The Story of Biryani: How This Exotic Dish Came, Saw and Conquered India!
Biryani is an evergreen classic that really needs no introduction. India offers so much on its culinary platter but the one dish Indians unanimously love indulging in is the mouth-watering biryani. With local and hyperlocal variations having evolved into distinctive styles of biryanis, one is spoilt for options when it comes to experiencing this melting pot of flavours.
The deliciously complex blend of flavours, spices, and aromas in biryani have come to epitomise the zenith of Indian cuisine.
So if you are a die-hard fan of this delicious dish, take things up a notch and tease your taste buds a little more with the story of what makes biryani so extraordinary.
Though it may appear to be a dish indigenous to India, in reality the dish originated quite far away. Biryani is derived from the Persian word Birian, which means ‘fried before cooking’ and Birinj, the Persian word for rice. While there are multiple theories about how biryani made its way to India, it is generally accepted that it originated in West Asia.
One legend has it that the Turk-Mongol conqueror, Timur, brought the precursor to the biryani with him when he arrived at the frontiers of India in 1398. Believed to be the war campaign diet of Timur’s army, an earthen pot full of rice, spices and whatever meats were available would be buried in a hot pit, before being eventually dug up and served to the warriors.
Another legend has it that the dish was brought to the southern Malabar coast of India by Arab traders who were frequent visitors there. There are records of a rice dish known as Oon Soru in Tamil literature as early as the year 2 A.D. Oon Soru was said to be made of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was used to feed military warriors.
However, the most popular story traces the origins of the dish to Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s beautiful queen who inspired the Taj Mahal.
It is said that Mumtaz once visited the army barracks and found the Mughal soldiers looking weak and undernourished. She asked the chef to prepare a special dish that combined meat and rice to provide balanced nutrition to the soldiers – and the result was biryani of course! At the time, rice was fried in ghee, without washing, to give it a nutty flavour and prevent it from clumping. Meat, aromatic spices, and saffron were added to it before cooking the mix over a wood fire.
The Nizams of Hyderabad and Nawabs of Lucknow were also famous for their appreciation of the subtle nuances of biryani. Their chefs were renowned the world over for their signature dishes. These rulers too were responsible for popularising their versions of the biryani – and mouth watering accompaniments like mirchi ka salan, dhanshak and baghare baingan – in different parts of the country.
The perfect biryani calls for meticulously measured ingredients and a practised technique. Traditionally , the dum pukht method (slow breathing oven in Persian) was used to make biryani. In this method, the ingredients are loaded in a pot and slow cooked over charcoal, sometimes from the top also, to allow the dum or steam to works its magic. The pot, sealed around the edges with dough, allows the steaming meat to tenderise in its own juices while flavouring the rice.
Other than the technique, spices also play a critical role in dishing out a good biryani – some recipes call for a very limited use of spices while others use more than 15 different spices. Meat or chicken is often the main ingredient, though in some coastal varieties, fish, prawns, and crabs are also used. Use of rose water, sweet edible ittar and kewra water in biryani is also common, a practice prevalent since the medieval era.
In the north, long grain brown rice was traditionally used to make biryani. It has today been replaced by the fragrant basmati rice. On the other hand, in the south, biryanis were and are still made using local varieties of rice, like the zeera samba, kaima, jeerakashala and kala bhaat, that lend their distinct taste, texture and aroma to the dish.
In general, there are two types of Biryani – the Kutchi (raw) biryani and the Pukki (cooked) biryani.
In Kutchi biryani, the meat is layered with raw rice in a handi (a thick bottomed pot) and cooked, while in Pukki biryani cooked meat and rice are layered in the handi, where they come together in a marriage of flavours.
The evolution of biryani spans many centuries, many cultures, many ingredients and many cooking styles. From an army dish to a dish fit for royalty, the biryani today is a pan-India culinary favourite. Its many varieties reflect the local tastes, traditions and gastronomic histories of their regions of evolution.
For some lip-smacking regional variants that every biryani lover should know about, read the 15 different kinds of biryanis on my blog.