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Biryani: a symbol of the country

It is found nearly everywhere. Biryani is a symbol of a country that takes differences and divergences and then merges them into one India. In our minds, however, we still think of biryani as being a single dish. Vir Sanghvi writes...

india Updated: Aug 29, 2011 13:49 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

It is found nearly everywhere. Biryani is a symbol of a country that takes differences and divergences and then merges them into one India.

Every Indian knows that dal is not a single dish. Yes, it is always made from lentils but that is about all the various dals of India have in common. A person with no experience of Indian cuisine would, if he was simultaneously served the black dal of the Punjab, the sambhar of Udupi and the cholar dal of Bengal, not immediately realise that all three were lentil preparations of the same general category.

BiryaniBut, even though we accept that dal is the name we give to a family of dishes, rather than a single dish, we have difficulty in arriving at the same conclusion when it comes to biryani. In our minds, we still think of biryani as being a single dish. Few Indian menus would ever describe a dish as "dal". We would usually feel the need to add a descriptor of some sort: "Ma ki dal" or "Cholar dal" or of course, sambhar, because we know that these are entirely different dishes. (And rajma would not even be described as a dal.) Even when two dals are made from the same lentil – say sambhar and the classic Gujarati dal both of which use tuvar – we recognise that they are different dishes and describe them as such.

In the case of biryani, however, no such distinctions are made. The most you’ll get is a description of the meat used for the dish (“Chicken Biryani” or “Mutton Biryani” etc.) and just perhaps, some meaningless descriptor (“Nawabi Biryani”).

And yet, as most of us intuitively recognise, biryani is as much a family of dishes as dal. Yes, all biryani should have rice (just as dals use lentils) but once you get beyond that basic criterion, the situation becomes immensely complicated. Even in North India, the biryani of Delhi is totally different from the biryani of Bhopal which is different from the biryani of UP (assuming that there is such a thing – the biryanis of Lucknow and Rampur are different styles).

Outside of North India, the divergences increase. Of the famous restaurant biryanis, the Hyderabad version (especially the Kacha biryani) is the South Indian version that usually makes it to the menus in the rest of India. But even within Hyderabad, you will find an Andhra-style biryani which is a spicy, more robust, food-of-the-common-people dish than the courtly and elegant Hyderabadi biryani.

There are many other classic South Indian biryanis, some made with local varieties of rice, not the long-grained basmati-style rice of court biryanis. The delicious biryani of Calicut has as much in common with a Lucknawi biryani as an appam has with a butter naan. In Eastern India, the biryani of Calcutta (often made with potatoes to save on adding more meat) is justly famous at local restaurants but largely unknown outside that city. The pulaos of Assam have an entirely different character. The general rule of thumb is that, wherever in the sub-continent you find a Muslim community, you will find a local biryani. And just as the Muslims of Kerala have little (except religion) in common with the Muslims of Kashmir, so too are their cuisines entirely distinct.

Dum Pukht BiryaniI have tried to find the history of biryani (something of a personal obsession as regular readers of Rude Food and viewers of my TLC show will know) but, as I have often said, there is no authentic or convincing explanation of how the pilafs of Central Asia were transformed into the sub-continent’s biryanis. Nor has anyone been able to explain exactly how to distinguish a biryani from a pulao (I don’t think there is always a dividing line). And it is still not clear to me how every Muslim community in India makes its own biryani. (Could this be because of religious feasting? Possibly, but I have yet to find somebody who is certain.)

My worry, these days, is that the regional biryanis will slowly die out. Already, the vast majority of restaurants are graduating to a bland biryani of no specific origin. The upmarket restaurant version, here and at Indian restaurants abroad, complete with dough-purdah and lots of wisdom about dum-cooking, is essentially a rip-off of a recipe perfected by ITC in the 1980s. And while the ITC Dum Pukht biryani is still better than its many imitators, it is an entirely modern creation, invented in the kitchens of the Maurya by combining some of the techniques of Lucknow biryani with some of the flavours of Hyderabad. As an example of modern Indian cooking, the ITC biryani deserves our respect. But as an example of regional cuisine, it is not very convincing.

I was reminded of all this last month, ironically at an ITC hotel. When the chain opened its Grand Central hotel in Bombay’s Parel district some years ago, it packed the menus with Bombay dishes. Many of these have been subsequently dropped but I was impressed to see that, on its room service menu, it did not just offer the famous Dum Pukht-style biryani but served a Bohra biryani instead. Out of curiosity, more than anything else, I ordered it. To my surprise, it was absolutely outstanding. The next time I was in Bombay, at another hotel, I made the Grand Central pack a take-away for me to take to Delhi. And a week later, the excellence of the biryani was a key factor in making me choose to stay at the Grand Central again.

For those of you – most of you, I would imagine – who do not know what a Bohra biryani is, it is an example of one of the finest Gujarati biryanis. Though we do not always realise this, some of Gujarat’s most accomplished trading communities are Muslims. The Bohras are one such community as are the Memons. The most famous – outside of India, certainly – are the Khojas, partly because of the global prominence of the Aga Khan, their spiritual leader.

It is hard to find – even in Bombay – restaurants that serve the authentic food of these communities these days. To enjoy the cuisine you need to be invited to a private home. But you can see traces – vulgarised, bastardised and mutated, admittedly – of the Gujarati biryani in most popular Bombay biryani-restaurants (Delhi Darbar, Jaffer Bhai etc.) even though, the Gujarati connection is rarely trumpeted.

I pick the Gujarati biryani because I grew up in Bombay. But every state has its own biryanis and often, in South India, the biryani recipe varies from district to district just as much as the sambhar recipe varies. The South Indian biryani that gets served most often at restaurants in North India as a so-called ‘regional biryani’ is the ‘moplah’ biryani of Kerala which is just one of the many excellent biryanis of the region though it has become a staple of restaurant and hotel “South Indian festivals.”

So it is with Eastern India. When I lived in Calcutta I would frequent the local restaurants (Shiraz, Shabir etc.) for biryani but I always waited for Muslim festivals because that was when friends would send over their home-made biryanis – which were not only delicious but based on local recipes handed down over generations. (I am not sure about this but my guess is that home-style biryani always differs from Chef-type biryani because while wedding caterers and restaurant chefs tend to be men who make robust, meaty biryanis, the ghar-ka-biryani is made by mothers and has a more delicate, feminine touch.)

I respect the biryani of Lucknow (or pulao as they call it in Lucknow where the term biryani is not usually applied to the dish) and I admire the Kacha biryani of Hyderabad (though you rarely get a great biryani at restaurants in that city these days). And of course, nobody can deny the influence and quality of the Dum Pukht modern biryani.

But let us not restrict ourselves to these old standbys. Let’s explore the enormous regional variety of biryani and recognise that this is the one dish that unifies India because it is found nearly everywhere in the country. Nobody denies its Muslim origins but like modern India, biryani is about more than just religion or region. It is a symbol of a country that takes differences and divergences and then merges them into one India.

From HT Brunch, August 28

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First Published: Aug 27, 2011 13:31 IST