POLITICIANS will have none of it. But Indians, it seems, can’t have enough of biryani. The dish, which according to some accounts originated more than 600 years ago, and now has at least 40 documented avatars, each equally loved and fought over, remains the most ordered dish online in the country now for the past two years. An anytime, anywhere meal.
A FICCI-PwC (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry-PricewaterhouseCoopers) report, published in December last year estimated the organised biryani delivery industry at Rs 2,500 crore in 2018 (about the same amount Amazon paid up to acquire a minority stake in Future Retail, which owns Big Bazaar and Nilgiris outlets).
A National Restaurant Association of India report, published in May, puts the total market size of the overall Indian food service industry at Rs 4.23 lakh crore in 2018-19, growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 9 per cent. It said the Indian restaurant industry employed 7.3 million people in 2018-19 and the organised food service sector was only 35 per cent of the total market, with Mumbai figuring at the top.
In 2018, a biryani was ordered on Swiggy (one of the two biggest food apps in India, with a presence in 44 cities) once every 3.5 seconds, surpassing all predictable contenders for every single meal, even breakfast. The highest demand was for Hyderabadi biryani, with chicken coming in first and then mutton.
On the other dominant food app, Zomato (which is present in 10,000 cities worldwide with 1.4 million restaurants), the most non-vegetarian orders were for biryani even in tier-III and -IV cities.
As food e-commerce skyrockets in India at a pace surpassing that of South Korea and China, with more than Rs 3 lakh crore revenue in 2017, business graduates and venture capitalists are coming in, planning cloud kitchens, tech-based start ups and delivery models centred around biryani. Whether Biryani Blues, Ammi’s Biryani, Charcoal Biryani and more, tech investments are flocking to the age-old dish.
As one legend goes, Mughal empress Mumtaz Mahal, seeking to provide nutritious, easy-to-cook food for her husband Shah Jahan’s army, commandeered her cooks to make a wholesome meal in bulk. Thus, some say, was born biryani, which combined meat with rice — though there are other theories about how this dish came to be.
Now, among the new kids on the block is Manzilat Fatima, 51, the great-great-granddaughter of the last nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, who famously insisted on taking his royal cooks with him when he moved from his throne to then Calcutta. For, central to re-establishing his new life for him was biryani which, in the journey from Lucknow, accommodated potato in the meat and rice. Kolkata-based Fatima started out by putting up “Dadi’s recipes” on Facebook groups such as Kolkata Breakfast Club and Chef At Large, and quickly gaining attention, partly owing to her lineage. Having started making and supplying biryani in 2018, she now takes roughly 50 to 60 orders a day, through Swiggy, Zomato, or on the phone.
“It’s a subtle revolution,” Fatima says. “Now, biryani is available everywhere online, becoming an everyday meal. I could only bring it to this level because of technology.”
Hyderabad, arguably the land of the biryani, orders the food item the most, followed by Delhi-NCR, Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Pune. Says a Swiggy spokesperson, “While people in Lucknow are loyal to Lucknow biryani, Hyderabadis go all-out when it comes to the dish. Orders data showcases a demand for Lucknow, Kolkata and even Natukodi (origins in Andhra Pradesh), Kerala’s Thalassery and Malabar biryani in Hyderabad. There is also a lot of demand for vegetarian biryani here. When it comes to Kolkata, we see a fair share of orders requesting Lucknow and Hyderabadi biryani.”
It was data like this that first piqued the interest of Sagar Kochhar, the chief marketing officer of Rebel Foods, which calls itself “the world’s biggest internet restaurant”, operating 1,600 internet restaurants and 205 delivery cloud kitchens in 18 Indian cities. Formerly known as Faasos, the company includes among its financial backers Goldman Sachs and an Indonesian delivery service firm, and owns brands such as Behrouz Biryani, Mandarin Oak, and Firangi Bake.
Kochhar says that the change trickled in five years ago, when they realised that their 80 brick-and-mortar stores were becoming obsolete, with three-quarters of their orders coming online. So they decided to downsize the stores and invest in the cloud-kitchen model. This model, bringing down their rentals from one-fifth of their expenses to only 3 per cent, proved to be the best suited for biryani, Kochhar says. He believes, like many other investors, that what makes biryani so attractive to customers is that it is a whole meal that can be had with little hassle.
