and fire underneath. All vessels were sealed to retain the steam from escaping. This fashion of cooking Biryani is called the Kucchi (raw) Biryani. The slow cooking allowed the availability of food all the time, but one night the seal was not placed, and the hot scented stream flowed in the breeze. The smell attracted the Nawab, and he ordered to bring the food to him. He has not only relished the meal but ordered his chefs to make the same dish for him in his royal kitchen with exotic and expensive spices. And this is how Awadhi Biryani made it to the royal table and never left it.
On the other hand, Hyderabadi Biryani sprouted under the Asaf Jah, the Nizam of Hyderabad. Asaf Jah also is known as Meir Qamar-ud-din Khan Siddiqi Bayafandi was the governor of the Deccan region under the reign of Aurangzeb. It is said that his chef created more than fifty types of Pakki Biryanis- meat (deer and rabbit) & rice cooked in layers in the handi, where they come together in a marriage of flavours. Hyderabad is home to the affluent class, who always demanded excellent food, with exquisite taste. The breeds of Biryani that evolved later were Thalassery or Malabar and Delhi or Nizamuddin Biryani. The evolution of Biryani spans many centuries, culture, ingredients, and cooking styles too. The multiple varieties reflect the local tastes, traditions and gastronomic histories of their parts of evolution. Allow me to share some lip-smacking regional variants that I have tasted.
It was the first Biryani, that was introduced to me, and I fell in love with this culinary art. I tasted it when I was a teen, but a revisited the city to relinquish my taste bud. Then try out Tunday Kababi, Lalla’s Biryani etc. It’s also known as Awadhi Biryani, a complete form of Biryani as the textures are softer and the spices milder. The initial step involves making a yakhni stock- meat is boiled in water infused with spices for some two hours or more. It is cooked in Kachchi style, the mutton/chicken is sauteed in wholesome Ghee and whole spices till tender. Later the meat is layered with cooked rice, one on top of the other, and prepared together, with a covering enclosing the vessel- known as the Dum Biriyani, making Biryani moister, tender and delicately flavoured than other brownies.
The origin of Biryani is Murshidabad, the legendary gourmet Nawab Wajid Ali Shah banished by the British tried to revive his beloved dish in the city of Kolkata. Since I spent eight long years in Kolkata from my college days till early work life, I took a chance to hop in the most Biryani restaurant of Kolkata like Ameenia, Shiraz, Zeeshan, Khwab etc. Getting back to our story, since Nawab was unable to afford meat due to low budget, the local cooks gave the recipe a tweak, replacing meat with perfectly cooked golden brown potatoes – the signature of the Kolkata Biryani. The Biryani primarily uses a yoghurt based marinade for the meat, which is prepared separately from the light yellow rice in much lighter with spices. And precisely like most Bengali dishes, the Kolkata Biryani has a hint of sweetness hidden in it. But the Biryani fills our stomach to our heart’s capacity.
Bombay and Sindhi Biryani
Precisely like the city Mumbai, the Biryani is also spicy, hearty and zesty- a pot full of flavours. Bombay Biryani has spiced fried potato, with a tone of slight sweetness that comes from dried plums & kewra water. Taste it at Mohammad Ali road. In the same city, I also tasted Sindhi Biryani at one of my Sindhi friend’s home. This Biryani is loaded with finely slit green chillies, fragrant spices, and roasted nuts. So it’s hot, and one needs to be aware if a first-time eater. A typical characteristic is an addition of Plums (Aloo Bukhara) in the spices, which gives the Biryani a beautiful aroma; lots of sour yoghurt in the layering gives a tangy note to the spice mix.
The Biryani is a blend of Mughlai and Iranian cuisine. The aroma, taste, tender meat, the Zaffran, everything gives it a distinguished appearance; however, the rice flavoured with aromatic saffron is the star of the dish. It’s very spicy where meat is generally marinated overnight in curd and rich spices along with a generous pour of biriyani masala. Nevertheless, there is Doodh ki Biryani known for its light flavour, a unique Hyderabadi speciality. The creamy milk is blended with roasted nuts, and aromatic spices resulting in a subtle, refined, and delicately flavoured dish. A jewel among the regal biryanis of the Hyderabadi Nizams!
Mughlai or Nizamuddin Biryani
Since fond of Lavish & exquisite dining experience, Mughal looked upon cooking as an art. The spiced meat is succulent chunks, enveloped in kewra scented rice, emanate an irresistible aroma that makes one hungry instantly. This Biryani smells as well as tastes royal! So should try the Jama Mazid area for the Biryani & other Mughlai cuisine.
Biryani is a complete meal, suitable for all occasions. Indeed, it is a marvel of India’s culinary heritage as eating with love and gusto by the rich as well as poor.