A mouthful of heaven

We Indians may be divided by political affiliation, state boundaries or choice of filmstars, but are united by our love for biryani

A mouthful of heaven
Ganesh V

Iam levitating and feeling light-headed. Yet, tears are streaming down my eyes and I sniffle repeatedly. I pause to wipe them away and then proceed to ingloriously stuff my mouth again. I look sideways and see that my friends are in the same dazed condition. No, these are not tears of despair. They are tears of bliss. And our peculiar schizophrenic condition of pleasure-pain is because of what is on our plates — scrumptious, flavourful, kill-worthy, extra-spicy biryani.

We are at a popular eatery in Bangalore, it is about 7 in the evening on a cool July day and the restaurant is packed to the gills. The servers are a hapless lot, scurrying to fulfill orders. Almost without exception, every one of them is carrying back a particular item from the kitchen — biryani.

This is in no way an unusual scene. Go to any part of India and you will find that biryani is one of the most popular dishes on restaurant menus. And most biryani eateries — from the roadside shack serving questionable stuff to the air-conditioned restaurant doling out the ‘authentic’ version — do roaring business night and day. There really is no pattern to the kind of people who relish this dish. Businessmen, filmstars, college students, labourers, everybody can be seen licking their fingers after a biryani binge. And therein lies a dichotomy: the biryani is the epitome of refined cooking, but at the same time, is the most plebeian of dishes too!

Doubtful origin

The dish may have got millions drooling, but there is no consensus on its birth. Aromatic legends abound on how and when the biryani came to be. One school of attributes its birth to Mumtaz Mahal, the Mughal queen. The story goes that during a visit to the army barracks, Mumtaz was appalled at how undernourished the soldiers were. She turned her royal nose towards the chief cook and asked him to put together a wholesome meal for the men — something that would have rice, meat and vegetables mixed together. And this is where the cook demonstrated his flair. He prepared a dish with layers of pre-cooked meat, vegetables and rice, seasoned with spices, ghee, yoghurt, onions and almonds and cooked again. The result of his experiment pleased Mumtaz — and the soldiers — no end and gave birth to what is one of the signature dishes of the Indian subcontinent.

Another version traces its genesis back to pre-Mughal times in Persia, and credits Timur Lang with giving Indians their first biryani goosebumps. There’s a southern Indian version too that maintains that the biryani is an evolved version of Oonu Soru, a popular dish served in the royal courts and barracks of ancient Tamil land.

Chef Praveen Anand of Chennai’s Hotel Crowne Plaza has yet another version. This long-time chef and food-lover believes that a dish similar to the biryani is mentioned in Nala Paka Darpanam, that magnum opus believed to have been written by King Nala, the legendary king of Nishada, reputed for his ability to handle the ladle as deftly as the sword.

As for the word ‘biryani,’ some believe that it came from the Persian term ‘biri-yan’, which means ‘frying rice before cooking it.’ Apparently, in earlier days, long-grained rice would first be fried and then cooked, thereby giving it a nutty taste and crisp texture. However, this theory too is hotly debated across the board.

One dish, many recipes

Quick, how many types of biryani are there in India? Three, ten, forty five? Well, nobody knows for sure. And you’d be wise not to try counting. Because every part of every state of India has its own variant. What’s more, many communities have their own version. Everyone and his uncle has heard of the Hyderabadi biryani, but the other styles have their own loyalists too. Awadhi biryani, Mughlai biryani, Sindhi biryani, Kacchi Memoni, Talassery or Moplah, Ambur, Dindigul Thalappakatti, Calcutta, Andhra (but of course, this is not the same as Hyderabadi biryani!)…..the list is as long as it is mouth-watering.

Debates rage about which of these is the real style of making biryani. Frankly though, one doesn’t really care. For, come to think of it, all these styles are real, original and authentic. Each one of them has a unique history and character, and holds out its own unique appeal.