The result is that Behrouz Biryani is now a Rs 150 crore-worth brand. Last year, according to the company, Mumbai bought 350 tonnes of their biryani, Gurugram clocked more than 10 per cent of their late-night orders, Bengaluru became their mutton capital, and Indore grew three-fold, outpacing Bhopal’s nearly double growth.
“The biryani category was largely unorganised, with every street having its own couple of brands. There was no national brand that offered a great recipe at scale. Anyone who tried doing it failed miserably because making biryani is an art and scaling up a biryani brand was a lot more challenging than any other category,” says Kochhar, adding that this is where they stepped in.
One of the first major challenges they tackled was deciding how to accommodate the various versions of the dish across the country. While other big-box biryani brands offer a number of local versions of the dish (such as Biryani by Kilo), Behrouz zeroed in on an amalgamation of it all in just a few options, with no regional names attached. They don’t call it starters, for example, they call it “kebab koobideh”. They don’t call it mutton biryani, they call it “dum gosht biryani”. And their “content play” includes chapters and chapters of storytelling on their website and a dramatically intense video of fire and knives, stating “the biryani that was worth a war is definitely worth a try”.
“We did a lot of R&D and came up with a recipe with universal appeal. That’s where branding took off. How do you appeal to various parts of the country? We created an aspirational brand with a strong story, a premium brand people look up to even if it might not be from their roots. We positioned the entire brand as a royal biryani from the mythical lands of Behrouz,” Kochhar adds.
Mohit Mehta, the founder of Biryani Central, was also lured in by the “high AOV”, or average order value, of the dish from a “revenue generation perspective” and “cash flow propensity”. With almost 400 orders a day, algorithms help the company decide the delivery routes to achieve “operational efficiency”.
However, he is more sceptical of the shifting economy’s influence on biryani than Kochhar. “You can price it at a low level but you aren’t really getting biryani, you are getting pulao. The danger in this (race) is a dilution of the dish,” Mehta says. “If someone is promising you biryani in 30 minutes, how can it be food? We can use technology to help with the process, the delivery, the route, but we are not a McDonald’s delivery. Biryani is biryani. It’s very easy for this to become a race to the bottom.”
Mehta and another founder Ishita Yashvi distinguish their biryani by keeping an in-house butchery, by having shallow and broad handis that involve slower cooking, and by consciously showcasing the inside of their cloud kitchens to ward off the “dark kitchen” stereotype. “How do you keep biryani, biryani even in the tech format?” Mehta says.
That’s not quite how Biryani by Kilo (BBK) sees it. Its cloud kitchen in Noida is designed to keep the company promise of delivery in 60-odd minutes, with a factory-style process to assemble the biryani — whose taste, for many, rests in its slow cooking — in 30-odd minutes.
An IIT-graduate with an MBA from Syracuse University, New York, Vishal Jindal says he left his hedge funds and private-equity career in 2015 when he began to notice that biryani was perfectly suited for a “low-cost, scalable home delivery market”. “We don’t have a big food and beverage brand. There is no Domino’s, McDonald’s, or KFC. I wanted to create a company from India which can be around the world tomorrow,” says the 45-year-old.
Jindal started BBK after raising $5-$6 million investment in three years and setting up 20 cloud kitchens across Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Punjab. Now, the company serves more than 50,000 orders a month on an average, and clocks Rs 50 crore annual sales currently, according to Jindal. With 80 per cent orders coming in online, BBK uses algorithms to learn how customers are behaving online to send them personalised offers.
The BBK’s Noida kitchen meets roughly 600 of those orders a week, with weekend earnings doubling to Rs 80,000 per day, and delivers to a maximum radius of 10 km.
At the 1,200-sq-feet cloud kitchen, set up two years ago, ingredients like saffron water, spices, rice, ghee, vegetables, and brown onions are tucked away in heavy-duty steel fridges and casings, vegetarian and non-vegetarian packed separately, with the only colour provided by the hundreds of rustic brown handis in which the biryani will reach customers. Only two of the staff are dressed in formals — outlet manager Vishal Raghav and shift manager Amit Kain. All the other 26 male employees wear identical black shirts with red collars and jeans. They are in the process of readying a large catering order for the nearby Barclays Bank branch this morning.
