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Monday, Feb 23, 2004

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The Biryani Chronicler

Anjali Prayag

Not everybody has the passion or the patience to follow Biryani back to its origins. Unless you're Vishy Shenoy who's even crossed the high seas in pursuit of his culinary obsession.

Vishy Shenoy has studied it grain by grain. Right from its origin to its evolution, its transition, its cross-border travel and its different varieties, he has all the `Biryani' facts at his fingertips. And this XLRI graduate calls himself the Biryani Chronicler.

This unusual passion for one of the Orient's most famous rice dish was born during his schooldays at Kochi. "The initiation happened at a place called Kayikkas which was right next to my school in Kochi. The restaurant makes the best Biryani I have ever eaten." And it helped that Shenoy's father, a bank employee, moved to various places in the country. At Kolkata, Shenoy got to taste this pan-Indian rice dish in an entirely new form. The popular place there was Shiraz's, which serves about 2,500 plates a day. "Thanks first to my father's job, then mine, I have relished and enjoyed all types of Biryani made across the world." He launches into a discourse on the various types of Biryani. The fish and prawn Biryani is unique to Kerala. In Tamil Nadu, you have the Ranipet Biryani and the Dindigul Curry Biryani (which was painstakingly prepared for President Bill Clinton when he visited India) from the Erode and Tirupur area. The Kangayam Catering College has documented and archived the Dindigul Biryani. "These varieties use a shorter grain of rice," he says. On the Western Coast, you have the Calicut Biryani and the Bhatkali Biryani, the recipe for which has come through the spice route and it has a Yemeni/Irani flavour. The North-West Frontier offers the Sindhi Biryani and the Kutchi Biryani, which is also called the Memoni Biryani. Kashmiris use asafoetida in Biryani, which is unique, and all the ingredients are marinated overnight, he says.

Shenoy has even sailed across the high seas to study this spicy rice dish. "In Sri Lanka, the dish is called Buryani," he says. And KFC, Colombo, offers Buryani with its meat placed on the top, which is a "hot favourite there." Some people even make String Hopper (idiappam) Biryani in the country. The Banglas use puffed rice instead of rice and so the Biryani is wet and soggy, he explains. "The Malaysians make a coconut-flavoured Biryani which even the Malayalis do not make here," he says.

Indonesia and Thailand have their own versions of the dish. Kuwait has a lamb Biryani called the Mechbous. And for vegetarians, South Africa is the place to head to, thanks to the large Gujarati community. "This is the only country which offers just vegetarian Biryani and no other variety," says Shenoy. And Turkey has a bland version of the rice dish.

Biryani actually originated in Persia and travelled to Asia in the 14th century, and was brought by Taimur. "Birian actually means `fried before cooking' in Persian. But now it has become a loosely held term for any rice dish across the country," rues Shenoy. And not many know that it has to be cooked in layers, he says.

In India, the Mughals attribute the introduction of the dish to themselves. It was, indeed, Aurangzeb who brought it to Hyderabad through Nizam Ul Mulk. And when one of the Nizam's daughters married into the royal family of Arcot, she took about 15 cooks with her as part of her dowry. It was then that Biryani came to Arcot. And so you have the famous Ranipet Biryani. Kolkata is famous for its mutton biryani with pieces of aloo thrown in. Even this has a history behind it, which Shenoy has studied. "The Biryani here originated from the Avadh royal family, which moved when a coterie of cooks migrated to Kolkata. The dish permeated from the royal family downwards to common households. As the latter could not afford meat, they substituted it with mutton pieces. It was a smart way of dressing it." Shenoy talks about how archaeologists have recently discovered about 170 varieties of Biryani that have been recorded by the Maharaja of Patiala.

But how did he manage to gather so much information on the subject? Shenoy explains, "My job has taken me to every nook and corner of India and some unusual parts of the world." He has been working with Parryware, Goodlass Nerolac, ad agencies and FMCG companies. "My dealers who were all from the local communities have helped me immensely with this research." For instance, in Mysore, a dealer told him about a railway coolie who cooked Biryani `Rowther style'. "The Rowthers hail from the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border and they were originally housekeepers to the Nawab of Arcot. This coolie has migrated to Mysore in search of a job and he still makes the best Biryani there."

But what really sparked off his interest in the dish was the wide variety of Biryanis that Shenoy tasted at a Bohri wedding, a few years ago. Keen to share this delight with the world, he soon plans to launch a chain of 12 theme restaurants specialising in, Biryani, of course. The first one will be in Bangalore followed by other cities, in India and abroad. On why he chose Bangalore, he says, "Because it has the most cosmopolitan crowd that is adventurous in its food habits. Mumbai was another choice, but you have very few rice eaters there."

At his restaurant, Shenoy plans to offer the ultimate Biryani experience. "I'll walk the guests through its history, evolution, varieties, etc and then they get to taste some of the most unusual versions of the dish." For instance, vegetarians will have the Nawaabi Tarkaari Biryani (made for the financiers of the Nawab who were Hindus) and the Tahiri Biryani. Even children will not be left out, with offerings like fruit Biryani and doodh Biryani on the menu. The restaurant will also offer traditional accompaniments to the dish such as mirchi ka salan, papads, etc.

"Then, of course, there will be the Sulaimani tea (lemon tea) to end the meal within in typical Calicut style." Shenoy also plans to have signature dishes like the lobster Biryani. He has already zeroed in on his chefs and is adding the final touches before the launch of the restaurant. Having tasted more than 50 varieties of Biryani, it's hard to say which is the best, he says but among his favourites are the Kerala version and the Karachi Beef Biryani that he imported through a friend in Pakistan. "I'm yet to taste the Kuwaiti Biryani which is supposed to be delicious," says the Biryani connoisseur.

Picture by G.R.N. Somashekar

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