The biryani that almost isn’t

Updated on: Aug 05, 2016
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It has neither history nor the connoisseur’s approval. And yet the Moradabadi variety is spreading its roots

“It’s a scam,” says Sohail Hashmi, Delhi-based historian and writer, when asked about the proliferation of Moradabadi biryani around the Capital. Hashmi expounds on the idea of ‘cuisine’ and gives me an impromptu history lesson. The fall of the Mughal empire after Aurangzeb led to the rise of Lucknow, Rampur, Bhopal and Hyderabad as political centres. He makes a sharp observation — in a medieval society, it’s not the serfs but the feudal rulers who have the leisure to experiment with food. He also traces the arrival of biryani in India to its precursor — the Afghan biryan — rice cooked in a stock of meat ( yakhni ) and spices, layered with meat and then the pot sealed for dum. “Because Moradabad was never a principality, how can anyone account for a Moradabadi-style biryani? It’s a town famous for copper naqsheen katore (handcarved bowls) and lakdi ka kaam (woodwork), not fine dining,” he says.

I find that most stall-owners are either Delhi residents or from towns around Moradabad. Rampur, for example. The version ubiquitous in the city is more a pulao (rice and meat cooked together) rather than a biryani (rice and meat cooked separately, and then layered). It’s lighter on the spices than the Dilli and other biryanis, uses whole ( khada ) spices, is made from kaccha basmati rice and has little colour owing to the conspicuous absence of turmeric or saffron. It’s also served with a chilli and tomato chutney, what Anubhav Sapra, founder of Delhi Food Walks, likens to the “momo chutney” instead of raita or salan . “The rice is definitely better than what is used in other biryanis,” he says. When I ask stall-owners about the oldest Moradabadi biryani shops in the city, they mention Jaffrabad near Shahdara. Sapra points me to shops in Nizammuddin and Zakir Nagar (near Jamia Millia University) that have been selling this fare for more than 10 years.

So why is it suddenly everywhere? One biryani seller in Kalkaji has a theory — it’s cheap enough that “you can have a full meal for ₹100”, the recent migrants from the Moradabad region bring their food with them, and a chain of apprenticeship allows young people to learn the craft and open their own shops. Whatever your opinion about the taste — many connoisseurs dismiss this ‘pretender’ — the biryani is going places. It has travelled to Lucknow, Allahabad, Ajmer and even Mumbai. One name keeps surfacing in my conversations with sellers — Alam biryaniwale in Moradabad. Some restaurants around JNU (RK Puram, Munirka, Qutub Institutional Area) have hoardings that promise ‘Asli Alam Biryani’.

They have a vague address for me: Galshaeed, near Sambhali gate in Moradabad. An internet search confirms it and Facebook yields a phone number. After a 10-minute rickshaw ride from the railway station, we find Alam Ashrafi Chicken Corner. It’s a family-run enterprise headed by 52-year-old Zaheer Alam, also known as Haji Alam. A deeply religious man, he’s a sixth-generation khansama. And the recipe he uses — which remains unchanged — is from his father, who possibly learnt it from his father. Haji Alam took over his father’s biryani shop 26 years ago.

We find his brother-in-law, 10-year-old son and young nephew at the shop. There’s a wedding in the family and Haji Alam is away. We sit and a long chat unfolds over the afternoon. The shop has always been in the family and Alam sells both bade ki and chicken biryani. They’ve recently expanded and a bigger space is just five paces from the original. “I was only four when I started packing chutney in parcels,” says nephew Husnain. Eventually, plates of chicken biryani make it to our table. The biryanis I’ve had in Delhi don’t come together like this one — here the meatiness is part of the rice itself. And instead of the “momo chutney”, we are served a simple raita, and peeli (yellow) mirch and garlic chutney. My companion remarks, “It tastes like good, home-cooked biryani, almost like comfort food.”

Over a long phone conversation the next day, Haji Alam shares his recipe. Boil meat together with a pouch of whole coriander seeds, fennel, bay leaves, black and green cardamom, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, black pepper, cumin, cloves, deggi mirch, star anise, ginger, garlic and onions. Then roast the boiled meat in ghee with whole spices and green chillies, add equal parts water and yakhni (stock from the meat and spices), bring to boil, add rice and put on dum.

The family knows of the imitators and has even eaten at some but according to Haji Alam, the biryani tastes so bad “ ki sab naam kharab kar rahein hain (they’re giving us a bad name)”. The progenitor of a new food phenomenon is phlegmatic about the misuse of his name: “ Sab Alam to ban sakte hain, par Alam ki taqdeer nahin ban sakte (They can call themselves Alam, but they cannot have his luck).”

Published on January 17, 2018

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