If there ever was a dish equally loved by the masses as well as the elite, available at quick serve restaurants as well as gourmet fine-dines, across the length and breadth of the country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, it would be the Biryani. This is one dish in India that could give any dish in the world a run for money and fame. There are two versions of how this popular dish came to reside permanently in our hearts and on our plates. One says it was born in Persia and brought to north-India by the Mughals. The other version credits the Arab Traders with introducing it to locals on the Malabar coast in the south. Whichever version you believe, what matters is this dish has over centuries blended beautifully with the variety of spices, rices and cooking styles across the sub-continent, leading to the birth of a variety of different types of Biryani across the country. Today, the ubiquitous Biryani adorns buffets at 5 Star restaurants while also being served out of large handis at famous street-side eateries or even being delivered directly home from a cloud kitchen via an app on your phone.
My love for the Biryani has taken me on a gastronomical journey of pleasure and discovery to many places. From jostling for space with locals for my turn to order at famous eateries and dhabas across India, to standing in an hour-long queue to relish the dish at a famous Indo-Pakistani joint in London (Tayyabs), I can do pretty much anything to enjoy a flavourful plate of Biryani. Following the aroma across the streets of Kolkata, Hyderabad and Lucknow I’ve discovered legendary outlets dishing out their famed Biryani, prepared with a deep sense of reverence to age-old recipes. In this piece I’ve attempted to capture the richness and diversity of six different types of Biryani from India, which are renowned for their enticing aromas and distinctive flavours arising from their unique preparation styles.
LUCKNOWI DUM BIRYANI
A gift of the indulgent Nawabs of Lucknow, this is a Biryani that is an outcome of a deep romance between the rice, goat meat and the slow “dum” cooking technique which takes hours to reach perfection. The meat and rice are cooked separately, arranged together in alternating layers in a cauldron, which is sealed with a flour dough and cooked under steam. The result is a dish so aromatic that it must have inspired the Nawabs to poetry! Best tried out at Idris Dhaba or Lalla’s in Lucknow, of course along with the famous kebabs of the city of nawabs.
KOLKATA DUM BIRYANI
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was unceremoniously dethroned and exiled to Calcutta by the British in 1856. This historical act probably led to the birth of another famous Biryani – the Calcutta style Biryani inspired by and related to the “dum” Lucknowi Biryani. The special signature additions to this much-loved version in the east are large pieces of potatoes and boiled eggs. Another difference is the subtle sweet note that enhances the flavour of the basmati rice which is soaked in rose water before cooking. The must-try places for this aromatic biryani are Zeeshan, Nizam’s and Arsalan but be warned, every Bong has his favourite biryani joint and the question “which serves the best” will most probably lead to a heated gastronomic debate!
The “Kohinoor” of biryanis from down south is unique and distinct from the dum biryanis of the north & east. The meat is marinated in yoghurt, spices and coriander leaves for hours before being cooked meticulously to ensure the gosht is tender. Hyderabadi biryani is also distinct for its flavourful accompaniments such as the salaan, a curry made with large green chillis, and watery raita. My first tryst with this biryani was a visit to “Paradise” in Hyderabad with local friends, which a few years later became a Friday ritual of visiting Hyderabad Biryani House in Bangalore with office colleagues. Other signature places to try are Shadab, Sohail, Mohini and Cafe Bahar and many die-hard locals will point out these are miles ahead of the biryani from Paradise!
A chance weekend trip to Wayanad and a stop at a local eatery at Kalpetta introduced me to the Malabar biryani – a native of north Kerala which is a unique amalgamation of Arab and Malyali influences. Cooked with the distinct Jeerakasala rice found only in this part of Kerala, and finished with colours of fried onions, this biryani has subtle flavours of cinnamon and cardamom. The prawn, seer fish and chicken variants are as popular as the lamb version. The famous places to try this Biryani are in Kozhikode, Thalassery and Wayanad.
BANGALORE DONNE BIRYANI
A Bangalore speciality, this Biryani gets its name from the eco-friendly serving bowls or ” Donne” made of leaves/bark. Cooked with the Jeera rice similar to Malabar biryani or Samba rice, the unique flavours of this biryani are courtesy a paste of mint and coriander leaves along with freshly minced ginger-garlic and spices. Among others, one of the most popular eateries for authentic Donne Biryani is perhaps Shivaji Military Hotel in Bangalore which prides itself for the”nati” or country style of cooking. One can’t miss the street side outlets that dot the city and do brisk business during lunch hour selling Donne Biryani straight out of large aluminium handis.
Mumbai is home to its own family of diverse biryanis given the city’s cosmopolitan past. Some famous versions that are must try are the Konkani or Bhatkal Biryani, Sindhi Biryani and Bohri Biryani which is still enjoyed in large thaals as a community affair. Must try options are Lucky Biryani in Bandra, a place I’ve visited often clubbed with Linking Road shopping, Bagdadi which is in south Mumbai and open till late night or Copper Chimney for its Tawa Biryani. I’ve heard rave reviews of Bohri Kitchen started by an ex-Googler, Munaf Kapadia for an authentic home-cooked Bohra Muslim meal. Waiting to try that someday soon!