Regular readers of this column will be familiar with two regulars of Rude Food. The first is the great biryani hunt, which is now into its second year with disastrous consequences for my shape. And the second is my admiration for Pratibha Karan, the retired IAS officer, who I regard as one of India’s finest home cooks. Imagine my delight, therefore, when both these phenomena came together.
I was pleased to receive, through the post, a copy of Pratibha’s new cookbook dedicated to biryani. Even though the book is published by Random House, well known publishers of diet books and recipe books, it seems not to have received the over-hyped treatment that is Random House’s specialty. I hope this article will set the balance right because Pratibha’s is really an extraordinary book, one that will become a classic of Indian food writing.
One of my enduring interests is in the origin of biryani. Nearly all the theories that have been offered to explain how biryani originated strike me as being bogus. One version is that the Mughals brought biryani to India which is completely untrue because the dish was known even before Babur got here. Another is that Timur (the Tamerlane of epic poetry) brought biryani with him when he came to plunder the sub-continent. This is nonsense.
If Timur did bring biryani, then he must have brought it from his homeland. But there is no record of biryani existing anywhere outside of India in that era. Pratibha offers no answers but agrees that biryani is an Indian invention, deriving from pulao which Muslim traders and invaders brought to our country. Her theory is that pulao is an army dish. When the soldiers set up a camp for the night, the cooks could not be expected to invent elaborate meals. So they preferred a one-pot dish where they cooked rice with whatever meat or fowl was available.
When did this pulao become a biryani and what really is the difference? Again, Pratibha can only speculate. She rejects the explanation that ‘birinj’ which means ‘frying before cooking’ is the origin of the name because it hardly leads us to the biryani. More plausible is a theory which traces the name to ‘birinj’ as in the Persian word for rice.
On the subject of pulao versus biryani, she comes to the only conclusion possible: there is no hard and fast distinction. Some pulaos cannot be called biryanis (the simple peas pulao, for instance) and one is reluctant to term very wet biryanis, redolent with gravy, as pulaos. But between the two is a vast grey area and the choice of terminology seems arbitrary.
The only possible distinction is that a biryani requires layering, with rice being the first layer and the top layer and the meat in the middle. In a pulao, there is no layering and the ingredients are cooked together. Moreover, because biryanis are regarded as grander dishes, they tend to be scented with kewda, rosewater, saffron etc. whereas pulaos can be simpler dishes. But Pratibha’s real interest is not in the origins of biryani or in the semantic distinctions between biryanis and pulaos. She is more concerned with tracking down India’s diverse biryanis.
I am constantly annoyed by the tendency among restaurateurs and food writers alike to treat biryani as a north Indian court dish and to go on about the Mughal court or the Nawabs of Avadh. Yes, there is a court cuisine tradition to biryani. But its real significance is that it is a pan Indian dish. Nearly everywhere in India, wherever there is a Muslim community, there is a biryani.
It always irritates me that people ignore this rich tradition of regional biryanis and focus on some mythical Mughal biryani when there are such great versions to be found in every corner of India.
As Pratibha points out, biryani is not really a north Indian dish. It is essentially a south Indian dish. If you were to put together all the north Indian biryani recipes, you would end up with about four basic recipes and a few others with minor variations.
If you go to the south however, the full richness of biryani dawns on you. It isn’t just the famous Hyderabadi biryanis, it is also the richly spiced biryanis of Kerala, the masaledar Andhra biryani (which is not the same as Hyderabadi biryani, but is a less refined, much earthier dish) and the biryanis of Tamil Nadu.
The reason for this is simple enough. The people of the north are essentially wheat eaters. It is the south that prefers rice and that is why south Indian biryanis frequently go beyond the north Indian obsession with basmati and use more interesting breeds of rice.
In fact, wherever there is a community of rice-eaters, the biryani is likely to be more interesting. The biryanis of east Bengal (now Bangladesh) are delicious and unjustly ignored as is the mutton and potato biryani of Calcutta which delights everyone who eats in that city but which is hardly known outside of Bengal.
