On the biryani trail

Fragrant rice cooked in layers of masala, vegetables and meat, ‘biryani’ is a universally popular dish. Sangeeta Sen decodes the history and taste of this rich delicacy

Pilaf rice with meat and vegetables. Delicious Indian food Hydrabadi soya chunks Biryani vegetable soy Pilaf served in clay pot. Healthy food

One Sunday, as I was strolling along the Calangute Beach, Goa, against the backdrop of the setting sun, I found myself catching a whiff of a strong peppery aroma. I curiously looked around and my gaze fell on the open-air kitchen of a thatch-roofed eatery where a young Goan cozinheiro (cook) was busy arranging assorted seafoods like shrimps, mussels, clams and squid rings, sautéed in Portuguese spices like piri piri pepper flakes, smoked paprika, cumin and crumbled açafrão (red and yellow saffron threads), on a layer of long-grained rice spread evenly in a cataplana (traditional Portuguese clam-shaped copper cooking pan). A sumptuous Goan seafood biryani was in the making. 

Regional tastes

Biryani is probably the most ordered dish across the country. But have you ever wondered about its origins? The word biryani is supposedly derived from the Persian word birian, which means ‘fried before cooking’ and birinj, the Persian word for rice. According to historical sources, the dish was brought to Indian shores by Mughals and it turned out to be a one-pot meal for the Mughal army. But over centuries, the dish has travelled the length and breadth of India and has been transformed to suit the regional palate. 

From Goa, moving along the south-western shores of the Arabian Sea, we have Kozhikode in Kerala, which was once a bustling port for Arab traders. According to Kenneth F Kiple in the book Cambridge World History of Food, the Moplah Muslims, rather the Arab traders, had a significant influence on the cuisine of the region and that led to the creation of Malabar biryani.

Fathima, a Kozhikode-based home cook, says, “The tradition of dum-cooking alternating layers of parboiled kaima, short-grained rice and chicken pieces, sautéed with the traditional Moplah masala, in a sealed handi pot over a gentle flame, brings out the distinct flavour of the Malabar biryani.”


Chettinad chicken biryani

Then, there’s Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu, which was the seat of power for the elite merchant class of Nattukottai Chettiars during the Chola regime. P N Ravindran, in his book The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices, points out that the Chettiars’ commercial trade relations with Malaysia had a significant influence on Chettinad cuisines, notably the Chettinad chicken biryani. In fact, the dish was cooked with a special masala comprising Malaysian spices like star anise, black and green cardamoms, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, fennel and cumin seeds along with the Himalayan kalpasi (black stone flower). 

A Chennai-based restaurant chef explained, “Cooking parboiled samba short-grain rice and marinated chicken pieces with the traditional Malaysian freshly ground spice mix in a chatti (a clay pot) adds to the flavour of the dish. This version of the dish is high on heat.”

Travelling east to West Bengal, we find the kachhi Dhaka biryani. Cubed mutton, marinated in yoghurt and spices, is topped with half-cooked basmati rice, fried onions, aloobukharas (sour plums), sultanas, flaked almonds and finally, dum-cooked. The flavours are subtler here than the southern counterparts of the dish.

According to Rick Stein in the book Far Eastern Odyssey, this Dhaka biryani was a popular dish for the Nawabs of Bengal ruling at the Bengal Subah (province) in the 17th century. The traditional dum technique has been around in India for the last 2,000 years. The process that ensures that the aroma and flavours of the spices that are used remain in the biryani pan.

Biryani has left its mark in the Northeast too. As part of preparations for a lavish wedding feast in a banquet hall located along the Nagaon-Kampur Highway in Assam, Mustafa was dum-cooking layers of basmati rice and marinated chicken pieces, sautéed with spices and vegetables, in a deg (traditional Iranian biryani pot) placed over a gentle flame.

The Kampuri biryani was popularised when Persian traders settled at Kampur in the 12th century. In keeping with the Assamese-Mughal culinary traditions, the Kampuri biryani is eaten with the side of tangy green sanmeholi chutney (a sauce of garlic, kokum, mint and curry leaves).

The Northeast is also known for the unique dish called jadoh rice. It was a popular ethnic food for the Khasi tribe settled in Meghalaya in the 16th century. The dish is served during ethnic ceremonies. Khasi red rice is cooked with pork pieces, sautéed with spices in the sarao (burnt clay cooking utensil of Meghalaya). Jadoh rice is savoured with a plate of tungtap or dried fish chutney.

The influence of north-western flavours is prominent in Kabuli biryani of Rajasthan. The dish was savoured by Mughal emperors ruling the Marwad region (Jodhpur) in the 15th century. In this case, layers of saffron-flavoured basmati rice, fried vegetables and gravy, topped with palak pakoras (spinach fritters), nuts and dried fruits are cooked in a handi that is tightly-sealed with dough and is placed over a low flame. Traditionally, this biryani is served with dahi kadhi. Mouthwatering, isn’t it?

Locally sourced fresh ingredients, aromatic spices in precise quantities, and a simple yet intricate cooking technique are what make biryani a treat to cook and to eat. So, what are you waiting for? Make biryanis your Sunday lunch must-have.

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On the biryani trail

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