It doesn’t matter what you call it. Biriani, biryani, buriyani, beryani or beriani. As a famous playwright once said, a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. Or, in this case, aromatic. Biryani is derived from the Farsi word birian. It means “fried before cooking”. In the olden days, rice was stir-fried in clarified butter (or ghee) before it was boiled in water. Hence, “fried before cooking”. Experienced food connoisseurs can agree that this is a dish to awaken sleeping taste buds. A gastronomic extravaganza, biryani was made for superlatives. It’s loud in flavour, and colourful on both plate and palate. A heady perfume of coriander, pepper, bay leaves, mint and cumin. Layer upon layer of fragrant saffron-infused basmati rice and a thickly reduced curry of mutton, Biryani is like an Indo-Persian lasagne. Without the beef, of course.
A gastronomic extravaganza, biryani was made for superlatives. It’s loud in flavour, and colourful on both plate and palate.
The Legends of Biryani
The story of biryani’s arrival to India is peppered with celebrity names from the pages of history. However, the Persian origins of the word imply that biryani originated in Persia and/or Arabia. It’s possible that the dish could have come to India from Persia via Afghanistan together with Alexander’s armies. Here are some other biryani legends:
- It also could have also been brought by the Arab traders via the Arabian Sea to Calicut (in Kerala, India – not to be confused with Calcutta).
- One legend has it that Turko-Mongol ruler Timur the Lame brought it down from Kazakhstan via Afghanistan to Northern India.
- Another interesting legend has it that Mumtaz Mahal, of Taj Mahal fame, made a surprise visit to the army barracks one day and discovered that the men were undernourished. She commanded her chef to cook a complete, balanced meal for the warriors.
- Some say the flavourful biryani really originated in West Asia. Nomads would bury an earthen pot full of meat, rice and spices into a pit. When the pot was dug up, there was the biryani.
The Mughals brought to India spices and nuts such as cashews, pistachios and almonds, and the knowledge of how to use them in cuisine.
The Mughals and Biryani
Luckily, the fog of history clears up a little with the arrival of the Mughals in India. The Mughals were real hard-core foodies, so it makes sense that their reign between the 15th and 19th century left a deep impact on the food culture in India. The Mughals brought to India spices and nuts such as cashews, pistachios and almonds, and the knowledge of how to use them in cuisine. As a dish, the biryani was refined in the royal kitchens of Mughal emperors and nawabs. Flavours were enhanced using exotic spices. The curry was made rich, smooth and creamy. The long-grained basmati rice was cooked for Goldilocks – not too moist, not too dry, just right. It was a royal dish reserved for special occasions.
When the nawabs of Lucknow were exiled to Kolkata in 1857, meat was scarce so their chefs added potatoes to the dish.
Types of Biryani
To be blunt, biryani is simply a dish of rice and meat. But there are so many varieties, versions and histories of the dish that it’s mind boggling!
- Lucknowi or Awadhi biryani is the footprint that the Mughals left in India. The rice and meat are partially cooked separately, then layered and cooked together in the dum pukht fashion.
- Hyderabadi biryani is a mixture of the original Mughlai style biryani and the Southern, particularly Andhra, cuisine. It is extremely spicy and rich.
- Kolkata biryani is special for the presence of potatoes. When the nawabs of Lucknow were exiled to Kolkata in 1857, meat was scarce so their chefs added potatoes to the dish.
- Sindhi biryani, from the state of Sindh in present-day Pakistan, is the only type to use yoghurt in large amounts.
- Kacchi (“Raw”) biryani, a speciality of Bangladeshi weddings, is called such because raw meat – usually goat – and rice are cooked together in the same pot.
- Middle Eastern biryani has a much stronger saffron base than its Indian cousins.
So what’s the test of a good biryani? Take a palm-full of the rice and sprinkle it on the floor. If all the grains remain separate, then you have a good biryani. It means that the rice has been cooked just right to ensure it doesn’t stick. But sprinkling it on the floor is certainly not something I would recommend.