And then, there are the biryanis of Bombay. Thanks to Narendra Modi, we think of Gujaratis as being an aggressively and exclusively Hindu community. But, in fact, there are many, many Gujarati Muslims with their own cuisines. There are also the Gujarati trading communities: the Khojas, the Bohras, the Memons etc. Each of them has a distinctive biryani of its own.
The biryanis you get in the dhabas of Bombay – and on the street stalls – are heavily influenced by the Gujarati tradition and have little to do with any nonsense about the Mughal empire. And yet, we insist on seeing their biryanis as having evolved from Tamerlane etc. What we often forget is that trading communities had links with the Middle East that were entirely independent of the Delhi Sultanate, the Lodi dynasty or the Mughals.
Arab traders came to India long before the invaders did. It was their influence that shaped the Muslim cuisines of coastal communities. For instance, the Muslims of the Kerala coast had nothing to do with the dynasties of north India or even with the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Their biryanis are almost entirely unrelated to the biryanis of Lucknow and use cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and even star anise for their flavour. And finally, there is that old debate about kachcha biryani in which raw meat is cooked with the rice and pukka biryani in which the meat and rice are cooked separately and then assembled before being finished with steam for a few minutes.
Some purists argue that only a kachcha biryani counts as the real thing. A pukka biryani is a pulao with pretensions. This is an old dispute which I don’t want to get into here, but what is clear from Pratibha’s book and its collection of recipes is that the vast majority of biryanis are pukka biryanis.
Yes, the most famous biryani of Hyderabad is the kachcha biryani but even in Hyderabad, there are many pukka biryanis. So I am not sure whether the purists are right in excluding the biryanis of Muslim communities outside of Hyderabad from the reckoning.
If you are interested in cooking, then this is the perfect book for you because unlike most cookbooks it is not written by a professional cook or a hotel chef. Pratibha does most of her cooking at home and therefore, her recipes are not difficult for the home cook to reproduce.
A last point: perhaps somebody at Random House should have read the book closely before writing the inside jacket flap. Pratibha’s point is that the biryani’s origins are shrouded in dispute. (Was it Tamerlane? Was it the Mughals? Where did the south Indian biryanis come from?)
The most she is willing to say is that it is ‘widely believed’ that the biryani tradition came from the Mughals. So why then should Random House tell us categorically that biryani "originated in the Mughal court, flowering in the jagirs of Avadh…"
Also, while I liked the pictures, the balance is wrong. There are not enough photos of the biryanis from the west, especially the ones from Bombay and Gujarat.
Preparation time: 25-30 minutes
Marination time: 5-6 hours and cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes
1 kg mutton, a mix of medium sized pieces from the goat’s shoulder, a few chops and a few marrowbones with some meat on; 1 tbs ginger paste; 1 1/2 tbs garlic paste; 1 tbs raw green papaya (skin and pulp together), ground fine A – 4 onions, finely sliced; 15 green chillies, ground; 1/2 cup fresh green coriander, chopped; 1/3 cup mint leaves; 1 tsp garam masala; 500 gm yoghurt, whisked; juice of 3 limes 650 gm long grain rice; a liberal pinch of saffron soaked in 1/2 cup milk; 2 tbs ghee; 150 gm oil; salt.
1. Marinate the meat: Wash the meat and put it in a colander for the water to drain. Add ginger, garlic, and papaya paste. Mix and rub it well into the meat. Set it aside. Heat 150 gm oil. Add the sliced onions and fry till golden brown. Remove and allow to cool slightly, then crush the onions. Add the crushed onions and all the ingredients at A and salt to the meat. Also add the oil in which the onions were fried to the meat. Mix and leave to marinate for 5-6 hours.
2. Prepare the rice: Wash and soak the rice in water for about 20 minutes. Boil 3 1/2 litres of water with salt and 1 tsp of oil. Once the water starts boiling, add the rice and cook for about 3 minutes till it is 20 per cent done. Drain the water and transfer the rice to a flat pan.
