ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on the biryani trail across India chronicling the history of this iconic dish and its regional variants
In a dark sooty kitchen in Mysuru’s Lashkar Mohalla with only a shaft of light slanting through a glass tile, Sadiq bhai stood stirring a huge cauldron of boiling oil sizzling with onions. Two wide steel vessels had the choicest cuts of fresh pink meat. In another vessel, water was already on the boil and a woven basket on the floor held a heap of washed rice waiting to be transformed into Nasheman’s signature mutton biryani. Sadiq bhai was one of the countless practitioners of a well-guarded craft using secrets handed down by elders.
There is something remarkable in the manner in which humble rice is elevated to a heavenly dish fit for kings and commoners alike, with just a play of ingredients, flavours and techniques. In Tamil Nadu, there is a reference to “oon soru” in Tamil literature dating to 2 AD, a delicious combination of rice, clarified butter, bay leaf, turmeric, coriander, pepper and meat that was served to warriors.
Though synonymous with Indian cuisine and a part of speciality and mainstream menus of every chef worth his salt, the biryani is regarded as an import from West Asia, more specifically, Persia. The word biryani is thought to originate from the Persian word “birian” which means ‘fried before cooking’ or “birinj” meaning ‘rice’. The washed rice is fried in butter or ghee before being cooked in boiling water – this not only imparted a mild nutty flavour to the rice but also ensured that the grains retained their shape after cooking.
Since medieval times, the recipe of a good biryani has been simple – rice and meat set in layers with the number of spices varying from few to fifteen. Traditionally, long grain brown rice was the preferred option, but now the scented basmati rice has become synonymous with biryani. In south India, local varieties like kaima or jeeraka shala (jeerige sanna in Coorg and seeraga samba in Tamil Nadu), provide their own distinct flavour and texture to the dish. The meats vary from goat, sheep, poultry, beef, eggs to seafood like fish, prawns and crab. Fragrance heightens its appeal and it’s not uncommon to find biryanis scented with rosewater, edible ittar or kewra water and saffron. The cooking technique can be kachchi (raw) where the meat is layered with raw rice in a handi or pot, or pakki (cooked) where cooked rice and meat are layered together.
Legend has it that Timur the Lame, the Turkic conqueror and founder of the Timurid Empire, was responsible for the entry of biryani to India. Apparently, when he landed at our frontiers in 1398 he served a rudimentary form of ‘biryani’ to his soldiers. His armies would consume a hearty diet of pots of rice, spices and meats that were slow cooked in hot buried pits which were dug out at meal time. While biryani may very well have been part of a war diet, there was always a certain romance associated with it.
Perhaps, the fact that Mumtaz, the inspiration behind India’s most celebrated monument and symbol of love, the Taj Mahal, had something to do with it! It is believed that Mumtaz once visited the Mughal army’s barracks and was dismayed by the dire conditions and poor nutrition endured by the soldiers. She ordered the cook to prepare a wholesome meal that blended meat and rice. And thus, they say, the biryani was born…
The stories may be apocryphal but there’s no doubt that the Mughals played their part in the popularity and dispersal of the biryani across their vast dominion. Whether it was the Nawabs of Oudh (Awadh) in Lucknow or the Nizams of Hyderabad, the biryani blossomed into regional variations wherever it went. Take Moradabad, founded in 1625 and named after Murad Buksh, son of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.
When Mohammed Yar Khan, hailed as the founder of the Indian brassware industry, migrated from Afghanistan to India in the 1860s, locals not only picked up techniques of brass making but also the nuances of biryani. The Moradabadi Biryani is typically low on spices and high on flavor and there’s no better place to taste it than Alam biriyaniwala on Galshaheed Road.
While the journey of the biryani from Persia to India via the Mughals is an incredible one, the way it was Indianized into different variants across the subcontinent is equally amazing. Patronized by royalty, every region, community or socio-geographic condition led to minor modifications and refinements. The Hyderabadi dum biryani developed under Asaf Jah I of Hyderabad. Arab nobleman Mir Qamar-ud-Din Siddiqi, appointed by Aurangzeb as viceroy of the Deccan between 1713 to 1721 laid the foundation of the Asaf Jahi dynasty after the death of the Mughal emperor.
