RIGHT Foot Forward

On Eid, an ode to biryani

Cooked leisurely over a slow fire, it is gentle lovemaking rather than a torrid act in a boiling cauldron or burning desire over a charcoal bed on fire.

 |  RIGHT Foot Forward  |  8-minute read |   25-06-2017
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When it comes to biryani, we all turn connoisseurs. Like “single malt” snobs, we now have biryani snobs. Then there are “biryani wars” – my biryani is better than yours.

Kolkata biryani lovers will swear their biryani, improvised with potatoes by Wajid Ali Shah’s resourceful cook, is an improvement over the original Awadh (Lucknow) biryani. Whereas, the Hyderabad gentry will insist that their biryani is the ultimate in culinary evolution.

But, the fact is that very few of us get to taste real gourmet biryani. Good biryani is not available at restaurants - even the purse-ripping speciality fine-dining ones in five-star hotels. Great biryani is made at homes or prepared to order by expert chefs (referred to as “ustads” in Lucknow and Kolkata). So, most of the time, what we chase can be at best called “the good-bad biryani”.

Like many meat-based preparations, biryani too made its way into India from Central Asia. A friend who worked for the Indian secret services told me how he had tasted a fine variant of biryani, cooked with horse (colt) meat, at the house of a warlord in Kazakhstan.

Travelling eastwards via Iran, Afghanistan, Peshawar and Delhi, the majestic biryani found its ultimate home in Lucknow. The offsprings of Awadhi biryani spread to different parts of the sub-continent from Dhaka in the East to Golconda in the South. Conceivably, some of its cousins had taken a detour earlier to reach the western coasts of India via land and sea.

I am no food anthropologist. So, I may well have been bluffing my way through thus far, just as many self-proclaimed biryani experts do while discussing this real Nawab of Mughlai cuisine. The intent of this article, therefore, is not to explore either history or geography, but focus on the journey of senses.

A wee bit of creative licence is allowed because good biryani is, after all, like poetry. I say that advisedly, because biryani is one such dish that appeals to all five senses at the same time (the last being hearing - is contributed by the debate that eating biryani invariably generates).

It is the lowest of the lowly in the food chain that compare biryani with khichadi. Those who think biryani is a non-vegetarian variant of pulao are only a shade better. What makes biryani a truly ethereal gastronomic experience is the communion between rice and meat.

In their act of consummation within the pot, the rice and meat impart to each other flavour and aroma like two lovers in embrace, which can only be described as the divine union of Prakriti and Purush or yin and yang as it were. At the end of it, they are both parts of the whole, together yet separate.

There has to be something sensuous about biryani. Cooked leisurely over a slow fire, it is gentle lovemaking rather than a torrid act in a boiling cauldron or burning desire over a charcoal bed on fire. Therefore, the first test of a good biryani is that the mutton and rice cannot stick to each other.

The meat cannot be soggy, it has to be soft and yet retain texture and form. The aroma is captured within and no masala clings to the meat. The long grains of rice, firm neither too soft nor hard; never greasy but with just a hint of ghee or oil covering it like a film, must stay distinctly separate, so that the flavour can be absorbed from every morsel. A sticky biryani is worse than a wet blanket.

The Indian biryani trail pretty much begins from Delhi as the muscular food habits of the North West frontier begin to mellow as it travels east. But, the dalliance between meat and rice of the Mughal durbar in Delhi still does not match the delicate style of the Lucknow gharana.

aaloo-embed_062517011425.jpgPersonally, I find southern biryanis far less pretentious and highly under-rated. Photo: India Today

Though the Delhi biryani, as available in the bylanes near Jama Masjid made with long Basmati rice and best quality mutton, fulfils every criterion of the authentic fare, it is short on aroma. The biryani available elsewhere in the Capital (with the sole exception of some eateries in Nizammudin) including that sold in “handis” is mostly a fake mixture of pre-cooked bhuna mutton and half cooked rice steamed in a sealed pot or degchi.

While it is natural to have some amount of fat or ghee settled at the bottom of the vessel, the biggest give away of an imposter biryani is masala oil and overcooked bits and strings of meat in the lower layers of the rice. The knowledgeable biryani lovers would generally avoid biryani cooked at a base kitchen transported to city outlets where it is reheated before serving or delivery.

