Biryani pots are always in demand in Chennai any day of the week. But during the countdown to Eid, rush hour might be a bit of an understatement for lunchtime. Ironically, this celebratory dish – a festival season staple and usually the quickest to disappear at a wedding buffet – began as a humble “one pot” solution to feed undernourished soldiers in the Mughal army barracks. Or so goes a popular origin story…
The beautiful queen of Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal, seeing a weakened troop, would have instructed her chef to prepare a dish combining meat and rice for a balanced diet. Back then, the rice was fried in ghee, without washing to give it those nutty notes and prevent the grains from clumping together. Maybe it connects the dots in the name biryani, like Birien in Persian translates as “fried before cooking”. Also, a remarkable tidbit from history is that saffron was one of the main aromatics when this dish was first cooked over firewood centuries ago and has remained an indelible part ever since. of the recipe.
A saffron saga
Nasrin Karimi, who runs the popular Shiraz Art Café on ECR, serves a Persian variation called Tahchin. The influence of saffron is so pronounced that the grains are golden yellow. “It’s the main ingredient and I always take Iranian saffron for our cooking, it’s the best,” Nasrin tells us. Made according to the dum style and with berries and dried fruits, track and almond, she tells us, “It was only after they reached India that spices and chillies were used.”
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of Awadh after being dethroned, is said to have brought biryani to Calcutta in 1856, when he settled in Metiabruz on the outskirts of Calcutta. The Nawab, whose indulgences are fairly well known, sought pleasures involving the five senses. Nothing describes this better than the Lucknowi or Awadhi biryani he brought with him as a taste of home.
This fine and delicate flavor is obtained by a set of spices such as star anise, cardamom, mace, saffron and bay leaf.
“Also kewra/Pink attars give a lovely fragrant sweetness and we source them directly from Kolkata as they are not available in the south,” says Abhyuday Purkayastha of Bay Leaf, Gopalapuram, a go-to restaurant for Bengali cuisine. The Kolkata biryani deviates from its royal Awadhi origins in a distinct way – the presence of the humble Aloo. “The Bengalis and their love for potatoes are legendary,” smiles Abhyuday. Over time, a boiled egg has also made an appearance, alongside a large piece of meat (unlike the small pieces that are popular in Tamil Nadu).
Honors in dum
The Nizams of Hyderabad and the Nawabs of Lucknow – the two biryani champions also had distinctions in technique that paved the way for entirely different palate experiences. We get to know some of them from Chef Suraj Kumar who runs Novotel The Degh Story’s cloud kitchen, known for its fragrant platter of Gosht Degh as well as a unique Bharwan Mirch ke Biryani (Soy Stuffed Bhavnagar Chilli). “Awadhi biryanis are finished with pre-cooked rice (pakki) and meat sauce in a dum container unlike Hyderabadi biryani where rice and raw meat (kachi) is cooked together in the container. This is aside from contrasting spice profiles: Awadhi biryani is made with mace, cardamom and saffron along with attar water and kewra, giving it a delicate flavor and rich fragrance, while Hyderabadi biryani contains cardamom, chilli, brown onion, yoghurt and mint which makes it rustic and spicier.
The accompaniments echo similar sentiments. Take for example, the anar (pomegranate) raitha which pairs with an Old Delhi Nimona Mirch Pulao made with a large salan mirch filled with pea mash as part of ITC Hotel’s Biryani and Pulao collection, inspired by cuisines heritage across the country. Meanwhile, Parsees enjoy a not-so-spicy dal masala pairing with their Parsi mutton pulao (order yours from Delkhush Delicacies or FillBelly). FillBelly’s Murad Shahuna tells us that this not-so-spicy dal masala is similar to the traditional dhansak (several types of slow cooked lentils with mutton and vegetables). Closer to home, plates of Tamil Muslim biryani and regional preparations from Dindigul and Madurai come with an onion pachadis to balance all that masala and spices.
Heading down to the south, we love the history of the royal Perun Choru which dates back to the Sangam literature of 300 BC, and according to food historian and leader Shri Bala even predates the Mughals. At the time, the Pandyas and the Cholas were sworn enemies, but there was one kingdom that remained neutral – the Cheras. “Instead of taking sides, King Uthiyan Cheralathan cooked for both armies. What his royal kitchen prepared was called Perun Choru,” she says. The latter literally translates to a great meal or feast. And biryani lovers will be happy to note that this piece of history can now be ordered from a menu, courtesy of Girish Subash who launched the Karigar cloud kitchen last year. The long grains of Basmati are swapped with the short grain seeraga samba rice, cooked with pepper, ghee and succulent chunks of mutton. And instead of the expected brinjal bharta, a tangy South Indian-style thokku steals the show.
More traditional and established players like Kovai Alankar Vilas and Junior Kuppanna, known for their Kongunadu biryani, have now reduced their masala to a science to maintain consistent, unwavering quality. Balachandar, manager of Junior Kuppanna, tells us that most of their spices, as well as ghee, come from Erode, where their masala factory is also located. He won’t elaborate much more, telling us that the specific ingredients are “top secret”, but some recipes dug up later lead us to names like Kalpasi (stone flower) and Maratti Moggu (kapok buds) which are essential for this earthy aroma.
It’s quite different from the “wet” Andhra Pradesh version mastered by Nikhil Moturi (Naidu Biryani) from a recipe passed down from his grandmother. Cooked over charcoal, the smokey raises the flavor bar. Meanwhile, Chef Regi Mathew (Kappa Chakka Kandhari) has a delicious take on Kerala’s beloved Thalassery biryani by replacing rice with steamed fluffy. puttu!
To wrap up this biryani trail, a relatively new variation draws inspiration from one of the biggest influences on Indian cuisine in recent times – the pandemic. This led long-time entrepreneur and food connoisseur, M Mohammed Ali, to develop the ‘contactless’ Sahib Biryani in 2020. which largely eliminates the place for the contact. And the customer can break the dum,” says Ali. As a bonus, the biryani arrives via a car from an in-house team member (removed 3rd party food aggregator) to ensure that hygiene protocols are not broken along the way.