22–06–2018, Mumbai, India: And finally, there is no problem on Earth that can’t be ameliorated by a plate of good biryani.
Good Morning Everyone. It’s the Friday Post on a humid Friday morning. Indian Muslims have a very strange relationship with biryani. We eat in sorrow and we eat in joy. We eat it in mourning and we eat it in celebration. We eat it when we want to eat something good and we eat it in when we don’t know what to eat. Biryani will perhaps be the leitmotif of Indian culture that is celebrated across the nation and by all its subcultures.
The Biryani Origins — Persian or Indian
Almost all articles floating on the internet today claim biryani originated in Iran or Persia and was brought by either Timur or the Mughals. This is what copying from the first link one opens after a Google search will lead to — validating a claim that has been numerously challenged. Food historians the world over are divided among themselves over the origins of biryani. Multiple theories have been forwarded:
- The dish was invented in Persia and brought by Timur or the Mughals
- The dish came well before them and was brought by Central Asian traders
- The dish was invented in the royal kitchens of Mughals
- The dish is an army dish derived from Pulao which itself is derived from Persian pilaf
I am pretty sure there would be more. There definitely is no way to settle.
Claims that it is Persian — The Ctrl+C Ctrl+V generation
The presence of the “dum” cooking style — heating on low heat with a wheat dough around the cooking vessel — in Iran, as well as some of the dishes there suggest that dishes similar to Biryani existed in Persia. Yet, there have been dishes like the Khichdi in India which have a similar cooking style. In fact, a theory that I have heard is that Biryani is a mixture of Pulao and Khichdi. The presence of something similar does not settle the claim. A better origin story is the Persian word biryan — frying before cooking — which is claimed as the root word for Biryani. Yet, this cooking style is adopted nowhere in preparing biryani.
Claims that it is Indian — Equally tough to verify
Just as we don’t rule out Persian origins, we don’t do the same for Indian ones. There is no definitive recipe of mention of a biryani anywhere outside India. Hence, while we can say that the Pulao may have been an influence on biryani, there is no reason to believe it originated outside India.
What can be said for certain is that the biryani we have today is a very Indian one. Indian kitchens — Eastern, Western, Northern and Southern — have had a part to play in the development of Biryani.
Is it the same as Pulao?
A pulao is a simple concoction where the staple — rice and sometimes lentils — are cooked together with the meat. In case of vegetarian pulao, meat is replaced with vegetables. Quite often, a pulao is simply a rice dish with some lentils and peas or other vegetables eaten with a gravy meat dish. It lacks the spices that go into biryani preparation, there is no layering while cooking it, and dum is not utilised while preparing it. All these make biryani what it is — biryani.
Interestingly, one theory suggests that pulao is an ancient Indian dish that the Iranians took from us.
The Biryani we love
The Hyderabadi and Lucknow Traditions
Just like Indian Music, there are two basic schools of preparing biryani.
The Hyderabad style is influenced by Hyderabad’s geographical and culinary factors — an abundance of rice and spices. This leads to the rice being cooked with spices for flavour. In my opinion, the rice plays a more important part than the meat in this tradition. The Hyderabad tradition largely follows the Kachchi style of cooking — rice and meat are both mixed uncooked or semi-cooked and then heated for a long time over the fire. As a result, the spices get a lot of time to mix with the rice and meat as they are cooked together.
The Lucknow style — as is obvious — is much less spicy. The north Indians are also wheat-eaters and hence rice plays a less important role than the meat in their preparation. The style of cooking is Pakki — rice and meat are cooked separately. The meat is the part where spices are largely used. The gravy formed by the spices are drained using cloths or something similar till largely the meat remains and then it is mixed to cooked rice. This is then heated for some time. There is layering here as well.
The Types of Biryani
These two basic styles have led to a host of biryanis across India. While the north has the traditional Lucknow biryani and modern innovations using the tandoor as we go North, the south has a much larger set. Apart from the Hyderabadi biryani, there are many variations like Ambur, Malabar, etc. and also the prawn biryani of Kerala. Western India has Bohri biryanis and East India, of course, has Dhakai and the Calcutta biryani. It will be nigh impossible to list all the types but Wikipedia does a pretty good job of this.
The North and East Indian traditions largely follow the pakki style and follow a variant of the Lucknow school. That’s notably because Biryani in East India was a gift of the Mughal chieftains. The Calcutta biryani is the result of the migration of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata. The South Indian biryanis are much more diverse and seem to be the inspiration behind the Western biryanis as well.
The Best Biryani Debate — the winner is nostalgia
Which is the best biryani? That’s a tough one to answer.
My personal experience tells me both Hyderabadi and Lucknow Biryanis have their own charm. Appreciating different styles of Biryani is an acquired taste — you learn to love the different varieties as you eat more of them. As I travel across the country, I find myself more drawn to biryanis of different styles and flavours. Needless to say, I find them all scrumptious — their tastes are pleasing and satisfying. However, it takes time to start appreciating the variety. You will find the style of biryani prevalent in your area to be the best for multiple reasons — you are used to the taste, you are used to the style and eat a similar style of food regularly, and you don’t like either the absence or the abundance of spices.
Chances are you will love the biryani you have grown up eating. That’s why the Calcutta Biryani is the best. :)
The Veg Biryani Debate — useless as a question
In a world with — I lament again — reduced journalistic standards, articles claiming vegetarian biryani is not biryani but pulao, abound. This is a dicey position flying right in the face of the same innovation that got us the biryani we love. Pulao is not the vegetarian brother of biryani; it’s a separate dish similar in ingredients but different in preparation as I explained earlier. The second part of the argument is therefore completely invalid.
However, biryani, all through its development, didn’t really have a vegetarian version. That’s a much more recent phenomenon. The question then is how integral meat is to the biryani? If we replace the rice in biryani with wheat or vermicelli, it won’t be a biryani anymore. Does replacing the meat with vegetables achieve the same result? Are we ready to accept this innovation as a new style of biryani altogether or will the dish evolve into something else?
Again, there’s no way to settle this debate.
Biryani as a cultural leitmotif
Is it a Muslim dish or an Indian dish?
Biryani is the gastronomical equivalent of cricket — most Indians love it in some form or the other and want a part of it. Yet, there is a very strong association the dish with Muslim culture in India. The dish was born in Muslim kitchens and reached to its present state in other Muslim kitchens. Does that make it a Muslim dish?
The answer, unequivocally, a No.
It’s no more Muslim than a samosa — a dish invented in Muslim kitchens. It is no more Muslim than the Kurta worn by almost everyone today. It is no more Muslim than a Sitar that experts like Ravi Shankar played. There are many such influences Muslims had on Indian culture. These influences are Indian — the same holds true for Biryani.
When in doubt, eat biryani
For me, Biryani always is a special dish, and yet something I have when there is nothing else cooked in the house. Our marriage ceremonies centre around biryani; it’s only recently that we have added other dishes to the menu we offer our guests. It’s as much a poor man’s dish as a rich man’s — the meat might be cheaper and the rice not basmati. It’s the dish I order after browsing the entire menu of a restaurant — without fail and every time. I judge places by their biryani — not just restaurants but entire cities.
Writing this has made me crave the biryani. I will go and order biryani for myself. Till then, live long and prosper.
The author is a routine Engineer-MBA with a nine-to-undefined job and lives under the illusion that he can write. He also blogs here.