“This city of tents contained market-places, filled with delicious and appetising eatables… Among these dishes the principal and most substantial were the rich and aromatic Mogol biringes and Persian pilaos of different hues… many tents held different dishes of rice, herbs and vegetables, among which the chief place was taken by the Gujerat or dry biringe,” the Portuguese Catholic priest Sebastian Manrique wrote around 1640. The friar’s memoirs of his travels in India are replete with the usual tribulations of the Europeans in India. But the account, abounding with lament about the difficulty of terrain and the venality of Mughal officials, acquires an ineffable zest whenever there is a reference to food. The Catholic priest was fascinated with the variety of breads and rice dishes eaten by the Mughal royalty. Food historian Lizie Collingham believes that “biringe” mentioned by Manrique is what is today known as biryani.
The Portuguese priest visited India during the reign of the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. According to one legend, biryani was first cooked during his reign. It is said that during a surprise visit to the barracks, the emperor’s wife, Mumtaz Mahal, found the troops to be malnourished. She asked the royal cooks to devise a nutrient-rich dish, and, thus, was born the biryani.
This is one of the many theories of biryani’s origins. Another theory has it that the Persian pilao was improvised, and ultimately transformed, into what is today known as biryani in the kitchens of the Mughals. The word biryani, according to this account, derives from the Persian word biryan, or frying.
Around 200 years before Manrique visited India, Shah Jahan’s great grandfather Humayun lost his throne to the Afghan chief Sher Shah. The fugitive prince found refuge in Persia, where the ruler, Shah Tahmasp, was a generous host.
Humayun’s stay in Persia was to inaugurate a history of cultural interaction whose footprints are evident to this day. The Persians loved rice dishes and the cooks in Humayun’s retinue regaled the Shah with a dish of rice and peas. Writes Collingham, “the piece de resistance of Persian cuisine was pilao”. Rice was imported from India, and “the Persians would soak it in salted water to ensure that it was gleaming white, when cooked”. “Their cooks developed numerous variations: Fruit pilaos, turmeric and saffron ones, chicken pilaos for special occasions,” writes Collingham.
What was once a dish that shepherds devised by combining barley or broken wheat with meat cooked on campfire became exotica of sorts when the Persians started importing rice from India. The pilao, then, travelled to different parts of the Islamic world: it Turkey, it became the pilav, in Spain, it became the saffron-flavoured seafood-and-rice dish, paella, and in India, it became the pulao. Here, it acquired another twist.
“The delicately flavoured Persian pilau met the pungent and spicy rice dishes of Hindustan to create the classic Mughlai dish, biryani. One of the most distinctive Persian culinary techniques was to marinate meat in curds (yogurt). For biryani, onions, garlic, almonds, and spices were added to the curds, to make a thick paste that coated the meat. Once it had marinated, the meat was briefly fried, before being transferred to a pot. Then, following the cooking technique for pilau, partially cooked rice was heaped over the meat. Saffron soaked in milk was poured over the rice to give it colour and aroma, and the whole dish was covered tightly and cooked slowly, with hot coals on the lid and around the bottom of the pot, just as with pilau. The resultant biryani was a much spicier Indian version of the Persian pilau,” writes Collingham.
The pulao- biryani difference is one of the hottest debates of Indian culinary history. The food historian K T Achaya wrote that the recipes “in the Ain-i-Akbari show little distinction between pulao and biryani”. But in a few centuries, the difference was much sharper. Food historian Coleen Taylor Sen quotes the 19th century playwright and historian of Lucknow, Abdul Halim Sharar: “To the uninitiated palate, both are the same but because of the amount of spices in biryani, there is always a strong taste of curried rice, whereas pulao can be prepared with such care that this can never happen”.
Sharar believes that during the 18th century, when the Mughal Empire was in its last gasp, the aristocracy in Delhi preferred biryani, while the Lucknow nawabs loved pulao. When the fourth Nawab of Lucknow, Asaf-ud-Daulah, built the city’s famous Bara Imambara as a famine relief measure, he ordered rice and meat to be slow cooked in large cauldrons for the construction workers. Legend has it that during one visit to the construction site, the Nawab was struck by the aroma of the meal and ordered his cooks to bring it to his kitchen. There, it was tweaked to create the Lucknow version, the pakki biryani — meat cooked with spices layered over cooked rice and then slow cooked in a sealed vessel.
When the British deposed the last Nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, in 1856 and exiled him to Calcutta, the banished ruler’s cooks accompanied their master. The kitchen, though, had none of the past opulence and poverty forced the royal cooks to cut down on the quantities of meat. They innovated with the potato instead and that is said to be the origin of the Calcutta biryani, where the tuber substitutes some of the meat. Another successor state of the Mughal empire, the Hyderabad Nizamat, developed its variant of the biryani. Taylor Sen quotes a French soldier stationed in the princely state as describing a rice dish, “boiled with quantities of butter, fowls and kids with all sorts of spicery”.
In his India Cookbook, food scholar Pushpesh Pant describes the Hyderabadi biryani recipe as raw meat tenderised with unripe papaya cooked in a pan along with the rice, the kachchi biryani. “The art of cooking biryani is in its perfect timing: the marinated meat must cook in the same time as the part-cooked rice when the two are sealed together in a pot. The grains of rice should remain unbroken and separate and should have absorbed the flavourful stock,” writes Pant. Sidiq Jaisi, a poet from Lucknow, who found employment at the Hyderabad Nizam’s court in the 1930s, is quoted by Taylor Sen as describing each strand of rice “in the biryani to be filled with ghee”.
