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OP-ED: Biriyani: The one pot wonder

  • Published at 03:05 pm March 26th, 2021

A brief history of our beloved dish

I recently read a short story by a fellow writer in which the protagonist contemplates what their last meal on this Earth might be, if they had to choose. 

It’s the sort of question that many of us may have asked ourselves out of morbid curiosity and, unsurprisingly, I wondered what mine would be. It took me all of nought seconds to come up with the obvious choice -- biriyani. Kachchi biriyani, made in Bangladesh. A one pot dish/meal that is in itself a sublime culinary experience. To those of you who have not had the pleasure of partaking in kachchi biriyani (excluding vegetarians and vegans of course), I offer my commiserations. 

Like most Bangladeshis, I am an ardent lover of the dish. In fact, so much so I felt it incumbent on me to write a short story that centred around, yes, you guessed it -- biriyani. That story subsequently triggered a conversation with the other members of my South Asian writers collective about the various interpretations of biriyani in different parts of India and Bangladesh. 

Some were surprised that our version, which is by far the best (and I will stand by this till my dying breath), has potatoes. I was aghast that many of their variations did not. “How can it be proper biriyani if doesn’t contain potatoes?” was my question. It borders on sacrilege. There is practically warfare at weddings if there is a dearth of the golden melt in your mouth “aloo.” 

As for the bastardized offerings touted as biriyani and served in restaurants in the UK, it can only make true biriyani lovers baulk in horror. The concoction should be renamed “fake biriyani.”

Hyderabad and Lucknow are known for their famous biriyani, but it was quite the eye-opener to find out the vast number of places in India that have their own variation. Awadi, Kolkata, Kampuri, Thalassery, Bombay, Sindhi, Tahari, and Bohri biriyani to name a few. 

The techniques of cooking are also different in different regions. There is the dum pukht method (slow oven cooking) where the ingredients are layered or combined in a large pot and sealed (with dough) to allow the steam to tenderize and cook the meat and rice. Kachchi biriyani follows this method where the raw meat is marinated in a multitude of aromatic spices and yoghurt then layered with fried potatoes, ghee, and rice infused with saffron. 

Some methods use meat that has already been cooked then layered with the polao and in other cases meat is not used at all and substituted with vegetables. I had also up until recently believed that biriyani came into being during the time of the Mughals but had not been aware of the different origin stories. 

Many food historians swear that biriyani or at least the precursor to the dish we know originated in Iran. The word “birinj” in Persian means to fry and “birian” means rice. Therefore -- rice fried before cooking. This would indicate that the word biriyani and the dish did indeed come from West Asia.

The most popular story traces back to Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), wife and queen of the Emperor Shahjahan and for whom the Taj Mahal was built. She is said to have visited the army barracks of the Mughal soldiers and upon finding them looking weak and malnourished, she instructed the chef to prepare a dish that would be nutritious and filling. The result was rice fried in ghee, meat combined with aromatic spices and saffron, ie biriyani.

At one point in my life I even tried to convince others that biriyani should be considered a balanced diet. The carbohydrates come from the rice, protein from the meat, the ghee constitutes the fats, and the potatoes can double up as vegetables. Sadly, I failed to persuade nutritionists and the health conscious to buy into my theory. Though I would like to mention here that Mumtaz Mahal would have agreed with me.

One legend suggests that Timur or Tamerlane, the Turk-Mongol ruler and founder of the Timurid dynasty, was responsible for bringing it to the Indian sub-continent. Apparently he served a simpler form of the dish to his soldiers at the Indian borders, which combined meat, rice, and spices and was slow cooked in pots then buried in hot pits. These were later dug out and fed to his army. This is, however, disputed by many historians who claim that there are no records of anything similar in his native land during that period (1398). 

Though the birth of biriyani is primarily credited and associated with the Mughal rulers of India, there is also historical evidence showing that the dish may have been brought into South India, more accurately the Malabar coast, by Arab traders. A similar dish called oon soru was depicted in Tamil literature as early as the year 2AD. This was made with rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, and other spices and served to their warriors. The common thread that runs through these stories appears to be that biriyani was created for the army as a one-dish meal. 

If there are sceptics out there who wonder how one dish can stir so much passion in people, they need look no further than the headline in a newspaper in Bengaluru, India. “Wedding called off over choice of biriyani.” In this case the bride’s family served chicken biriyani at the wedding when in fact the groom’s side had expected mutton biriyani. Chaos ensued and both parties called the wedding off despite attempts by the elders to reconcile the two. Need I say more?

Over time, biriyani has taken many forms and incorporated influences from different regions. Each has its own distinctive style and flavour. But I still maintain that authentic Dhakai kachchi biriyani is nonpareil.

Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.

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