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A short history of biryani: the best way to eat rice

The nawabi dish that no other can match in grandeur, rich flavors and taste – biryani is unanimously loved by everyone.

Fragrant basmati rice, rich flavors snd juicy meat, prepared with myriad of spices is what makes biryani so supremely royal. Not to miss the labor of love that goes in making which is totally worth it. Yet no two biryanis, homemade or from a restaurant taste the same.

One is spoilt for choice when it comes to the variety of biryani available today ever since its introduction to the Indian sub-continent and the regional influence since then. My love for biryani led to an enduring interest to find out the origins of biryani. A dish that has so much to offer in terms of flavors and variety, one is made to question – where did it come from?

THE STORY OF BIRYANI

Not to my surprise, just like the different versions of Biryani there are different stories of its origin. There is a consensus that biryani is indigenous to the Indian-subcontinent. How it got there? There are some really interesting stories of the aromatic trails that travel back to the royal kitchens.

It is believed to be introduced in the era of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor.

The history of Biryani suggests it is a derivative from the Persian pilaf (Pulao). As for a classic Persian Pulao the rice and the meat are cooked separately and the meat is either served on the top, on the side or in the center. The rice does not acquire much taste from the spices or the meat. Following a similar cooking method with a difference of layering rice and meat enriched with spices and other exotic infusions like dried fruits and saffron, biryani has emerged as a resplendently spicier version of the Persian Pulao.

The evolution of Biryani from the Persian Pulao is quite fascinating.

The cooking technique of “dum” is suggested to have come from Persian style of cooking. According to ancient Persian dictionary,

Pulao is described as: “Pukhtan-e-Goosht Bee Aab, Cheh Dar Dum Wa Cheh Bar Aatish, Wa Surkh Kardan, Wa Boo Dadan, Aanhaast Dar Roghan”

which means:

Cooking meat without, either in a sealed pot or low heat, stir frying and cooking in oil.

Today we have similar cooking technique for Biryani using “Dum” method where the pot is sealed with dough, the layered meat and rice are then cooked on low heat that helps in infusing all the flavors together into a royal treat. History suggests that this method of cooking travelled from Persia to Indian sub-continent with traders from ancient Arabia or Afghanistan.

Ever since there have been variations in Biryani from region to region, giving us a delectable dish with every version. The art of cooking Biryani is based on two methods

  1.  Kachha (Urdu word for Raw), where the meat and rice are cooked together  
  2.  Pakka (Urdu word for Cooked), where meat and rice are pre-cooked and then layered together.

From the royal pots to the dish beguiled by a common man, Biryani underwent glorious redefinitions.

A DISH FIT FOR A KING

The richness in Mughal Cuisine and a staggering array of dishes led to the introduction of Mughlai Biryani, rich in flavors, succulent pieces of meat, kewra infused rice – a dish fit for the king.

The Nizam of Hyderabad was so impressed by the royal dish that he wanted it to be owned by the state of Hyderabad. Thus palace chefs came up with Hyderabadi Biryani where rice was infused with saffron. A different flavor of each region makes Biryani uniquely different like the addition of Aloo (potatoes) in Biryani makes it Sindhi Biryani. Hot and Spicy masalas, addition of dried plums (aloo bukhara) and kewra essence gives us Bombay Biryani. A vegetarian version of Biryani, Tahiri is biryani without meat.

Today, Biryani is the most celebrated dish in the Indian-subcontinent. A dish with a history as rich as it’s flavors is not only a meal but a dish that brings everyone together. There is hardly a self-respecting South-Asian who hasn’t tasted one of its variations.

Everyone has their version of Biryani. Here is my favorite – the one that is made at my home:

Classic Chicken Biryani

Aromatic rice, juicy tender meat and rich spices layered and cooked to perfection making a colorful and flavorful Royal Cuisine!

Prep time: 20 minsCook time: 50 minsTotal time: 01 hour 10 minsYield: servings 6

INGREDIENTS

For Rice

  • 500 grams Long grain rice
  • 2 1/2 liter Water
  • Salt

For Chicken

  • 1 Whole Chicken
  • 4-5 Onions, Medium
  • 1 Cup Yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp Ginger paste
  • 1 Tbsp Garlic paste
  • 1 Packet Shan Bombay Biryani Masala
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 1/2 tsp Red Chili powder
  • 6 Tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 5-6 Green Chilies, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cup Water
  • Mint Leaves, a few
  • Ghee or Oil for cooking

For Layering

  • Yellow food color, as required
  • 1 tsp Cardamom powder
  • 1/4 tsp Nutmeg, ground
  • 2 Black Cardamoms, ground
  • 3-4 Cloves, ground
  • 5-7 Whole Black Peppers,ground
  • 4 Tbsp Lemon Juice
  • few drops Kewra Water

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Prepare Chicken Curry: In a pan heat the ghee or oil, add onions and fry until golden brown. Add chicken and let it cook. It will release its own water, let it cook while stirring occasionally until the water dries completely. Now add yogurt and continue cooking on medium heat, when mixed well add ginger and garlic pastes along with the Biryani Masala, salt, red chili powder and water and let cook for 25 minutes till the chicken is tender. Next add tomatoes, when soft add green chilies and mint leaves. Cook for a few minutes till the gravy is reduced but not liquid
  2. Prepare the Rice: Wash and soak rice in water for 15-20 minutes and drain. Boil 21/2 liters of water with a little salt. Once the water starts to boil add rice and cook for 5-7 minutes until they are half cooked. Drain the water
  3. Layering: Oil a heavy bottomed pan, place two-thirds of rice on the base, followed by gravy. Keep alternating layers of rice and gravy making rice as the top layer as well. Sprinkle some yellow food color, all the ground spices, lemon juice and kewra water. Cover the pan tightly with the lid and cook on low flame for 10-15 minutes till the rice is done and steaming
  4. Serving: Serve hot with Mint Raita (Simply mix this Mint Coriander chutney in yogurt)and salad
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