Layers of long-grained Basmati rice, enriched with the earthy flavours borrowed from cardamom, kewra (screw-pine essence), saffron, cinnamon and nutmeg, studded with beautifully marinated chunks of meat. A dish that is a complete meal in itself. A dish which by any other name, is still a biryani.
Being a dish that suits all occasions and strikes a chord with everyone, there are many variations of biryani found across the country. While broadly, the technique involved in preparing biryani can be neatly divided into pakki (cooked) biryani and kacchi (uncooked) biryani – kacchi uses uncooked rice and meat and pakki uses cooked rice and meat, and both slow cook it in a handi for hours – the ingredients that go into the two versions have very little to differentiate them. More importantly, a biryani is rice cooked with meat and flavoured with whole spices.
Of course, Bengalis like to find a marinated piece of aloo (potato) in their biryani that soaks in the flavours from the spices and meat. And you’ll sometimes find a boiled egg in some biryanis. But all of these ingredients are side heroes to the major domo, which is the meat and the rice which is either cooked separately to the meat or with it, in its stock.
Yet, given the number of food experiments we witness daily – dishes that appear on the menu only to disappear the next day – authenticity is a thing of the past. And for some reason, the biryani seems to keep losing its identity in the bargain. Non-meat eaters have tweaked the dish and have come up with their own versions of the dish – palak biryani, soya chunks biryani, mushroom biryani, paneer dum Hyderabadi biryani, chana dal biryani, and even tomato biryani – basically, rice cooked with anything is called biryani today.
Suddenly, all claims of biryani being by definition a non-vegetarian dish are being denied only to give legitimacy to “vegetable biryani”. Popular biryani chains across Delhi, from Bikkgane Biryani or Biryani Blues, have come up with versions of vegetarian biryani to cater to the city’s vegetarian audience.
While people have taken the liberty to add any vegetable to a mix of rice and spice and call it biryani, there has always been a name for the dish they are promoting – pulao. Then why is it that vegetarian pulao masquerades as vegetarian biryani?
On World Vegetarian Day, let us (at least try to) return some glory to the pulao, while saving the biryani from this contender to its throne. Abdul Halim Shahar (1890-1926), a journalist and historian who chronicled life in Lucknow in his book, Lucknow: Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, had written, “To the uninitiated palate, both are much 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. In the view of gourmets, a biryani is a clumsy and ill-conceived meal in comparison with a really good pulao.”
From what it looks like, Lucknow in the early 20th century liked its pulao more than its biryani. Noted journalist Vir Sanghvi mentioned in his blog last year, “Some of the greatest biryanis in India are actually called pulaos by the people who make them. In Lucknow, what we call an Awadhi biryani is always referred to as a pulao. I asked Imitiaz Qureshi, the legendary chef (from Lucknow) what he thought the distinction between a pulao and a biryani was. In the old (pre-ITC) days, when he was a caterer, Imitiaz recalled, he always described it to clients as a biryani because it sounded grander (and he could charge more for it) than pulao. But in the kitchen, it was always referred to as a pulao.” Well then, maybe that explains the ever-increasing trend of re-branding just any rice dish and calling it biryani.
Colleen Taylor Sen in her book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India pointed out a few general distinctions between a pulao and a biryani for her readers to understand. She wrote, “Pulaos are usually an accompaniment to a meal whereas biryanis are the centre piece, accompanied by various side dishes. Second, pulao is a single pot dish made by first sautéing the spices, meat, and rice in oil, then adding a liquid and simmering until the liquid is absorbed.” But, for a biryani, “layers of meat and rice are put in a pot, which is sealed and slowly cooked for hours. Finally, usually the spicing for pulao is simpler and milder than for biryanis.”
After laying out the difference between the two dishes, Sen continued, “Pulaos had poetic names, such as gulazar (garden), koku (cuckoo), moti (pearl) and chameli (jasmine). Chefs ought to transform pulao into work of art.”
A well-cooked pulao is sometimes even more appreciated than biryani, because of its subtlety in flavor. So why replace chunks of meat in biryani with soya chunks or pieces of vegetables, and then call it vegetarian biryani? Be proud of your sabzi pulao people, and stop trying to co-opt the biryani instead.