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Unveiling the origin of India’s most loved cuisine –Biryani


India is a land where at every turn you discover a whole new and wonderful food with unique flavours. Whether it is the Chola-Bhatora of the North or the Dosa of the South, India is indeed a land with wide range of cuisine. One dish, however, which unites every corner of this diverse nation and salivates the mouth of every foodie is – Biryani.

Briyani is one such dish for which Indians go crazy. Its mere mention is enough to strike a friendly conversation among a group and listen to the opinions about in which eatery it is served the best. Biryani has not only swayed Indians, but westerners coming to the sub-continent too relate quite well to it. Hardly there is any Indian restaurant which does not have Biryani on its menu.  However, do we really know enough about this dish as much as we love it? Did biryani really originate in India?

So, let us know how this drool worthy dish became a staple part of Indian cuisine.

The term biryani is derived from Persian word ‘birian’ which means ‘fried before cooking’. The origin of Biryani draws not from one but many stories pertaining to different regions.

If we refer to K.T. Achaya’s – ‘A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food’ and turn to the page which mentions about Biryani, it states that: “A spicy dish of meat cooked with rice, referred to by this term in the 13th century. Numerous variations occur all over India.”

We must know the chicken was first domesticated during the Indus Valley civilisation and from there it travelled to Europe. Archaeologists, however, have discovered ovens that looked quite like tandoors (a cylindrical clay or metal oven usually popular in North India). So, does that imply that tandoori dishes we gobble on are much older than we actually think them to be?

Also, while the tradition of rice in other parts of the world is comparatively less documented, India has some records of how our sumptuous rice dishes emerged. The origin of rice in India traces back to the time of Alexander the Great who arrived in India around 326 BC. Until then nobody in Europe had ever heard of rice. The rice in India was found by Alexander’s Greek Army who might have taken it back with them.

Moreover, the Western View says that it was Arabs who took rice all over the world. To prove the theory right, Paella, a Spanish dish, is the evidence of it as it originates from the rice dish of Arab cuisine. It is believed that Arabs planted rice in Spain and before that Spanish did not know about rice. Even in Italy, it was the Muslim travellers and traders who brought rice along with them and which is why rice only features in a very few Italian dishes like risotto.

A pack of Biryani tales…

Coming back to the origin of Biryani, there are not one but plenty of stories which tell its genesis. As per one legendary fable, it is believed that invader Taimur Lang, or Taimur, the crippled man from Kazakhstan brought biryani to the North India.

Another story that revolves around biryani’s creation is that Begum Mumtaz Mahal, in memory of whom Taj Mahal in Agra was built, was once pondering over providing a wholesome meal to feed the army. Then, the Begum came up with an idea of meat and rice being cooked together and that is how biryani came into being.

A part of biryani’s history considers that biryani was brought to India from Persia by the Mughals during their reign in India. Consequently, biryani established itself as an integral part of Indian Muslim cuisine in cities especially like Lucknow, Hyderabad and Kolkata.

Another segment considers Arab traders as purported carriers of Biryani who crossed Arabian Sea to land in Calicut, and created the Calicut Biryani. The Calicut Biryani is lighter and softer in comparison to other versions of Biryani and is served with papads (Papadom – a thin, crisp, disc-shaped wafer from India fried in coconut oil) and Vinegar pickles.

Biryani has gained such an enormous popularity that different communities have shaped their own versions of it. Among all, the Awadhi or Luckhnawi biryani is considered to have reached the zenith. It is also the earliest instance of Mughlai biryanis in India. When biryani travelled to Awadh, the cooks here added more aroma to it and changed its cooking style, making it drier, yet more flavoursome.

Lucknow biryani is undoubtedly one dish which Lucknowites boast off all the time. Even visitors who come to explore this city never go back without gorging on Biryani. Awadhi Biryani is also referred to as ‘dum biryani’ because of its method of preparation, where – first rice and meat are cooked separately, then layered together and lastly the pots are sealed with a dough in order to infuse and cook in its own aroma and steam. The biryani is called ‘Pulao’ by the people as for them there’s no distinction between Biryani & Pulao and only Hotels call it Biryani.

As the legend has it, in 1856, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was exiled from Lucknow to Calcutta upon annexation of Awadh (Oudh) by British and henceforth the Biryani travelled with him from Lucknow to Calcutta. This led to the birth of Calcutta Biryani (Kolkata biryani) – characterised by being mildly spicy and comes with the variant of a hard-boiled egg (referred as ‘deem’ in Bengali) and boiled-potato, the Bengali staple apart from the meat. The expensive cost of meat led to potato being used as a substitute – a distinctive feature of Kolkata biryani. It is said that at one time, in Calcutta, the biryani paved its way into the homes of poor as they could not pay for meat daily.

 

The widely craved Hyderabadi Biryani also has a citation in history. When Biryani reached the state of Hyderabad, the sour flavours of Deccan were infused in it. It is believed to have been created in the kitchens of Nizams of Hyderabad. Hyderabadi Biryani is considered as a melange of Iranian and Mughlai cuisine. It is considered that Aurangzeb on his intrusion of the south appointed the nizam-ul-mulk (Prime Minter) who later as the Asaf Jahi ruler became the Nizam of Hyderabad – which is self explanatory, how biryani came down to South India from the North.

There exists a notable variant of Hyderabad Biryani known as ‘Arcot Biryani’, which entails use of smaller grains of rice variety.

So, how did biryani permeated the other parts of India like Mysore or Malabar?

The biryani made on the Malabar Coast is one of the country’s best found biryani. Although it varies a lot from the biryani you find in Lucknow or in Delhi. This difference is in terms of taste and looks. However, it is recognisably a biryani as the rice and meat are cooked separately.

The signature method of biryani is rice and meat cooked separately.

The Mysore Biryani owes its traces to the Tipu Sultan of Karnataka who brought it to Mysore.

So, the standard theory suggests that Biryani was introduced in India by the Mughals or Arabs just through different routes. Nevertheless, certain questions still remain unanswered. Like, why do Malayalis use the Persian term ‘biryani’ if they believe it is something they created on their own?

There could also be a possibility that Indians, on their own, have age old traditions of cooking rice and meat together.

Different stories circulating around Biryani from different regions and each claiming this dish to be its own, leaves so much to explore by historians and foodies alike. Biryani is one dish that fascinates the most and has no other equivalent in Indian cuisine.