Amartya Sen says we Indians are an argumentative lot. We are indeed. It’s what makes us Indian. It’s also what, despite all odds, makes us a democracy. Whenever two or more Indians meet, there will inevitably be an argument, or several.
Is the Balakot air strike a success or a failure, can phone-tapping be justified in the name of national security, should job reservations be extended to the private sector, is it a good idea to have women bartenders?
All this can, and does, provoke heated debate. But there is one argumentative staple, a constant of controversy.
And it’s got nothing to do with whether we should/shouldn’t have jettisoned Nehruvian socialism 20 years ago, or will we/won’t we ever catch up with China, or should we/shouldn’t we switch to a presidential form of government, or does/doesn’t Lata Mangeshkar singing Ae mere watan ke logon sound like a banshee undergoing a tonsillectomy without benefit of anaesthesia.
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The subject Indians love to argue about more than cricket, Kashmir or KBC is biryani. Biryani is my birthright, and I shall flaunt it. All Indians believe in this unilateral declaration of swaraj.
Every Indian you meet will claim to know where to get the best biryani. And no two Indians will agree as to where that is.
No other dish not even that great unifier of north and south, the matar-paneer dosa provides a gastronomical glue as adhesive as biryani.
Perhaps because it’s a meal by itself, an agglomerate of disparate ingredients brought together and cooked under pressure to meld into a single entity, the biryani reminds us of ourselves.
It’s a metaphor for our Indianness.
And as such, of course, it’s the source of endless debate. There are as many forms of biryani (including a shudh shakahari veggie version) as there are ways of being Indian.
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And who is to say which is the most authentic? Hyderabad claims to be the home of the biryani, a claim stoutly contested by Lucknow. Kerala boasts of a unique variant cooked with layers of curd.
Patrons of the Golden Shiraz in Calcutta aver it has the world’s best biryani (Calcuttans, incidentally, include potatoes in the recipe, a deviant heresy in more orthodox climes) while Mumbaikars swear by the Berri Pulao (a biryani by any other name) dished up at the Britannia Irani restaurant in Ballard Estate.
Everyone has a yarn to tell about biryani. And together these stories constitute a body of folklore, a Biryani, so to speak, which is also the story of India. The best biryani I’ve ever had was made by my friend Mushtaq Murshed.
Having retired as a senior IAS man, Mushtaq concentrated his energies on cooking. He did a mean quorma, and a marvellous walnut cake.
But his biryani was his supreme creation, worth not just dying but being reincarnated for so that one could savour it over not one but several lifetimes. Mushtaq said he had inherited the recipe from his mother and would take its secret to the grave with him.
So zealously did he guard its mystery that when he was making biryani he would send the domestic out of house on a trumped-up errand so that there was no one to spy on him.
The trick in making the perfect biryani, according to Mushtaq, was to cook the rice and meat together from the outset. How did you ensure that both got evenly cooked simultaneously? That, Mushtaq would say, is precisely the secret.
Arguably the best commercially available biryani I’ve eaten is Omer Khusro’s, a Gurgaon-based Hyderabadi who has brought the Nizam’s cuisine to the depths of deepest Jatland, a cross-cultural peregrination worthy of inclusion in the corpus of Biryarni dialectics.
I realise that I’ve flung down a gauntlet which will certainly be picked up. Maybe by Amartyada himself who, quintessential Indian, doubtless has his own view on the subject. Heretical potato and all.
Writer, columnist and author of several books