As per legend, while on a hunting trip, the first Nizam was offered some kulcha (oval Indian bread) by a holy man. Asked to eat as many as he could, the Nizam ate seven kulchas and the seer prophesied that seven generations of his family would rule the state. The prophesy came true as seven Nizams ruled Hyderabad for two centuries from 1724 to 1947.
Inspired by Persian society and their Turko-Mongol Mughal overlords, the Nizams patronized art, literature, culture and cuisine. It is said that the khansamas (royal chefs) of the court could prepare over 50 types of biryani using shrimp, quail, fish, deer, hare and their signature saffron infused rice. Another speciality was the delicately flavoured Doodh ki Biryani cooked with creamy milk, roasted nuts and aromatic spices.
However, the quintessential Hyderabadi dum biryani is made with basmati rice, spices and goat meat in a style known as kachchi yakhni or kachche gosht ki biryani. The marinated meat is cooked along with rice layered with fried onions, chilies, mint leaves and sprinkled with kewda, rose water and saffron. The dish is left on slow fire or dum (steam) and sealed with dough for a fragrant and aromatic flavor.
It is often accompanied by a boiled egg and raita or mixed salad. While Paradise may have opened branches in other cities, locals swear by smaller establishments for the real taste of paradise – Hotel Shadaab near Charminar, Parvez Hotel at Nampally, Hotel Sohail in Malakpet and Cafe Bahar in Basheer Bagh.
One variant called the Kalyani biryani, often dubbed the ‘Poor man’s Hyderabadi biryani’, originated in Bidar in North Karnataka during the reign of the Kalyani Nawabs, who migrated to Hyderabad after Nawab Ghazanfur Jang married into the Asaf Jahi family. The Kalyani biryani was served by the Kalyani nawabs to guests who came from Bidar and visited their devdi (mansion) in Hyderabad.
After the privy purse was abolished and the nawabs went into decline, some of their illustrious cooks set up their own stalls and introduced the Kalyani biryani to the local populace. The Kalyani biryani is characterized by small cubes of buffalo meat flavoured with ginger, garlic, turmeric, red chili, cumin, coriander powder, lots of onion and tomato, made into a thick curry and then cooked in dum style along with rice.
While the Hyderabadi biryani uses ground masalas, the Awadhi or Lucknow biryani is characterized by whole spices and yellow chili powder for a mild, flavourful dish. The rice is cooked separately in spices and marinated chicken is added later. The ambience may not win any Michelin stars, but locals queue up at Lucknow’s legendary hole-in-the-wall eateries like Lalla biryani at Chaupatiya Chowk, Wahid biryani in Aminabad and Idris ki Biryani at Patanala near Kotwali Chowk Bazaar.
The Calcutta biryani, a Lucknowi variant, evolved when Awadh’s last Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was exiled in 1856 to Kolkata. Settled in the suburb of Metiabruz, the nawab brought his personal chef with him. It is said the poorer households of Kolkata that could not afford meat, supplemented it with potatoes, which became a local specialty. The subtle biryani uses nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, cloves and cardamom in the yoghurt based marinade for the meat which is cooked separately from the rice.
This combination of spices gives it a distinct flavour as compared to other styles. The rice is flavoured with ketaki water or rose water along with saffron to give it flavour and a light yellowish colour. The usual accompaniment is raita and kosha mangsho (thick mutton curry), best ordered from biryani bastions like Arsalan and Nizam’s. In nearby Barrackpore, at Dada-Boudi Biryani locals buzz around like bees to take away biryani by the boxfuls as large vessels simmer in the back alley.
As far as the original Mughlai biryani goes, one can still find the authentic taste in the crammed alleys and bylanes of Delhi. Tempered with saffron and enriched with nuts, the mild flavourful mughlai version has many takers, whether it is Al Jawahar near Jama Masjid or Nasir Iqbal in Nizamuddin. The legendary Karim’s, started in 1913 by Haji Karimuddin and ranked by Time Magazine as one of the best non vegetarian restaurants in Asia, trace their origins to the Mughal court.
