Biryani: Ek Khoj
Did pulao and biryani travel from Delhi to the rest of India? Or are there ancient, local versions?
Two weeks ago, I wrote a column on these pages about the bigotry and myths that have come to characterise our attitudes to food. I was gratified by the response that the piece generated on social media. But one aspect of the reaction struck me as particularly interesting.
I checked my copy of K. T. Achaya’s A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. Achaya walks a careful middle path: “The word is ascribed to the Persian and Arabic pilav, pulao and pallao, yet it would appear to have found its way long ago into both Sanskrit and early Tamil literature of the third to sixth centuries.”
Though the Manasollasa is a South Indian text, today’s North Indians will have no difficulty in recognising these dishes as kebabs and pasanda. So, were they really developed in North India as is generally believed? Did the kebab really come to us from central Asia?
When it comes to pulao, we must remember that until Alexander the Great arrived in India around 326 BC, nobody in Europe had heard of rice. It was Alexander’s Greek (or Macedonian, if you like) army that found rice in India and introduced it to the Western world.
But where did the Arabs learn about rice from? Anissa Helou in her definitive Feast: Food of the Islamic World, offers two possibilities. “Muslims may have first learned about rice from the Persians of the Sasanian Empire when they defeated them in 635 AD,” she says. The Sassanids were Zoroastrians (like our Parsis) and claim to have invented pulao and other rice dishes, which the Muslim conquerors made their own.
There are basic differences between a pulao and a biryani (the principal ones being that in a biryani, the meat and rice are cooked separately and then layered; a biryani is wetter and spicier, it is a main dish to be eaten on its own, etc.) so clearly they are two different dishes. Nor was our kind of biryani (wet meat cooked separately from the rice) found in the Arab world or Persia in that era. (Though Mohammed Althaf with whom I had a long Twitter exchange about this says that in Yemen, meat and rice are cooked separately and then assembled.) All this suggests that biryani was created in Delhi.
If any place has the right to call it a pulao, it is Hyderabad, where they make a version in which the meat and the rice are cooked together. But no, they insist that it is a biryani.
This may or may not be true, but Malayalis are hard pressed to explain why, if it is their own dish, they use the term biryani. And yet, it is true that they had few contacts with Delhi. In fact, they had much more to do with the Middle East because of ancient trading sea routes dating back to before the birth of the Prophet.