Indian cuisine is a culinary journey with each region having its own distinctive tastes and cooking methods, but, the one dish that has been embraced all over the sub-continent is the mouth-watering dish of rice, meat and spices …. the delicious and salivatious Biryani ! As mouth-watering and scrumptious as this dish is, there is a history behind it’s journey, from the land of its origin to your plate ……
Though it may appear to be a dish indigenous to India, in reality it originated in far away Persia. There are legends galore as to the origin of the dish and it’s preparation. Stories abound, some fuzzy some romantic, but we do know that Biryani is derived from the Persian word ‘birian’ and, from the cooking style of ‘dum’ , it can be surmised that it originated in Persia or maybe Arabia. It could also have taken the route from Persia via Afghanistan to North India.
Another legend has it that the dish was brought to India by the Arab traders who were frequent visitors to the Malabar coast in the South. There are records of a dish made of rice, ghee, meat and spices which was used to feed the soldiers.
The most popular story about it’s origin relates to Mumtaz Mahal. It is said that Shah Jahan’s beautiful queen once visited the army barracks and found the soldiers seemed undernourished. She asked the chefs to prepare a special dish of meat and rice with spices and thus the Biryani was born!
The deliciously complex blend of aromas, flavours and spices in Basmati rice and a choice of meat, such as lamb, chicken or fish in a rich sauce are layered into the pot or ‘handi’. Spices like cardamom and cinnamon add aroma. Bay leaves, fresh coriander and mint leaves bring the dish to life. Nuts and dried fruits such as cashews, almonds, apricots and raisins are also added for richness, texture and flavour. Saffron that royal of spices makes it fragrant and gives it that special aroma and golden orange colour.
The complexity and skill required for the preparation is a culinary art. The perfect biryani calls for meticulously measured ingredients and technique.
Traditionally , the ‘dum pukth’ method is used to make biryani. It is one of the most refined methods of cooking. In this method, the ingredients are layered into a pot and slow cooked over charcoal. Sometimes burning coals are also added to the top of the pot to allow the steam (or ‘dum’) to works its magic. The pot, sealed around the edges with dough, allows the steaming meat to tenderize in its own juices all the while flavoring the rice. Once cooked and the seal is opened, the aroma of the dish is simply mouth-watering.
Besides technique, spices play a critical role …. some recipes call for a limited use of spices while others use more than 15 different spices. The ‘dum pukth’ method also means that less spices are used than in normal Indian cooking. Instead, fresh spices and herbs are used to enhance the flavor and texture of the meat. During the slow cooking process, the herbs release their flavors.
Biryani gained popularity during the Mughal rule in Lucknow and Hyderabad and both regions have their own variety of Biryani. Lucknow or Awadhi Biryani uses the most original recipe. It is cooked using the ‘dum pukht’ method.
Over the years the way Biryani is prepared has adapted to each region and each state now has its own specific way of preparing it.
The Mughlai Biriyani
The Mughal Emperors looked upon cooking as an art. The Mughlai Biryani perfectly fits the bill of a royal dish. Succulent chunks of perfectly spiced meat, enveloped in kewra scented rice, emanate an irresistible aroma that makes one salivate instantly.
It’s a perfect mix of basmati rice, meat and spices, onions, lemon and other ingredients. It is a special dish because of the intricacies involved in its preparation …. the meat is marinated for over 10 hours before soaking it in yohurt and layering the rice and meat in a ‘handi’ and cooked on a wood or charcoal fire. While most other biryanis are dominated by their flavoured meat, in the layered Hyderabadi Biryani, the aromatic saffron -flavoured rice is the star of the dish. The taste, fragrance and detail to perfectly cooked meat is what makes it an irresistible dish. A gastronomic experience not to be missed !
After being banished by the British, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah recreated his beloved Biryani in the city of Calcutta. As they were unable to afford meat, the Nawab’s cooks replaced the meat with perfectly cooked golden brown potatoes which have now become the signature of the Calcutta Biryani ! Much lighter on spices, this biryani is made using a yogurt based marinade for the meat, which is cooked separately from the light yellow rice. Like most Bengali dishes, the Calcutta Biryani has a hint of sweetness in it.
Vegetable Tahari Biryani
This is the vegetarian version, cooked with Basmati rice. The meat is replaced with a variety of vegetables and potatoes such as cauliflower, beans and peas. Aromatic with the scent and taste of ginger and accompanied with a bowl of spiced up yoghurt this is a comfort food par none !
Biryani, now in India, is the ‘go to’ dish for all occasions …. served at wedding buffets in several varieties, dinner parties, birthday parties and for housewives to fall back on during culinary disasters or domestic crisis ! The Magic of Biryani has saved the situation many a time !