After the last Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar was deposed and the British crushed the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, many royal cooks fled from Lal Qila and sought shelter in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. In 1911, when the Delhi Durbar was held for the coronation of King George V, several moved back to Delhi to cater to the crowds flocking for the coronation. Starting with a small dhaba serving rumali rotis with alu gosht and daal, Haji Karimuddin established the Karim Hotel in Jama Masjid’s Gali Kababian in 1913 with the lofty aim to serve royal food to the common man.
Over time, the biryani has criss-crossed the cardinal directions of the country and imbibed spices and flavours from each region, to create extraordinary versions, iconic to places or communities. Of the dozen odd styles found in India, surprisingly most variations can be found in the south!
While the spicy Andhra Biryani is popular across South India be it RRR Mess in Mysuru or Nagarjuna in Bengaluru, the local Donne Biryani is quite the rage, served piping hot in a donne (arecanut palm leaf cups). Share elbow space with die hard patrons at the Gundappa Shivaji military hotel in Bengaluru or Hanumanthu’s in Mysuru. Biryani purists may scoff that these are technically pulaos and unless it’s layered it ain’t biryani, but the proof of the pudding lies in eating it!
Mysuru is also known for its Tahari Biryani, perhaps a corruption of tarkari or vegetables. Beans, carrots and potatoes are cooked along with rice to create a tasty vegetarian dish that was popularised during the reign of Tipu Sultan and attributed to the austere vegetarian book-keepers in Tipu’s administration. Wherever there was a high Muslim population, the biryani gained tremendous popularity.
A popular variant in recent times is the Ambur biryani, first introduced by the Nawabs of Arcot and spread by their royal cooks in Ambur and Vaniyambadi villages of Vellore district in north-eastern Tamil Nadu. The most famous among them was Hasin Baig, who opened a small eatery on NH4 (Bengaluru- Chennai highway) that has grown into a powerful brand a century later. Ambur’s legendary Star Biryani now has branches in Chennai and Bengaluru and serves 7 types of biryani including a Chicken 65 Biryani!
Ambur regulars however swear by Hotel Rahmaniya. Authentic Ambur biryani does not use any garam masala powder or coriander powder with the spice and the taste coming from the red chili paste. It has a distinct aroma and the moderate use of spice and curd as a gravy base make it easy to digest. It also has a higher ratio of meat to rice and is typically served with dalcha, a sour brinjal curry or Kathirikai Pachadi (Khatte Baingan).
Another legend in the galaxy of stellar biryani makers is Dindigul’s Thalpakatti biryani. What started off in 1957 as a humble betelnut shop and a 4-seater Anandha Vilas Biriyani Hotel, is today the first non-veg South Indian restaurant to open in Paris! Its founder Nagasamy Naidu sported a thalapa (traditional turban) and hence the hotel’s popular name Thalappakatti.
Such was its taste that Tamil star Sivaji Ganesan often made a ritual stop at Dindigul for the Thalappakatti Biriyani while visiting his farmhouse at Soorakottai nearby. The Dindigul Biryani uses flavourful Parakkum sittu or Seeragasamba rice, top quality meat sourced from the cattle markets of Kannivadi and Paramathi, besides curd and lemon juice for the signature tang. Mutton bones are boiled and brinjal, potato and pulses are added to create an accompaniment called dalcha.
Many of the biryani varieties found on India’s eastern coast can be traced to Arab traders who sailed to port cities in the Konkan, Karavali and beyond. Malabar, Kerala’s northern region stretching from Kasaragod to Kozhikode, has long attracted Arabian sailors who came to India’s Spice Coast for trade. Over time, they married local women and a new Muslim community called the Mappilas (anglicized to Moplah) was formed.
Thalassery, Malabar’s culinary capital, is known for its delectable biryani made with local spices, ghee and the small-grained fragrant kaima or jeerakasala rice. The meat and rice are prepared separately and layered together for a final dum, sealing the lid with maida or dough and placing red hot charcoal or flaming coconut shells above the lid.