Raghav says the most important ingredient in their Hyderabadi biryani is the “mezza”, a marinated mix of “Hyderabadi masalas”. A laminated chart with the BBK logo stuck above the wall counter lists the count of each item that goes into the mix, including curd and brown onions. There is a similar portion chart for Lucknow and Kolkata biryanis. Initials mark out the various options on offer — HV for Hyderabadi vegetable biryani, EB for egg biryani, HPB for Hyderabadi prawn biryani, HK is Hyderabadi kathal, MK is mutton keema, KM is Kolkata mutton, KC Kolkata chicken, LV Lucknawi vegetable, LC Lucknawi chicken, LM Lucknawi mutton, HMB Hyderabadi mutton boneless, HCB Hyderabadi chicken boneless, HV Hyderabadi vegetable, HM Hyderabadi mutton, and HC Hyderabadi chicken. Their most popular biryanis are the Hyderabadi and Lucknawi varieties. Biryani By Kilo runs operations in Delhi NCR, Faridabad, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Mohali, Ludhiana, Jaipur, Lucknow and Dehradun. In the last year, Jindal says, their business in Jaipur and Chandigarh has grown the fastest. On the other hand, Rebel Foods, that currently operates in 15 cities, has the strongest footholds in Bengaluru, NCR and Mumbai, with Hyderabad and Pune as their fastest growing tier II and III markets.
Back at the kitchen, Kain shrugs when asked about the assembly line production. “Change is inevitable. In the Mughal time, the way they made food must have been different. I haven’t tasted food from that time but we have launched so many new things according to customer demand. We need to supply to customer demand,” he says with a smile.
Over at the counter, Balam Singh, from Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, with 15 years of kitchen and hotel experience behind him, of which one year is at this BBK kitchen, is putting the biryani together. He has accepted “the change” too, he says. “Earlier, every food had a method, whether Indian, Chinese or Japanese. Now, everything is mixed up. The processes have changed. Biryani has also changed.”
Dubbing this the “bastardisation of biryani”, some food historians say that while this has always been the case, it has accelerated within the food tech economy. “The dish is again evolving,” says Sadaf Hussein, chef and foodie, who runs a blog called Food and Streets. “This rapid growth has restaurants calling chicken tikka tossed with some gravy and served with rice as biryani. I call that jhatka biryani.” However, he remains optimistic that the dish that has survived the change of empires and many wars, will survive again. “I don’t think biryani will lose its charm just because it’s becoming mass-produced and easy to access,” he says.
“Biryani is a dish that all of India revels in. Any food to be tasty and nutritious has to be made with a lot of fursat (leisure) and mohabbat (love). We don’t have that kind of time anymore. That explains the present-day transformation that the biryani is undergoing in each region of the country. You could say that the inherent quality of the biryani is getting diluted but the new trend is in harmony with the times we are living through,” says Pratibha Karan, author of the book Biryani (2009).
At the other end of the spectrum, Fatima swears by the charm of home kitchens like hers supplying biryani. She is scandalised that others around her in Kolkata use colour instead of saffron, prepare meat in a pressure cooker and, the worst offence of it all, use oil instead of ghee. While the 51-year-old admits that economic and technological changes have altered the making of the dish even in her own kitchen, she is determined some things will remain the same. “When my mother used to make this recipe, she used to make it on a coal stove. I can’t use bricks and logs, I have to succumb to the gas stove… The economy and technology are saving time, helping us in mass production, but I’m sticking to my authentic biryani.”
Meanwhile, over at the Noida kitchen, Singh has finished mixing the ingredients together for a vegetable biryani order. Before placing the handi on the burner, he sprinkles a few drops of saffron water and fried brown onions, and seals the vessel with flour (white for non-vegetarian biryani, coloured green for vegetarian orders). He then chooses his option from a tablet with labels for different types of biryani and their cooking times. After four minutes on the burner, the biryani is put into an oven for 20 to 25 minutes.On a side table, the onion, chutney, raita, and other side items to be delivered alongside are sealed by a machine.
There are two digital clocks above Singh’s head. One shows the time the order came in, the other when the biryani is dispatched. The time period is exactly 35 minutes.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Click, Eat, Repeat’