About a decade ago, I decided to change my vegetable vendor. Instead of getting my supplies from the local Mother Dairy outlet or the man with the pushcart outside the east Delhi housing society I lived in, I walked more than a kilometre to the vegetable market. The vegetables seemed fresh, and the walk, I told myself, was good for my health. The attraction, however, was a hole-in-the-wall eatery that served a variety of biryani I had never heard of — the Moradabadi biryani.
For nearly a month, I feasted regularly on this rice-and-meat dish that was very different from any other biryani I had ever had. The basmati was of the broken variety, it was garnished with a green chilli and ginger juliennes and served with a watery green chutney that I would usually discard. And, there seemed to be a hint of food colour — a replacement for saffron, perhaps.
My food connoisseur friends were aghast. The Moradabadi rice-and-meat dish militated against refined culinary traditions that the biryani is usually associated with. Moreover, Moradabad seemed an unlikely place for giving birth to biryani. It neither had a court culture associated with Mughal feudatories nor was it ever a bustling trade centre. To aficionados, associating what is primarily a town of artisans with the dish of emperors and nawabs was sacrilege.
Then there was that perennial question? Was it biryani or a pulao, or a hotchpotch? My friends had a point. The layering of meat and rice, if any, was crude — it seemed the two items were cooked together. Why, then, was I attracted to the fare? Was I drawn to the aroma of the khada masala (whole spices), which the eatery owner would regularly boast of? Or was it the meat that fell off the bone at the first bite? Or, was it because a wholesome meal could be had for less than Rs 100? Or did the dish remind me of food cooked with a lot of love and warmth?
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Outlets selling Moradabadi biryani have proliferated in Delhi in the last decade or so. They are usually hole-in-the-wall outfits, like the one where I lavished myself, or pushcarts with aluminum handis that are ubiquitous in almost all localities of the city. Many of them claim to serve the “original” Moradabadi biryani. A lot of them trace their recipe to one Alam Biryaniwale in Moradabad. I am yet to make a trip to the town and partake of the real thing — perhaps, like many of my highbrow friends, I have never been motivated enough.
In recent years, vendors peddling the khada masala-chilli-and ginger-laden rice-and-meat dish don’t feel the need to claim association with an original recipe. Perhaps, this tribe of biryani heretics finds confidence in the awareness that the food in their handis is easy on the pocket and nutritious — undeterred also by the bad press communal politics gives to the biryani. May this tribe flourish.
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