Along time ago, I decided that I needed to get to the bottom of the ‘Bombay biryani’. By ‘get to the bottom’, I don’t mean get to the bottom of a pot of biryani and scrape that crunchy caramelised crust — that intensely flavored, burnt layer of rice, masala, remnants of meat and squished potato. It’s what you get only if you are cooking the biryani at home, unfortunately, never in a restaurant.
That crusty layer of slightly burnt rice is quite a delicacy in other cultures — like in Spain, where it is called socarrat or as the Koreans call it, nurungji, or the Senegalese xoon, and the Dominicans concón . I have digressed from what actually I wanted to talk about.
I want to talk about my fascination for biryani. When I was young, I believed that biryani was invented in the days of the Mughals at Kamathipura by Delhi Darbar. How was I to know better? As a kid, my grandfather and I would drive into the crowded lanes of Grant Road in his red and silver Studebaker Champion, find parking right outside Delhi Darbar (now Jaffer Bhai’s Delhi Darbar), situated opposite New Roshan Cinema and then walk to the back of the café into the cavernous and no-nonsense kitchen, to parcel our biryani along with a few skewers of mutton cream tikka.
I guess it took a little growing up to realise that Kamathipura was not part of the Mughal Empire and the biryani, actually originated way before Jafferbhai Mansuri perfected the Bombay version. I have been an ardent follower of biryani ever since I first set my tongue on a plate of this rice meat preparation.
The first mutton biryani that I ever ate outside of Delhi Durbar was at Café Bahar near Flora Fountain. It was somewhere in the early ’80s and a plate cost Rs12. When in college, we frequented another place called Civil Restaurant (opposite the JJ School of Art), where the biryani is a little less oily and spicy. These two biryanis fall into the first of the three categories that I classify Bombay biryanis into.
The first category is the Irani/Muslim biryani. This is the kind you find in most Irani restaurants like Stadium Restaurant (Churchgate), Café Military (Flora Fountain), Café Excelsior (Fort) and Olympia Coffee House (Colaba). Here, the rice is half white and half yellow, and the chunks of meat — while juicy and tender — seem like they have been added at the last moment. It is a bit like mixing a bowl of rice in mutton masala, right before serving. It is delicious when you’re hungry, but definitely not a biryani.
The second is the biryani served in non-vegetarian eateries run by south Indians, that is, the south Indian-owned bar and restaurant types. These are the ones whose names often bear the prefix ‘Golden’ — for instance, Golden Wheel, Golden Gate, Golden Crown, Centre, Arch etc. The rice is anything ranging from flaming orange to green, to white to yellow to the occasional red. The meat is often well-cooked but is flavoured with inappropriate herbs like coriander and curry leaves, and sometimes garnished with chopped tomatoes and green peas. The only authentic thing served at such places is a glass of beer.
In the third category come restaurants like Lucky Biryani, Persian Durbar, Delhi Darbar and Jaffer Bhai’s. Lucky Biryani and Persian Durbar are good contenders for my recommendation though I’d bet my meat on Persian Durbar. It serves a solid biryani — basmati rice, which is steeped in masala, mixed with oil- soaked potatoes, onion and tender meat. It is quite spicy with a pungency and rawness (in the masala) that I find a bit too overwhelming. Here is where Jaffer Bhai wins hands down. It is the best you can get in Mumbai. Yes, it is oily and, if you are dieting, that’s bad luck, but this biryani puts to shame all the others — including the overrated Hyderabadi biryani, which I have scoured Hyderabad to sample. It’s especially brilliant if you order a kilo from the kitchens rather than from the restaurant. But first and foremost, the biryani has to be mutton. For me, a chicken, prawn, egg or vegetarian biryani is just not the real deal.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. Follow him on Twitter @kunalvijayakar