Big hotels have perfected the trick of overcoming these tell-tale signs, but five star biryanis are usually the chef’s clever rice and meat fusion cooking. Taken into confidence, the manager (not the chef) would admit how they have ingeniously perfected the art of quickie “dum” in a few minutes, for commercial compulsions.

I seriously doubt anyone who claims to have had authentic Awadhi biryani in recent times at Lucknow; the popular tourist haunts like Idris serve at best passable stuff. The reason for that is not far to seek.

It is because the clientele for high-class biryani (which would be expensive for the cost of exotic ingredients and best quality meat) has dwindled drastically for small eateries in Chowk or Aminabad to make it available across the counter.

It is precisely because of this factor that Kolkata and Hyderabad have stolen a march over Lucknow. In both these cities, it is still possible to get reasonably good biryani at commercial establishments. Shiraz, Royal, Arsalan, Aminia Zeeshan in Kolkata and Sarvi, Shadab and Paradise in Hyderabad, all offer decent biryani that money can buy.

Both Kolkata (or Calcutta) biryani and Hyderabad biryani owe their origin to Lucknow. And, what distinguishes Lucknow from all other “gharanas” of biryani is the aroma that comes from the addition of saffron, fine spices like mace, nutmeg powder, kewra water and occasionally a touch of ittar.

The apocryphal story of how potato came to be added to Calcutta biryani is well known. Still it is a clone of the Awadhi biryani. In comparison, Hyderabad Nawabi biryani is more subtle and refined. But, there are other biryanis in Hyderabad, both Muslim and Coastal Andhra Hindu, which can challenge the taste bud with their spicy firepower.

Personally, I find southern biryanis far less pretentious and highly under-rated. Being close to the Spice Country - the homely cardamom and pepper take the place of exotic saffron. There is also no taboo against addition of herbs like coriander, pudina and even kari-patta occasionally.

Local shorter-grain low starch rice replaces the Basmati. The mutton is lean, in contrast to the fattened “khassi” of the North – that makes it more tender and succulent. The “military” hotels – my personal favourites being Velu in Nungambakkam and Amma in T-Nagar, or more recently Haribhavanam in Coimbatore.

Though Andhra, Anjappar (Chettinad) and Kerala (Malabar) biryani dominate the food scene in the South, surprisingly it is Karnataka that, probably, has the widest range of biryani. But, alas, there are not too many restaurants that serve the authentic Kannada variants. For that one has to go to hole in the wall hotels in small towns. So, in Bangalore it is safer to stick to the old tried and tested – Nagarjuna or Amravati.

Arguably, the worst biryanis are in Mumbai. With the old Irani restaurants almost extinct (save a few like Lucky) it is nearly impossible to get respectable biryani. Though Bohri or Khoja biryani is famed, it is available only at home or on order from a few caterers.

One has heard of Sindhi biryani but suspect it is more a rumour than real since the high point of Sindhi cuisine is Sai Bhaji Chawal. But, I am joking. All communities are equal, some may be more than others, but everyone has the divine right to their own biryani and claim it to be the best.

That finally brings us to that eternally controversial subject of vegetable or vegetarian biryani. Many, including me, consider the name to be an oxymoron, as there is something very revolting about the concept itself. Vegetables cannot add body to biryani. For that one needs soft porous protein. Even paneer cannot be a substitute for meat nor can soya nuggets as both are devoid of taste and cannot absorb flavours.

The only vegetable that can bring biryani anywhere close to what it is meant to be is kanthai or tender jackfruit. It has the texture and the fibres absorb the masala, which later release the flavour into the rice. But, again it is not available. Therefore, instead, of committing sacrilege and risk missing a place in jannat, vegetarian would be well advised to settle for plain daal chawal or at best lentil risotto, aka khichadi.

Like Bollywood has united the country, if there is one secular food in India – that has to be biryani.

So, this Eid please gorge on good, bad and even vegetarian biryani to get a taste of heaven on earth.

Eid Mubarak to all.

Also read: Of Cabbages and Kings: The best biryani ever


Sandip Ghose Sandip Ghose @sandipghose

Sandip Ghose is a writer and blogger on current affairs. Views expressed are personal and does not reflect those of his employer

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