One of the perks of being born in a Muslim household that also makes you the recipient of your friend’s envy is a home-cooked Biryani. Since, I was a child, I have eagerly waited for Eid every year because my grandmother would prepare delicious Mutton Biryani along with Seviya and Shammi Kabab. The aroma of the spices that filled the kitchen were an aromatic delight. Biryani was not just a meal, it was an opportunity to bond.
The recipe she used had a traditional lineage attached to it. From what she tells me, its been passed on for generations in the family. I am privileged in that sense because I learnt how to make it from her. Every family is proud of their version of Biryani. Back in High School, a day after Eid, I would take Biryani for my classmates every year. You might think I am some Biryani obsessed crazy person but for me it has an emotional value attached to it. I was fondly called “Biryani Lady” by a few batchmates who would rush to my class as soon as the word would spread during recess. The moment I would open my tiffin everyone would gather around my table to hogg on the delight. The sheer amount of happiness it got on everyone’s face made my Eid extra special.
I follow the school of thought that denies the existence of veg Biryani. The reason being that historically it never existed. Only after the original Biryani came to India, did the vegetarians come up with their own Biryani. I believe strongly that Veg Biryani is just pulao and not the “real” Biryani. (No offence to vegetarian people).
Therefore, for this issue, I decided to explore some iconic Biryani recipes across India and be a gastronomic Santa. The beauty of this dish is that all states have their own versions that are very different from one another. Being a hybrid kid i.e. having a mother from North India and father from the south, I somehow get the best of both worlds. However, Hyderabadi Biryani continues to be my childhood favorite.
Before we get onto each state, let me give you a brief historical trajectory as context. As is well known, India was ruled by the Mughals between the 16th-18th centuries. The Mughal era is considered to be a golden era for the development of culture, literature and music. Food was another aspect that was brought by the Mughals to the sub-continent. Biryani being an Urdu word can be traced back to Persian. The word's morphology reveals that two different words are closely related to "Biryani"- 'Birinj', meaning 'rice', and 'Biryan or Beriyan', meaning 'to fry or roast'. It is difficult to understand the exact origin of the dish but different theories have been proposed over the years.
The popular theory states that during the Safavid rule in Persia, a dish called Berian Pilao was prepared with meat or chicken (marinated overnight), mixed with yogurt, herbs, spices, dried fruits like raisins, prunes or pomegranate seeds – and later cooked in a tannour oven. It was then served with steamed rice.
The Awadh aka Lucknow Biryani- This version is very popular in North India and can be found at weddings and other formal gatherings. This Biryani is considered light on the stomach as it is prepared with few spices. It is served with Korma or any thick gravy or raita. It is also often served with onion that is spiked with lemon along with green chili and pickle in food outlets in places states such as Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Often, it is served in a handi sealed with roti on the top.
Based on the Persian style of cooking, the Lucknowi Biryani is made using a completely different method known as dum pukht. As is the norm with most Persian formats, the meat and gravy are partially cooked and then layered in the dum pukht style.
The Hyderabadi Biryani- The Nawabi city is the house of a lot delightful food items such as Haleem, Phirni, Nihari, Chicken 65, Mirchi ka saalan, Qubani ka meetha (Mouth-watering isn’t it) and, most importantly, the Hyderabadi version of Biryani. This version is very popular down south among all communities. During Eid season you get combos of Biryani and Korma and coke in almost every nook and corner.
The Kerala Biryani- It is commonly referred to as the 'Malabar Biryani', as it traces its origin from the Malabar coast region, specifically from Kozhikode (Calicut). The Biryani became a popular dish due to the close relation between the Arab states and Kerala as historically, Kerala followed a pattern of migrant movement to countries such as Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain etc. The rice is fried lightly while the meat is cooked separately and then mixed together to be cooked in Dum style. The Dum style primarily refers to the method of cooking biryani when the meat is marinated and cooked with the rice on a slow fire or “dum”. As a result, it takes more time to cook.
Kalyani Biryani (Hyderabad)- This version of Biryani is relatively unknown compared to the Hyderabadi Biryani. It is however, simpler than the latter. It consists of tomato, jeera and dhania that add to the flavour. It is quite popular on the outskirts of Hyderabad and in the less affluent Muslim areas of Hyderabad, especially Bidar from where it traces its origins. It consists of more tomatoes and onions compared to other Biryani recipes.
Kolkata Biryani- This Biryani, interestingly has its roots in the Nawabi style Biryani of Lucknow. The chefs from Awadhi kitchens brought the signature Biryani recipe to Kolkata, which later got tweaked into the unique Kolkata Biryani that we know today. The Kolkata Biryani is unique because of the addition of eggs and potatoes along with nutmeg, saffron and kewra that give it the unique fragrance.
Bombay Biryani- What makes Bombay Biryani special is the use of potatoes that is similar to the Bong version of Biryani. The only difference is that the potatoes are fried. The preparation uses a layered technique i.e. where half-cooked basmati rice and cooked meat are prepared in Dum style. The dish is ideal with raita, as it beats the scorching heat and humidity of Bombay. It is slightly sweet in taste too due to the dried plums and Kewra water. However, this is not a very popular dish among the masses in the city.
Arcot Biryani- The concept was introduced by the Nawabs of Arcot (present-day Vellore city), an urban village in Tamil Nadu. Ideally accompanied by dalcha (a sour brinjal curry), and pachadi (raita), it is made with smaller grains of rice for some reason. This type of Biryani is also cooked in dum style.The best known sub-variety of the Arcot Biryani is the Ambur Biryani, another popular dish in the region.
Bhakali Biryani (Coastal Karnataka)- Originating from the Muslim community in Nawayath area of Bhakali, it is prepared with a variety of different spices such as saffron, green chilly and caramelized onions. The Biryani evolved from the Bombay Biryani which was further revamped to cater to the coastal Karnataka communities and has a different color and flavor too. Meat and rice is prepared separately and layered then baked in oven or done in dum style.
About the Author
Tarana Faroqi is currently a second year Masters in International Affairs student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Tarana holds a graduate degree in Journalism and mass communication from Lady Shri Ram College for women, University of Delhi and a Post graduate diploma in conflict transformation and peace building.She has worked previously with MSF India, Hindustan Times, The Indian express, and The South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center.