Localisation of the recipe is the reason for the birth of so many styles — and also the reason for the widespread popularity of this dish. Each style reflects local food sensibilities and traditions. Take, for instance, the tale of how the Calcutta biryani was born. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Awadh, was exiled by the British in 1856 to Metiaburz, a suburb of Calcutta. A gourmand out and out, on reaching Calcutta, he asked his raqabdaar (gourmet chef) to make his favourite dish — what else but the biryani. Finding that meat wasn’t very easily available there in those days, the royal cook added potatoes and threw in nutmeg, a spice that is commonly available in those parts. And lo, the Calcutta style of biryani was born!

However, the original Awadhi or Lucknowi biryani that the deposed nawab’s raqabdaar made back home is a mildly spiced yet superbly aromatic dish. Made with whole khada masala (as against the powdered ones), this is known as pakki biryani, because the meat and rice are cooked separately before they are layered and cooked again.

Down South, the Hyderabadi biryani is traditionally made in the kachchi style, which involves marinating the meat overnight in a paste made of curd and spices. This marinated meat is cooked along with rice and spices by the dum pukht method. This means that the mouth of the cooking pot is sealed using a thick skin of atta, thereby locking the ingredients inside. Heat is then applied to both ends of the pot: at the bottom, by placing it on a stove and at the top by placing chunks of glowing-hot coal on the lid. The dum method draws out the aromas of the meat, ghee and spices and ensures that the meat cooks in its own juices and becomes tender. So finally, when the lid is unsealed, the heady aroma that hits you is enough to send you into orbit. No wonder then that the dum method has been adopted by certain other styles of biryani too.

The Malabar region of Kerala boasts of a variant known as the Thalassery biryani (after the town of Thalassery) or the Moplah style (after the muslim community known as Maaplas in Malayalam and anglicised to Moplahs). According to Pritam, biryani-specialist and chef at the Bangalore restaurant, Wareabouts, this variant uses an abundance of locally grown spices like cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns.

The fact that every community has its own version, in some cases, more than one version — brings the dish that much closer to the community. Many of them, notably those with rice-eating traditions, feel a sense of deep belonging with the biryani. So much so, that for some, it is not an exotic dish to be served only at feasts, but the very definition of comfort food.

Inscrutable magic

The biryani feels like a riot in the mouth. Various flavours, textures and tastes seem to clash with one another, leading to delicious mayhem. Given the many ingredients that go into it and the detailed cooking process, it is impossible to pin down a single reason why it is so delicious. The taste, richness and aromas are due to the alchemic coming together of the mutton (marinated just so, in the right paste, for the right duration), the fragrant grains of rice (basmati, zeera samba or a few other select varieties), the spices (in the right proportion, of course) and ghee, curated by the cooking method (the best of which is the dum pukht technique). The biryani is an ode to the best traditions of cooking.

No wonder then, that it elicits fanatical reactions in people. Indeed there are many who go bonkers at the very mention of the dish. Mayuri Govil is one such. “I can eat biryani all day, and from anywhere. There is something magical about the dish!” she gushes.

Tuhin Ghosh has spent many long years in Kolkata and swears by the fragrant biryani of Aminia and Siraj, two old eateries known for their Calcutta-style mutton biryani. “It is best eaten with rizalla or champ, both of which are thick gravies prepared in a flat container. The potatoes in the biryani melt in your mouth and give it a certain aroma and taste,” says he, dreamily.

A biryani meal typically ends with dessert. While modern restaurants offer you gulab jamun or ice cream, traditional eateries and homes would cringe at this. They prefer more traditional sweets like phirni, muttanjan, khubani ka meetha, shaahi tukda or kheer.

India’s love affair with this magical dish is not likely to cool off for a long, long time. As long as we retain our rice-eating traditions, the biryani will always find a place on our plates and in our hearts. Really, a well-cooked biryani is a sublime experience. And while others call it a dish, I have recognised it for what it truly is — an insanely happy state of mind. zz

(The writer is a marketing professional and author who lives to eat)

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