3. Assemble and serve: Take a heavy bottomed pan and transfer the marinated meat with the marinade to the pan. Start cooking on high flame, stirring continuously, till the contents come to a boil. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup of water and when the dish starts to boil again, lower heat and spread the rice over the meat. Cover with a tight fitting lid and place a heavy stone on it to prevent the steam from escaping.
Cook on dum for about half an hour. Sprinkle the saffron milk over the rice and dot the rice with ghee. Cover once again with a tight fitting lid. Cook further on slow flame for about 15 minutes till the meat and rice are done and steaming hot. Take out the biryani in large chunks from the sides without mixing to retain its multi-hued glory. Serve steaming hot.
Chemeen Biryani (Kerala)
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
12 medium sized prawns, cleaned and deveined; juice of half a lime; 250 gm long grain rice; 3 onions finely sliced; 1 tsp garam masala A – 1 tbs ginger paste; 1 tbs garlic paste; 1 tsp turmeric powder; 3 tsp red chilli power; 6 green chillies, slit; 4 dry whole red chillies 2 tomatoes chopped; 1/2 cup yoghurt, whisked; a few sprigs of fresh green coriander, chopped; a few mint leaves; 2 tbs ghee; 4-5 tbs thick cream; 50 gm ghee-oil, mixed; salt.
1. Marinate the prawns: Wash and drain the prawns. Mix the prawns with lime juice and a little salt and marinate for 5-10 minutes. Wash and drain the water and set aside.
2. Soak the rice: Soak rice in water for about 15-20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
3. Cook the prawns: Heat ghee-oil in a heavy bottomed pan and fry the onions till golden brown. Add garam masala followed by all the ingredients at A, salt, and the prawns. Fry for about a minute, then add the chopped tomatoes and fry for 1-2 minutes. Add yoghurt, salt, and about 1 glass of water and cook.
4. Assemble and serve: When the liquid gets reduced by about 25 per cent, add rice, chopped coriander and mint and mix. Also add a little water up to 1 inch above the surface of rice. Once the water starts to boil, cover and cook first on medium flame for 2-3 minutes and then on slow flame for about 15-20 minutes till the rice is done. Top it with 2 tbs ghee, 4-5 tbs cream, then cover and let it stand for 5 minutes. Open and serve hot.
Mumbai Tawa Biryani (Mumbai)
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
1 kg mutton, cut into medium sized pieces; 1 bay leaf; 4-5 cardamoms; 6 cloves; two 1-inch cinnamon sticks; 4-5 onions, chopped; 1 1/2 tbs ginger paste; 1 tbs garlic paste; 3 tomatoes chopped; 1 tsp red chilli powder; 1 tsp coriander powder; 1 tsp cumin powder; 3-4 medium sized potatoes, cut into chunky pieces; 1 kg rice; 1/2 tsp turmeric powder; juice of half a lime; 100 gm oil; salt.
1. Cook the meat: Wash the meat and put it in a colander for all the water to drain. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the whole spices, followed in a few seconds by the chopped onions. When the onions turn brown, add the ginger and garlic paste and in a few seconds add the tomatoes. When the tomatoes get soft and somewhat cooked after 4-5 minutes, add salt, red chilli, coriander and cumin powder followed by the meat.
Mix and cook, stirring now and then till the spices become homogenous and the oil starts to surface. Add a little water, cover tightly, and cook for about 30 minutes till the meat is three-fourths done. At this stage, add the potatoes and cook further for another 10-15 minutes till the potatoes and the meat are done, leaving about 1 1/2 cups of gravy.
2. Prepare the rice: When the meat is cooking, boil 4-5 litres of water. Add salt, turmeric, and the juice of half a lime. When the water starts boiling, add the rice and cook for about 9-10 minutes till it is done. Drain the water.
3. Assemble and serve: Now place the meat in the middle of a flat pan (tawa), simmering on slow flame. Place the cooked rice around the meat.
Take small portions of meat and rice, mix and serve hot accompanied by sliced onions and lemon wedges. The extra meat can be served on the side with the biryani.