Why the traditional biryani remains a culinary favourite even today
There can be nothing better than a plateful of the quintessential `biryani’, made with succulent pieces of meat or vegetables, feel food lovers. After all, biryani is not just a wholesome meal, but also evokes nostalgia as a royal and iconic dish.
Originally from Persia, and introduced in India by Mughal rulers, the dish is a delight to eat and a challenge for chefs to prepare. In a perfect pot of biryani, every grain of rice is separate, yet infused with aromas of various spices and has meat or vegetables paired with it.
Celebrity chef Ajay Chopra is not wrong in saying that cooking a perfect biryani is always a “nail-biting finish”. “Every time I make a biryani, it’s a new challenge because this is one dish that can toss you out every single time, right from the quality of rice, to the quality of meat and its cooking time. It is always a wait-and-watch game,” he says.
“Obviously, experience helps you to get it right, but it is a nail-biting finish. But it’s such a joy when the lid is opened and the rice is fragrantly separate and well-cooked,” says the Mumbai-based food expert.
But with people craving innovation and experimentation, how is the biryani faring against competition from exotic rice preparations like pilaf, risotto, or the traditional and comparatively easier to make pulao? “Every rice preparation, whether it is pulao or risotto, has its own unique characteristics. What makes biryani stand apart is the slow `dum’ cooking process (steaming the dish in a vessel generally sealed with flour dough),” says Chopra, who hosts the Northern Flavours show on television.
“All the other rice preparations like risotto are cooked together with the meat or flavourings, but biryani generally is a complex mix of flavours which is layered and the stronger flavours rise from the bottom and travel to the top,” he explains.
US-based Indian chef Aarthi Sampath, who recently won a popular culinary competition Beat Bobby Flay by making her signature biryani, shares a similar view. “I feel elated for the opportunity to represent Indian culture in the western market. Biryani is still not very well-known abroad, or rather the complexity of making it,” she says.
Her memories of the dish go back to her childhood when her mother cooked Sunday lunch of “heavenly goat biryani” and fried chicken. The family would sit on the floor, and gorge on the food while watching their favourite TV serial. “In NYC (New York City), there are so many biryani stores feeding hungry school kids, offices and families,” says the chef, who worked in a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in New York before starting her own food truck in Seattle.
According to her, biryani has its origins in Persian cooking. The Mughal emperors of India partook of this delicious rice concoction during their royal feasts. “Biryani originated in Iran. The Islamic Persians introduced biryani to the world. The word `birian’ (in Persian) means fried before cooking. The Mughals who set shop in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Hyderabad and Lucknow had their own versions of biryani influences,” she says.
“The biryani prepared in Persia had subtle flavours, while the Mughal khansamas (the male chefs who often assumed the role of house steward) introduced the use of whole spices which enhanced its aroma and flavour,” says Chopra.
“With Mughals, the biryani travelled across India. We find many different styles in India, like the Awadhi biryani or pakki biryani, Hyderabadi biryani or kacchi biryani, the Moplah style biryani from Kerala using short grain jeera masala rice, the Sindhi Memon biryani, or the Bohri biryani, to name a few,” he says.
Sampath says the Hyderabadi version uses a ground spice blend and can be spicy, while the Lucknowi one uses whole spices. The south has several versions of this delicacy but it’s usually not layered. They may use coconut milk as a part of the liquid component in the cooking process. “But I’ve noticed, as cliched it may sound, the best way to make a biryani, is keeping it as traditional as possible. Why mess with perfection?” she says.
Over a period of time, there have been some modifications in the traditional goat meat biryani, by replacing it with chicken, prawns, or various vegetables, jackfruit or `koftas’ (savoury balls of minced meat or vegetables), says Chopra.
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