Food is a touchy subject. I am not referring to the violence that food triggers (though, as we all know, it’s not really food that does it), but the friendly skirmishes that discussions on food often lead to. If you want to test that out, suddenly declare while sitting with a group of Bengalis that you think the Hyderabadi biryani is far better than the Calcutta version. Or, when you are with people from Lucknow, hold forth on the flavours of Calcutta biryani. When you are with Malayali friends, you could suggest that Tamil Nadu’s rice preparations are so much better than those from Kerala. And then sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
It’s an exercise that I often indulge in. Truth be told, I am fond of all kinds of biryanis – I love the potatoes in the Calcutta biryani, the kachchey gosht ki biryani of Hyderabad and the Tamil Nadu and Kerala biryanis with various kinds of meat and fish in them. And frankly, though having a strong favourite does lead to interesting discussions, there is actually no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy them all. The debate is a bit like the one on Mohammed Rafi versus Kishore Kumar. It’s pointless because you can like both for different reasons.
Many believe that the biryani came from Iran to India; the word, they hold, is from the Persian birinj
, which means rice. However, a chef from Tamil Nadu once told me that it figured in the Sangam literature of ancient southern India. In times of war, meat and rice were cooked together for soldiers, and this dish evolved over the centuries, the chef maintained.
While all that is debatable, biryanis certainly tell a story about the many threads of influences that bind what we call Indian food. Yet, when we say biryani, we tend to picture a mix of white and yellow rice with pieces of lamb or chicken in them. But that’s just one very small part of the biryani bouquet. There are so many kinds of biryanis that barring the fact that most are cooked with rice, there’s nothing common between them. And here I might as well add that there are rice-less biryanis, too – with vermicelli replacing the rice.
One of my favourite cookbooks – ‘Biryani’ by Pratibha Karan – lists some hundred kinds of biryanis. There are hosts of vegetable biryanis, too – including a morel (mushroom) biryani of Delhi, kabooli
(split gram) biryani of Hyderabad and jackfruit biryani of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Maharashtra has something called Ravan biryani – so called because it’s very hot.
Of course, the list of non-vegetarian biryanis is a long, long one. One Lucknow mutton biryani -- called motiye ki biryani
–has the essence of jasmine flowers in it. There’s a rose biryani with rose petals and rose water. Doodh biryani
of Hyderabad is a meat biryani in which the rice is cooked with milk and cream. Rajasthan even has a malai ki biryani
– rice and meat cooked with thickened milk.
Recently, I had the most delicious hilsa biryani. Now the hilsa is such a delicate fish that chefs tell me they have to be very careful when they cook it with rice to make sure that the fish doesn’t overcook. I am also greatly fond of Kerala’s prawn biryani, flavoured with curry leaves and aniseed. Kozhi biryani is a Malabar speciality, while many believe that you can’t go to Tamil Nadu and not have the Dindigul biryani.
But I think I am becoming more and more fond of the light Calcutta biryani. There’s a theory about the dish. When Wajid Ali Shah left Awadh for Calcutta, life was not lavish as it used to be. His followers soon started putting potatoes to make the biryani go a long way with fewer pieces of meat. Now, of course, it’s an essential part of the dish.
Did I just say dish? I’ve just reached the conclusion that the biryani is not a dish, but a cuisine in itself.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)