In search of India's finest Biryani

I put Biryanis in two genres. The first is characterised by flavour and aroma. The second relies on taste and substance. It is like poetry and prose as it were -- both great in their own place.
Even the great Satyajit Ray felt the need to give the Biryani its due in his film Shatranj Ke Khiladi. (Photo | AFP)
Even the great Satyajit Ray felt the need to give the Biryani its due in his film Shatranj Ke Khiladi. (Photo | AFP)

History attributes to the late French President Charles De Gaulle the statement "How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?" Though it is not recorded, someone in the British empire could well have said, it is impossible to rule a country with a 100 versions of the Biryani before deciding to relinquish power in India. It would not have come as a surprise to anyone considering how bland and characterless British food was until they appropriated Chicken Tikka Masala as their own. But this is not a tale of either Biryani imperialism  or culinary chauvinism, though apart from the love of Mughals for Biryani, I have heard stories about people eating colt-meat (mind you, not horse) Biryani at some Uzbek warlord's table. 

For me the defining image of a Biryani repast is a scene from Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khiladi. As the British Army marched into Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah and his friend Roshan Ali, played by Amjad Khan and Saeed Jafri respectively, were engrossed in chess while savouring Biryani. A good Biryani can transport a connoisseur to another world far away from existential concerns. Watching that sequence from the film, one can almost smell the aroma of Biryani. It was not just the addiction of chess but also the love for Biryani that put them in a trance, oblivious of temporal considerations such as losing an empire. So, is the Biryani a symbol of decadent culture or an example of ultimate evolution in food anthropology is a question that merits deeper examination.

Staying clear of debates on whose Biryani is better, which is always a no-win battle that makes more enemies than friends, I put Biryanis in two genres. The first is characterised by flavour and aroma. The second relies on taste and substance. It is like poetry and prose as it were -- both great in their own place.

The Awadhi Biryani and its cousins -- the Kolkata and Hyderabadi Biryani -- fall in the first category. It starts with the use of aromatic Basmati Rice -- each grain of which stands apart even after cooking -- and spices like saffron. The eternal feud about the kind of meat that makes the best Biryani is all about flavour. The Awadhi Biryani is delicate. It is cooked with a tender touch in low heat in a process by which the flavour of the meat is absorbed into the rice.  That is why the rubbery and tasteless broiler chicken can never match the magic of  tender goat meat of the right cut. Country or free-range poultry may be a shade better but chicken cannot be as juicy as mutton. To be honest, it is for the same reason, beef or lamb are also not the preferred choice for Biryani. The fibrous quality of the meat adds to the body but is not conducive to the osmosis of taste. Therefore the latter is used for more robust rice and meat dishes such as Khichda during Muharram and Tehari in Bangladesh in which the smell of mustard oil overpowers the rest.

When compared to the fineries of Lucknowi Biryani what passes off as Mughlai Biryani in Delhi is at best an imposter. The overrated Karim's of Jama Masjid has started adding the saffron colour (nothing political about it I am sure). Their original Biryani was more akin to Yakhni Pulao. Kebabs were more the thing of the Mughals and that too the meatier ones like Burrah and Boti to go with thick breads like Tandoori Roti, Sheermal and Naan. But even in that the Lucknow Nawabs left them far behind with the refined melt in the mouth Kakori and Galouti Kebabs, Kormas and Dum Pukht cooking.

To borrow the classification from Ayurveda -- if Kebabs are Tamasik, Biryani is Rajasik. But Awadhi cooking lifts it almost to the verge of Satvik -- if non-vegetarian food could ever be so.

Now, talking about Biryanis of South India, one can inadvertently trigger ethnic wars raising the Aryan and Dravidian debate. Southern Biryani is more about taste than aroma. The emphasis is on the taste buds rather than the nostrils. The difference, I suspect, arises from the fact that, down South, other than probably Hyderabad, Biryani was not the food of the royals. However, the fact remains, people in North India have simply no idea about the Biryani varieties of the South.

It would not be an exaggeration if one were to say every region of Tamil Nadu has a Biryani of its own. The rivalry between Ambur and Dindigul Biryani is legendary. While there is much to drool over Chettinad food -- their Biryani is not the best. The use of Seeraga Samba Rice (which is actually a cousin of the Bengali Gobindobhog) in place of Basmati is a key differentiator. The Star Ambur Biryani uses less of spices and the mutton is cooked with the rice to absorb the flavours. Dindigul is more complex.

Kerala too has its wide array of Biryanis, over eight as per one count, starting with Thalassery Biriyani. The two different schools of Kacchi and Pakki Biryani is followed most extensively in Kerala. While in the Kacchi style, the rice is added to par-boiled meat and then cooked to fullness, in the Pakki variety, the rice is added to fully cooked meat and then finished in a "dum" or sealed pot.

Hyderabadi and Andhra Biryani is becoming ubiquitous across the country. But the range of Andhra or Telangana Biryanis is as wide as its other southern neighbours. Even within Hyderabad, the Biryani varies widely between outlets. Besides, Andhra has special innovations like Gongura and Aavakaya (Mango Pickle) Biryani that few from outside the region have tasted.

Moving a little northwards via the west, one has the fascinating world of Bohra cooking including their own variant of Biryani. But, as we travel up the east coast -- the Biryani culture disappears in the ethnic cooking except in Bengal, where it was imported from Awadh by Wajid Ali Shah. Is it because Odias, Bengalis and also Assamese ate more fish than meat? That can be the subject of another exploration.

I am not even going into the oxymoron called "veg Biryani". My only submission to vegetarians and vegans is -- India has a wealth of vegetarian delicacies. Why not give them the deserving place of honour instead of murdering the emperor of non-vegetarian food with mushroom, soya nuggets, paneer or even Jackfruit and Tapioca? For now, it is a close fight between Biryani and Chow mien to be crowned the national food of India.

(Sandip Ghose is a current affairs commentator.)

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