Biryani serves up national debate on a platter
Biryani has leapfrogged from cookbooks and menus into the country’s political lexicon in the past decade or so. It started with public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam claiming that Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab, the face of the 26/11 attacks that hit Mumbai in 2008, was being served biryani in jail.
This was untrue, rebutted by jail authorities and Nikam himself later. However, the lie acquired a trajectory of its own, not uncommon in the age of fake news, and is frequently exploited to raise communal passions at election times.
Happily, though, not with the success rabble rousers may have anticipated, at least where the dish is concerned. Recent surveys, for instance, suggest that biryani is the most popular takeaway food item for Indians, and also that orders spiked after AAP’s victory in Delhi this week.
Daft notions of anti-nationalism aside, it just means that the combination of spiced meat and rice in one dish is what people crave. Biryani is both comfort and festive food in one mouthful, and it’s a travesty that it should become a metaphor for polarization.
Away from politics, which city makes the best biryani is a matter of unending and intense national debate. Fights ensue between denizens of Lucknow, Hyderabad, Kolkata -- and millions of places in between – with Mumbai unfortunately getting the short shrift despite the range and deliciousness of biryanis this city provides.
In the 1960 and early ’70s, the restaurant we went to for biryani was Alla Beli, near Kemps Corner. It stood there for years, to take away or to eat. Alla Beli’s biryani I remember as being light and fragrant. Also with potato which several restaurants would disappointingly leave out.
Restaurants in predominantly Muslim areas in South Mumbai – Mohamed Ali Road, Crawford Market, Byculla – all had their own versions, several finger-lickingly good. Then came Delhi Darbar to change the landscape of biryani dramatically.
Located in the lane beyond Gol Deval leading to Grant Road, this restaurant became an instant hit for its Mughlai dishes, particular biryani: well-cooked with generous helpings of meat and potato, spicy enough to rouse the palate into excitement, served hot.
Delhi Darbar became the place for all kinds of people from all over the city to converge for a spicy, meaty meal. Within a short time it became synonymous with biryani in Mumbai. Catering by Delhi Darbar added a lustre to feasts and functions, not restricted to Muslims.
Such was the success of the restaurant that a branch came up at Colaba soon. For struggling young journalists (when most still worked in South Bombay) eating here was a treat, given the quality of food and the reasonable pricing.
Décor-wise, with fake Mughal-looking cutouts, Delhi Darbar would challenge an aesthete’s sensibilities. But service was quick and efficient and the biryani when it arrived, fragrant and steaming. It also had potato, which upset many Awadhu purists, but was mandatory to the Mumbai palate.
Delhi Darbar split into two some years ago. Jaffer Bhai, one of the founding fathers, broke away to establish a takeaway business, looking ahead of its time perhaps, towards the gig economy app delivery we live in now.
There were other interesting versions of biryani in Mumbai. The Fort area, which caters to office-goers in the old business district, has Mopla biryani made with fish. There is also the spicier Irani biryani, where the masala is not strained out.
In the 1970s and ’80s when rich Arabs flocked to Bombay, many joints in South Mumbai started serving “Arab” biryani. Curious Mumbaikars soon found out this version was tasteless, bland and avoidable. Even Mumbai’s “wrong” masala-heavy biryani was a darn sight better.
The list of restaurants that serve biryani in Mumbai is inexhaustible. Then there are private caterers who have earned renown and massive orders for their culinary mastery over the dish. Among them Khojas, Memons and Bohras are hugely popular with their distinctive preparations.
Debate over where the best biryani is made is never likely to be resolved. But it is time to close using biryani as a political tool.
This not only debases a wonderful dish but, as the Delhi elections showed, doesn’t help win votes either.