Food has often been invoked to make a political point in India. “Khichdi sarkar” — the norm for the past 25 years — can suggest derision for a mixed-up sarkar, or a stomach-healing sarkar, depending on how one looks at it. “No free lunch” has been invoked often enough, and the “mango people” have their own unfortunate history. But “biryani” is special. Those in the know claim that the history of biryani is really a crash course in Indian history. And now, it would seem, in politics.
Coast Guard DIG B.K. Loshali, under fire for saying several things about exploding boats, admitted to being averse to feeding the mysterious Pakistani boatmen “biryani”, clarifying that biryani had somehow made it to the list of things that signal an acceptable worldview in today’s India. He ended up invoking the one food item that has historically stood for welding cultures and spices together. But, as recent political culture goes, it has been used singularly to call out “traitors/ anti-nationals”. Biryani, one of the most popular dishes in the country, irrespective of one’s faith, is used cynically here to berate meat-eaters — that is, hint at its Muslim origins — and to equate violence and terror with a community. The word has come to telegraphically convey what people with a polarising position want to chew on, but prefer not to spell out.
In 1995, before sieges were telecast live, when Charar-e-Sharif was taken by terrorists and five people were held hostage and given food by the authorities — as they would have to be — the BJP’s tallest leader at the time invoked the idea of the Congress-led Narasimha Rao government sending in trays of “biryani” to make a point about “national security” and biryani being at opposite ends of the spectrum.
That was not to be the biryani’s last outing, and how much biryani you fed or ate became the Antoinette cake, and much more. The Congress tried to hint at the pomegranate that the NDA ate in 1999, when their minister escorted three dangerous terrorists to Kandahar. But that did not work. As fast food in Indian cities also grew beyond ideas of Western fast food and the biryani’s popularity galloped, and dog-whistling about politics — depending on which god you prayed to or what your food habits were — became more powerful, the biryani became a major political slogan. At a 2009 election rally at Kheda, the then chief minister of Gujarat, now the prime minister, came to the defence of L.K. Advani and insisted that then (1995) Finance Minister Manmohan Singh had wasted precious funds of the state treasury to feed terrorists in Kashmir, and that too “chicken biryani”.
In 2012, the food files of the lone surviving Pakistani gunman of the attack on Mumbai in 2008, Ajmal Kasab, made it to the Maharashtra assembly. We were informed that Rs 34, 975 was spent on his food in nearly four years. Close on the heels of that revelation came a report that he had asked for “mutton biryani” in jail.
Today, in the time of the “birizza” (a biryani-pizza), the biryani is a much-loved food under siege for reasons that have little to do with politics. The attempts to put paneer on it, maybe even caramelising the onions and over-spicing it, have long been sneered at by food enthusiasts. The wider debate between the Hyderabadis and Awadhis on which version is better is rivalled only by each Indian region having its own version. Pratibha Karan, in her must-read biryani book, speaks of the dish’s origins lying most likely in the compulsions of war and the need to feed soldiers a complete meal.
In Iran or the countries of Central Asia along old cities of the Silk Route, you can almost see the stirrings of the early biryani where, before the spices were added in the Indian region, the rough-cut of the pulao/ biryani can be relished in even small roadside restaurants.
The million and one made in India versions are a big jump from the early ones, and each is now held up proudly as the ultimate complete meal, from the Bengali version with potatoes, the Thalassery version from Kerala, a prawn variety, the Kampuri version from Assam, to several spicier Maharashtra versions. Biryanis have come to mean the ultimate dish, cooked slowly and surely with nutmeg, cumin, coriander and all possible meats and rice types. There are “veg” versions, too. Biryani could be the one dish that speaks so many languages in this rich and diverse country, and which, on its own, signifies the coming together of so many traditions and food types. The slow cooking and subtle flavouring were seen to signal a civilisational leap in India, as different versions of the biryani were honed. Odd that it seems to have acquired a life, more recently, of just meaning to denote a community and almost by implication, “meat-eating”, and, therefore, anti-national.
Of course, one might argue that exactly like other things that make polarisation as a political project difficult — such as inter-community marriages, or a composite language like Hindustani/ Urdu — a shared and loved food item like biryani must be constantly attacked to make “separateness” as a political idea more durable.