Besotted by biryani

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 20, 2018
One-pot dish: Ambur, Dindigul, Calicut, all have their version of the biryani. Photo: S R Raghunathan

One-pot dish: Ambur, Dindigul, Calicut, all have their version of the biryani. Photo: S R Raghunathan   -  The Hindu

Shabnam Minwalla

Shabnam Minwalla   -  Business Line

The dish has an undeniable hold on the imagination of Indians

It all comes from having a name like Shabnam. Or so I’ve decided after decades of strange encounters of the basmati-and- kesar kind. Ever so often, I meet an almost-stranger — say, my husband’s colleague’s brother or the neighbour’s physiotherapist or our bank’s relationship manager — and we start a desultory conversation. Minutes later, I spot the telltale signs. A hungry gleam. A matey tone. And the inevitable remark, “Ha, ha. You must be making fabulous biryani in your house. You must be eating it all the time. Next time, don’t forget to invite me.”

The first 15 or 20 times I felt compelled to deny and clarify and apologise. To explain that we were more a tomato soup family. That, like most other Bombayites, we ordered our biryani from Delhi Darbar or Jaffer Bhai or Lucky’s. These protests fell on deaf ears, however. So now I smile graciously and try to impersonate the sort of woman who makes biryani for light entertainment, and then invites the bank relationship fellow for a feast. What is it about this dish that transforms any meal into a celebration? That ensures that even the lightest, I-will-not-carry-an-extra-paperclip kind of traveller will struggle onto the flight in Hyderabad, encumbered with bags of biryani from Paradise?

Perhaps it’s the aroma of rice, spices, meat and vegetables wafting from that massive aluminium pot. Perhaps it’s because the quest for the perfect biryani involves a decade-worth of journeys across the country. Perhaps it’s those pitched battles over kaccha biryani and pakka biryani and other matters of authenticity. And perhaps it’s the rituals and tests surrounding the dish. For example: when you’re confronted with a plateful of biryani, toss some on the floor and examine the grains. If even two grains stick together, your biryani has failed the test. (And your floor is greasy — but that’s another problem.)

Given that this dish plays such a role in our drooly fantasies, though, we know surprisingly little about its origin. Some believe it was the Mughal version of fusion foods — the coming together of delicate Persian pilaus with the robust spices of India. Pratibha Karan — author of the ultimate biryani cookbook — believes that pilaus arrived in India with Arab traders and invaders. The one-pot dish was favoured by soldiers when they set up camp for the night — and as different cooking styles were employed, biryani and pulao gradually parted ways. (The main difference seems to be that in biryani the meat is arranged between layers of rice.)

Ironically, while biryani is considered a Mughal or North Indian dish, it probably originated in the rice-loving south. At any rate, every corner of the country boasts unique versions — and as I write this column, I realise that I urgently need to visit Ambur, Dindigul and Calicut. And find ways to sneak into a royal household to sample doodh ki biryani and biryanis made with oranges or rose water. Not to mention a Bhatkal wedding and a Beary feast.

For those who want to embark upon the great biryani trail, Hyderabadi biryani is a good starting point. As is the Lucknowi version that is slowly cooked in a vessel sealed with dough. But even biryanis that have few nawabi connections and are ladled out at little shacks along dusty, remote highways are often spectacular.

Little wonder then that places like Ambur and Dindigul in Tamil Nadu and Palakkad in Kerala draw foodies from across the country. The light Ambur biryani is served with an eggplant curry and a raita. While the Thalapakatti biryani of Dindigul is made from short-grained rice called parakkam sittu and the meat of ‘grass-fed goats’ — and is the subject of a bitter trademark battle between the original Thalapakatti restaurants and the wannabe Thalapakatti crowd.

The “poor man’s” Andhra biryani is spicy and addictive. While the famous biryani from Malabar uses prawns and fish and prefers ‘jeera rice’ to basmati. The Bohra biryani has a distinctive smoky flavour — and for some unfathomable reason, my grandmother often paired it with small glasses of bright orange squash. The biryani of West Bengal has a story of its very own. When Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was banished by the British from Lucknow to Bengal, he took his entire court along. Which meant he had to feed hundreds of soldiers, nobles and family members. So the kitchen-in-exile started tossing potatoes into the biryani to add bulk — and realised that the spuds added a whole new dimension to the dish.

This tradition of experimentation continues with all the biryanis-come-lately — Schezwan biryani, pasta biryani, baked biryani risotto and soya biryani. And clearly biryani’s magic is partly due to the fact that it is as diverse as the country of its origin.

Chef Ranveer Brar’s Lucknowi mutton biryani

(Sent by him especially for this column)


For garam masala :

1 cinnamon stick

8-10 cloves

2-3 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp fennel seeds

2-3 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp peppercorns

2 star anise

2-3 mace

2-3 brown cardamom

3-4 green cardamom

For mutton marination :

1/2 kg mutton

2-3 tsp ginger-garlic paste

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp chilli powder

Cashew nut paste

Pinch of garam masala

4-5 tsp curd

For cooking :

2-3 tsp salt

3 tsp ghee

2-3 tsp oil

2-3 cups milk


500g basmati rice — cooked


For garam masala :

1 Dry roast all the spices and grind finely.

For mutton marination:

2 To the mutton, add ginger-garlic paste, turmeric and chilli powder.

3 Then add cashew nut paste, garam masala, curd and mix well.

4 Cover and refrigerate for an hour.

5 Let the meat come to room temperature. Season with salt. Grease the handi with ghee and oil. Transfer meat from bowl to handi. Stir and cook for a few minutes. Cover with the lid and simmer for half hour.

6 Now layer the mutton with cooked rice and pour a little saffron-infused milk over it. Add a little salt, garam masala, roasted onions and ghee over it.

7 Cover the handi with the lid and weight it down with something heavy. Keep the flame low.

8 Cook for about half an hour. Serve hot.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of 'The Strange Haunting of Model High School' & 'The Shy Supergirl'

Published on March 11, 2016

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