By Talha Siddiqui

An earthen pot sealed with dough and slowly steaming on a stove was getting a lot of attention from everybody… being an inquisitive child, the sight was irresistible to me. But the wrestler like family cook instructed,  “ You are not to touch the pot till morning!”

It was mid summer, and we were all at our house in the village, where a big celebration was on the cards, and pots and pans were being  pushed about in preparation. Of all the dishes I might have had that day, what came out of the earthen pot that had simmered overnight is still fresh in my memory. The Awadhi biryani hit me with its fragrance and taste.

Many years later, I “got hit” by the Hyderabadi biryani, containing just as much vigor as I had heard it did.  And I am still to walk past Matka Peer {Opposite National Stadium in Delhi} without stepping in to grab a plate of their biryani. Also, I am yet to find a dish that is so similar, yet so different in all the places I have eaten it.

Some say that at every 500 km in India, the language changes, and so changes the recipe for biryani! For now, let us put language aside, and focus our attention on gastronomic{s}.

As a stroke of marketing genius, ITC put out a story behind the Dum Pukht style of cooking at their restaurant by the same name. They recalled the great famine in Awadh {now Lucknow}, and how the Nawab, in an attempt to ‘treat without curing’, ordered the rich and the poor to work on the restoration of the Emambara. Their remuneration? One square meal a day. Opulence, although routine for the Nawab himself,  was highly uncommon when it came to his people, and also unlikely in the face of a famine. In huge vessels, vegetables, meat and rice were mixed and slow cooked overnight, hence inventing the dum pukht biryani. Historians however, trace the dum pukht to Timor, suggesting that he brought it down with him from Kazakistan.

A similar famine story has done the rounds about the origin of the Calcutta biryani, stating that in the face of a famine, the Nawabs used potato as an improvisation over Awadhi biryani and served scarce meat on the side, a tradition that is continued till date. Yet another legend about the origins of biryani sates that it is nourishing as a whole, apart from the preparation convenience, when feeding a large hungry army after battle.

Whatever story you want to believe, biryani is a dish that forms an integral part of a lavish and authentic Indian non-vegetarian meal. It is cooked as a single meal for lazy weekends, as a customary dish on festivals and celebrations and, off late, has gained repute as a “quick meal off the shelf”.

Popular opinions can sometimes be wrong… as is the one that calls biryani a North Indian dish. In the South, there are more kinds of biryani than in the north, which makes sense, considering people in the south are rice eaters. The Malabar biryani, Dindigul biryani {in parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra}, Beary biryani {Karnataka}, Bhatkali biryani {areas around Bhatkal Karnataka} and Vaniyambadi {around Vellore} biryani are delicacies that are lacking in no measure.

The kind of rice plays an important role. The Malabari biryani, biryani found in areas around Delhi, Hyderabadi biryani or Awadhi biryani – all use a different kind of rice, leading hence to different tastes and textures. The bite you get from a biryani in Delhi is very different to the melting texture in an Awadhi or Hyderabdai biryani. The Malabari biryani on the other hand uses a different kind of rice all together, the Khyma. This is a thin, small-grained rice, whereas most of the other versions use a basmati rice.  The Awadhi biryani makes use of Zaqkni {stock} as the main flavoring.  Cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, black pepper, nutmeg, coriander seeds, mace, black cardamom and fennel seeds are tied up in a muslin cloth and dunked in a pot containing meat and then cooked. At the end, the last drop of the flavoring is squeezed to further enhance the flavor. The Bhatkali biryani has more onions in the sauce, which make the fragrance and taste very distinct.

Some biryanis are heavy on the tummy, as they use more ghee than others and are usually consumed in small proportions. Others, like the Hyderabadi biryani, have serving sizes, be it of the meat or of the rice, that are huge, but once you get past the sheer size, you will realize that it is not that hard to finish.

On the whole, these recipes have tweaks here and there, when it comes to both ingredients and the sides they are served with. From raita, to brinjal curry, to kachalu – the sides vary exponentially with each kind of biryani. Hyderabadi biryani is served with a mirchi salan, which can easily pass off as a dish in itself.  Vaniyambadi, famous for higher meat to rice ratio {which is usually 50-50}, uses a brinjal curry as a side.

Differences aside, biryanis usually have a few things in common. They are all layered, and mixed before serving, hence distinguishing them from pulao, where the rice and the meat are cooked together. They all have ingredients traditional to the Mughlai school of cooking, i.e. a base of onions, garlic, ginger and other spices. But more importantly, all of them are best served with a chilled Coke, to a voracious appetite.

For argument sake, we can agree that biryani is best organized in Hyderabad, where most of the restaurants make it well and are equipped to package and transport.  Some of the more professional places like Paradise actually inquire as to whether you will be taking the bus, train or will be flying, and package their biryani accordingly However, the Indian culinary heritage is so diverse that picking a winner amongst biryanis is not only impossible, but also unfair.

With respect to biryani, there are only two things worth mentioning – it is best made by your family and biryani is a more Indian dish than any other, for in the same vessel, meat, rice, spices and fragrances coexist, and have the ability to blow your mind as soon as the lid is lifted.

Biryani Places in Delhi |

Delhi Nihari | Where | 24/18, Main Road, Zakir Nagar, Okhla; Price | INR 200 for two {approx.}

Alkauser | Where | Branches at Safdarjung and Chanakyapuri; Price | INR 700 for two {approx.}

Matka Pir’s Chote Nawab | Where | Branches at Okhla Phase 1 and Malviya Nagar; Price | INR 350 for two {approx.}

Majeed’s Takeaway |

Biryani Places in Hyderabad |

Shah Ghaus Café | Where | Branches at Falaknuma and Tolichowki; Price | INR 600 for two {approx.}

Paradise | Click here; Price | INR 600 for two {approx}

Shadab | Where | 21, High Court Road, Opposite Madina Building, Ghansi Bazaar; Price | INR 600 for two {approx.}

Café Bahar | Where | Branches at Begumpet and Basheer Bagh; Price | INR 200 for two {approx.}

 

{Image courtesy | www.facebook.com/MuttonBiryani}