In culinary history, ascribing origins is a fraught enterprise. That holds true for the biryani as well. Despite biryani’s royal lineage, there is something very basic about the combination of rice and meat. Achaya talks about references to similar dishes in the Tamil literature of the early centuries of the Christian era. Oon soru, a rice dish made with meat, ghee, pepper, bay leaf and turmeric, for example, is said to have been the staple of warriors of the Chola kingdom around the second century AD. In fact, one theory holds that the pilao itself is an ancient dish that derives from the Greek word, pilafi.
The relative ubiquity of its ingredients also makes it plausible that biryani was not solely a royal innovation. One theory has it that while the pulao was a product of courtly culture, the biryani was the plebian fare. It would be safe to say that while the more exquisite varieties of the dish are products of kitchens that had the leisure to experiment with cuisine, biryani, perhaps, owed as much to the activities of merchants, traders and pilgrims.
The spice trade on the Malabar coast is one such example. The availability of rice varieties, the profusion of spices and the cultural spinoffs from trade combined to produce a rice-and-meat dish, somewhat different from the ones devised in the courts of the Mughal emperors and their successors in Awadh and Hyderabad. The Malabar biryani too relies on slow cooking, but it’s this, and not long hours of marinating, that gives the fall-of-the-bone quality to the meat. Compared to the delicately-spiced biryanis of the royal kitchens in the north, and in Hyderabad, the Malabar biryani has a robustness that could possibly owe to its association with a community that made its mark by trading in peppercorns and other spices. The biryani uses the short-grain rice and has varieties in which the meat is substituted by fish or prawns.
The Bohras on India’s west coast use tomatoes and potatoes. The dish, though, is far milder than the Malabar biryani. The Sindhi biryani is another variant of the rice-and-meat dish that uses potatoes.
The dish devised in the kitchens of the royals and the camps and caravans of soldiers, traders and pilgrims has recently become embroiled in India’s recent conflicts over religion, caste and national identity. Perhaps, that has something to do with biryani’s propensity to transcend barriers of class. Street vendors in Delhi sell a version of the dish, the Moradabadi biryani. It uses the kaccha variety of the basmati rice, whole spices and has none of the aroma and resplendence associated with the dish that has claims to royal pedigree. But for anything between Rs 60 and Rs 100 a plate, the Moradabadi biryani is a hearty meal, replete with proteins and carbohydrates.
Biryani’s arrival as a cultural-political trope was, perhaps, announced by the Congress leader, Mani Shankar Aiyar, in the late 1990s. Piqued by his DMK opponent’s constant arraigns about his caste, Aiyar decided to prove his anti-Brahmanical credentials by challenging his rival to a chicken biryani-eating contest. Aiyar won the elections — it’s debatable, though, if his appetite for biryani had any role in his victory.
But it’s only in the last decade or so that politics has threatened to overtake the gastronomical qualities of the dish. Last year, public prosecutor Ujwal Nikam admitted to cooking up a biryani fib to build up a case against the 26/11 accused Ajmal Kasab. The public prosecutor had remarked that Kasab had demanded mutton biryani in jail, but went on to retract his statement.
Tagging Muslims and biryani ignores the fact that non-Muslim communities have their versions of the dish. The biryani of the Syrian Christians in Kerala, for example: unlike the Malabar biryani, this dish uses long-grained rice and is closer to the pulao. The rice-and-meat dish cooked by the Kayastha community in north India too has affinities to the pulao. Food writer Anoothi Vishal notes that Yakhni pulao cooked in Kayastha homes demanded that, “each grain of rice had to be coated with enough flavour from the ghee in which it was roasted and then the stock in which it was boiled”.
Communal politics around the biryani has scant respect for such culinary nuances and diversity. It has become sharper in the last two months with the Haryana government targeting stalls selling the dish in Mewat in the run-up to Eid. Livestock is known to yield more meat compared to goat and is, thus, a comparatively inexpensive source of protein for poorer communities. In its mass avatar, the dish, once the culinary artifact of the royalty and the affluent, uses ingredients that are staples in the kitchens of the poor.
In Hyderabad, for example, the Kalyani buff biryani is far from the dish that originated in aristocratic kitchens. It does not use fine rice and is not suffused with spices. The beef-and-rice dish is said to be the creation of the erstwhile cooks of the Kalyani nawabs of Bidar, the underlings of the Hyderabad Nizams. After independence, when the fortunes of the Nawabs dwindled, some of the cooks moved out and started small food outlets. Gradually, the hole-in-the-wall joints that sold the Kalyani biryani began to be frequented by the city’s strugglers — the unemployed, auto-rickshaw drivers, students, rickshaw-pullers. Today, there are several such joints in the city, where the dish can be had for less than Rs 100. At the Cheemalapadu Dargah in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district, biryani is a dish for the indigent. Here, 80-year-old Attaullah Shariff Shataj Khadiri Baba has been feeding biryani to the poor for more than four decades.
Biryani today is as much about nondescript joints, pilgrim fare – even charity – as it is about gourmet cuisine. It’s a hearty meal rich in carbohydrates and protein. The politics over the dish has little appreciation for this aspect of culinary culture.