An emotion called biryani

The origin of the word Biryani has multiple theories. It could have come from the word ‘Brinj’ which means rice in Persian or the word ‘biriyan’ which means roasting.
Image used for representation.
Image used for representation.

Biryani is more than just a dish for most of us. It is an emotion. Each one of us has a favourite type of biryani and memories around that. Biryani is a popular dish in Middle Eastern, Central Asian and South East Asian countries and is the single most ordered food in India hence, the tag ‘Most popular Indian Food’.

The origin of the word Biryani has multiple theories. It could have come from the word ‘Brinj’ which means rice in Persian or the word ‘biriyan’ which means roasting. There are also multiple theories by multiple historians about the origin of the multiple types. Among them, two are most popular — one, it is believed that it originated in the Middle East and travelled with the pilgrims and travellers to the Deccan, south India.

And two, it originated in Persia and was brought by the Mughals to north India. That said, multiple historical notes in ancient India have recorded a similar one-pot dish of meat and rice being served to soldiers from Medieval times. The Sangam Literature talks about oonsoru made with ghee, rice, meat, pepper, coriander, and turmeric  — the spices indigenous to the Malabar region.

Another major debate without a proper closure is the difference between a biryani and pulao. Generally, pulao is supposed to be milder, plainer, subtler, and never layered, whereas biryani is more flavoursome, spicier, and can be layered.

Every region or state in India boasts its type of biryani claiming theirs to be the best. Each one has its melange of spices, different types of rice, cooking techniques, and unique accompaniments they are served with.

In Tamil Nadu, the popular varieties of biryani are the Ambur/Vaniyambadi biryani, Dindigul biryani, Chettinadu biryani, Rawther biryani and Kongu Vellai biryani. Most of these are traditionally made with seeraga samba/jeeragasala rice. The short-grained rice is aromatic, and is made in a single pot without layering, over a woodfire imparting a smoky flavour. The cooking of the meat and rice together makes it utterly mouth-watering.

A newer type of biryani made in Ambur style but with Basmati rice is typically served in Chennai weddings and is called Wedding/Kalyana biryani. As the popularity of this version peaks, many hotels have now introduced Kalyana Virundhu similar to what we see in weddings. This biryani is fluffy, made with long-grained rice with soft tender meat falling off the bone. The fatty meat used here gives loads of flavour and oiliness to the dish. Usually served with raita, a sour creamy brinjal curry, and a bread halwa, this combination is a match made in heaven.

Traditional biryani lovers opt for Dindigul biryani, which has a special place in the hearts of foodies. This biryani made with seeraga samba rice, freshly ground masala (with cloves, cinnamon, Marathi moggu, star anise) paste of shallots and green chillies, and smaller pieces of meat has a unique brownish colour and is packed with aroma and flavour. This is usually served with dalcha (Sour mutton bone, dal, and vegetable curry) and a raita.

The Ambur/Vaniyambadi biryani, originating from the small towns of Vellore district, has royal connections. It is said to have its origins in the kitchens of the Nawab of Arcot. Traditionally made with seeraga samba rice, it is considered a relatively milder variety with a beautiful orange colour resulting from roasting the chilli paste in ghee and oil. This variety is also served with brinjal curry and raita.

Rawther biryani is popular among the Muslim community. The bright red colour from the liberal use of tomatoes and Kashmiri red chillies makes it look appealing even before you taste it. Meanwhile, the Chettinadu region famous for its rich and spicy dishes does not disappoint when it comes to biryani too. A testament to their culinary legacy, the key to the flavours is the unique blend of spices — stone flower, star anise, and Marathi moggu, in addition to other spices which impart a deep earthy flavour, perfectly complementing the seeraga samba rice.

Yet another biryani that rather looks plain, but plays with your taste buds is the Kongu Vellai biryani. As the name implies, it is white in colour as no spice powders are used. A paste of shallots, green chilli, and spices along with coconut milk ensures that every grain of rice pops with taste.

Though the blend of spices, and the type and quality of rice are very important for a good biryani, the single most deciding factor is selecting the best quality meat. Meat from a young, tender animal with lots of animal fat can make or break a biryani.

Though a good biryani along with the perfect accompaniments is a flavour bomb strong enough to induce a food coma, there’s no harm in an occasional indulgence, right?

Kongu Vellai Biryani


Seeraga samba rice: 2 cups

Mutton with bone and fat: 500 g

Ghee: 3 tbsp

Oil: 3 tbsp

Fennel: 1.5 tsp

Cardamom: 9

Cloves: 9

Cinnamon: 4

Shallots: 15

Ginger: 2 inch

Garlic: 15

Green chilli: 8

Coconut milk: 1 cup

Coriander, mint: a handful

Onion: 1, sliced


Make a paste of shallots, ginger, garlic, half of the chillies, and spices.

Heat oil and add remaining spices, and onion and sauté for a few minutes. Now, add the paste, and salt and sauté for five minutes.

Add the mutton, and 1/2 cup water, and pressure cook for seven whistles. The meat should be 80 per cent done.

Add the rice, coconut milk, and 1.5 cups of water, mint, and coriander leaves. Once it comes to a boil, close the lid and simmer for 10 minutes. Open after 20 minutes carefully fluff the rice and serve.

Dr Nithya Franklyn is a paediatrician, chef, and MasterChef Tamil finalist


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