Very little chili or chili powder is used, leading to a subtle dish served with raita, mango or date pickle and coconut-coriander chutney. And it’s no secret, you get the best Thalassery biryani in Paris. No, not the Eiffel Tower, Louvre or Arc de Triomphe Paris, but a tiny shack on Thalassery’s Logan Road called Paris.
When cooks from Thalassery moved to Calicut, it led to a new coinage – Kozhikode or Malabar Biryani! We went backroom into the kitchen of Paragon restaurant to see a large vessel of chicken being stirred continuously into a thick gravy. Another man was cooking rice in cauldrons. A third deftly heaped steaming small-grained rice over a generous piece of chicken, as platefuls of Paragon’s famous biryani rolled out of the assembly line.
Besides meat, local cooks also turned to the bountiful sea to make fish or prawn biryani, sometimes made with a variation of vermicelli, instead of rice. Ayisha Manzil, a heritage homestay at Thalassery teaches the nuances of Moplah cuisine in gourmet cooking holidays.
In Mangaluru, the South Canara trading community of Bearys (derived from the Tulu word ‘byara’, meaning trade or business) have their own distinct cuisine. Just like Mangalorean food, they use coconut, curry leaves, ginger, chilli and spices like pepper and cardamom. The dum style Beary biryani is subtle and delectable. Further up the Karavali coast, the Navayaths of Bhatkal have a Bhatkali or Navayathi biryani.
Navayaths are migrants predominantly from Arabia and Persia, who married into local Jain trading families to form a new community called Navayaths or the ‘newly arrived’. Like their language Navayathi, their cuisine too is an amalgam of Persian, Arabic, Marathi and Urdu with Konkani as its base. The biryani often has a vermicelli version instead of rice and is served with accompaniments like baingan ka khatta (tangy brinjal curry) and sirke ka pyaz (onions in vinegar).
The biryani alters in taste and appearance as one travels up the coast. But have you ever heard of a biryani without rice? The Dawoodi Bohras are a sect of the Ismaili branch of Shias residing mainly in Mumbai, Gujarat and western India. Like their language – a dialect of Gujarati mixed with Arabic and Urdu – their biryani is also unique, made from colocasia leaves normally used for patrode. The Bohri patra biryani is flavoured with a lot of tomatoes and the best place to have it is in Mumbai’s Bohri Mohalla. Firoz Farsan dishes out a limited quantity every Sunday, though Ramzan is a great time to savour other delicacies.
There’s a Sindhi Biryani as well, with a pleasing bouquet of flavours using scented spices, roasted nuts, slivers of green chillies and a tang imparted by sour yoghurt and Aloo Bukhara (plums). The Memons of Gujarat-Sindh have a spicy Memoni biryani made with lamb, yoghurt, fried onions, potatoes and fewer tomatoes than the Sindhi version. They also use less food colouring, allowing the rich colours of the various meats, rice, and vegetables to blend in an appearance that is pleasing to the eye, as it is to the palate.
Even far flung Assam has its own version called the Kampuri biryani, where chicken is cooked with peas, carrots, beans, potatoes, and yellow bell peppers before being spiced up with cardamom and nutmeg and mixed with rice. The outcome is a tasty, simple dish with meat soaked in fresh flavours of local vegetables.
The recipe to a good biryani is often a closely guarded secret handed down generations, be it in homes, royal kitchens or local restaurants. Hidden in the layers of rice, spices and succulent meat, are little stories of nameless and famous people who have contributed gems to the culinary treasures of India. The adventurous will continue to drool and explore the dazzling range of biryanis on offer while others will seek out the old haunts for time-tested familiar tastes, tinged with nostalgia. Today, preparing a biryani almost has a celebratory connotation. It is a complex culinary creation that requires love and patience above all other ingredients. Otherwise, the world would be happy with fried rice!
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared as the Cover Story on 16 October 2016 in Sunday Herald newspaper.