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When rice met meat

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Anoothi Vishal on the many avatars of the and the many debates over its origins and recipes

At Paradise, Secunderabad, the biryani restaurant that has made it to the tourist guide books, a board proclaims a nugget of truth. The test of biryani, it says, is to throw a fistful of on the floor and check whether each grain falls separately. Should two grains stick together, God forbid, the biryani is no good.

That is the only simple truth about India’s most-loved dish. The history and form of biryani is a matter of passionate debate. The very origin of biryani is fraught with tensions. While some historians trace its roots to the Persian beiryan (meaning “to fry”, referring to the rice being fried in oil or fat before being cooked), others say it is more plausible to trace the etymology to birinj (“rice”). One possible biryani ancestor is the sandwich, apparently still found in the bazaars of Esfahan), in which two pieces of flatbread — not rice — layer the meat! At heart, the biryani is a sandwich.

Some claim the biryani is a Mughal invention, a poor man’s dish concocted by cooks from the royal kitchens, where the sophisticated Persian and Arab pilafs were corrupted with spices and various scraps from the kitchen. Others debunk this theory, saying that the dish was in existence much earlier.

The other bone of contention is the form. Which is better, the pakki biryani of Awadh where the mutton and rice are cooked separately, or the kachhi where the two are cooked together after the mutton has been tenderised with papaya? Some distinguish between pulao and biryani by pointing out that the biryani is layered. It is a distinction that holds truer than many others, though if you compare a nafees yakhni pulao and an equally delicate Avadhi biryani, you tread a wafer-thin line.

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Growing up in Lucknow, in a home that was proud of its yakhni pulao, I was convinced of the superiority of the pulao. Each grain of rice got its flavour from the stock in which it was cooked, the mutton was done to perfection, having been fried separately in yoghurt (thus debunking the one-pot-meal theory of the pulao). The biryani — concocted from a spicier qorma (about 90 per cent done) and rice (80 per cent done); both then layered and steam-cooked till fully done — made at home was more robust but less magical. Surprisingly, the bazaar biryanis seemed to follow a third recipe, one that combined the essence of yakhni pulao (subtler spices and rice cooked in stock) and layered biryani (the final steaming together of layers of cooked rice and meat).

The Avadhi dumpukht biryani that we recognise today may be a hotel creation with master chefs like having tweaked the recipe in the 1980s — they made it fashionable for the biryani to be served in dough-sealed haandis. But in hotel kitchens, the biryani is not made in sealed clay pots at all; that’s just presentation. On the whole, the Avadhi biryani is subtler than others, where local ingredients are added to the basic recipe of Arab traders. (The history of the biryani in India thus goes back further than Muslim rule).

A sibling of the Avadhi, the biryani from Murshidabad is distinguished by its use of potatoes, which substitute half the meat. This biryani is said to have travelled with who, when he was banished by the British from Lucknow, did not forget to take his cooks along. The tubers were seen as a poor man’s replacement for mutton, but are now part of the recipe.

Chef of The Surya, New Delhi, also points to the differences in biryani from the east (Bangladesh) and north (Murshidabad). “It is the eastern biryani that I prefer,” he says, pointing to the use of milder spices like cardamom, green chillies and “white” garam masala. It is a light biryani, and could be a cousin of the elusive Sufiyani biryani of Hyderabad but for the khoya. According to Halder, the Murshidabad biryani goes best with a lamb preparation such as kosha mangsho, and the eastern biryani finds its soulmate in the lighter white gravy of the rezala.

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Like Kolkata biryani, Mumbai biryani too uses potatoes. But it is much spicier, no doubt because of the coastal ingredients. It also uses turmeric in its spice mix. Food historian sees a predecessor to this dish in the “Akni”, cooked by communities such as the Memons, which uses gram, rice and lamb.

The fabled Bohri biryani, attributed to the community of Arab settlers on the west coast, uses dried fruits and nuts, including aloo-bokhara and raisins to give it its sweet-and-sour flavour. Another innovation is the Sindhi biryani, which incorporates vegetables.

Hyderabadi biryani is perhaps the only kachhi biryani. This may be the most common biryani, but it is certainly not the only kind of which Hyderabad foodies boast. The nizams’ kitchens turned out an incredible variety, and some of the noble families are proud custodians of involving everything from game to oranges.

But it is the southern biryanis that need to be brought into the mainstream. The Moplah biryanis of Kerala, using not just mutton but prawns and fish, show a lot of innovation. The elite recipes of Lucknow and Hyderabad, which take pride in the quality of Basmati rice they use, are turned into robust, exciting creations that use local kaima rice. Instead of just curd (a dominant feature of Mughal-influenced cooking), tomatoes and curd are both used in fish biryanis, alongside a medley of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander seeds and mace.

Fried onions are used to thicken the gravy. Rosewater and saffron are mixed and sprinkled on top for colour and flavour. According to Abida Rashid, a home cook-turned-consultant, fish and prawn are fried first and then curried, and the secret is to sprinkle the spice mix on top after the biryani is done.

Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka all have their local biryanis, as does Sri Lanka, where stringhoppers (iddiams) substitute rice! And while it is frequently asserted that the biryani is a subcontinental dish, its reach goes far beyond.

In Burma it is called dan pauk, a corruption of dumpukht, connoting “steamed”, and in Indonesia you have nasi goreng. Westwards, in Spain, what is paella but biryani in disguise? (Those given to splitting hairs say it is the pulao.) And then there is also the Creole jambalaya.

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