Biryani: A Symbol of Royalty and Resilience
Those planning a holiday to India, consider this a gastronome's advice: don’t leave the country without digging in a plate of biryani.
The Indian subcontinent has many theories of how biryani traversed India, and the present-day version of the dish has a proven history of being hailed from the Mughal kitchens of India.
The story began many moons ago when Persian traders lent not only silks to India but also their food. Mughals, who strengthened their big empires in most of India, introduced Biryani into their royal kitchens.
What is Biryani?
Biryani is a one-pot dish of fragrant rice and meat infused in spices and clarified butter, cooked in the sealed pot until the meat falls off the bones. Understand that, in this form of slow cooking, rice and meat are air-cooked for hours over a slow fire. One doesn’t need to add oil as long as there is enough fat on the meat that dissolves in the heat created inside, slowly passing on flavors to the rice.
There are two styles of cooking Biryani: one is the Kachhi style, referring to the non-pre-cooking of any ingredient. The handi (pot) is alternately layered with overnight marinated meat, soaked basmati rice, fragrant whole spices, and other aromatics. The lid of the pot is then sealed with dough, and left to cook in its own juices over a clay oven, on low heat for hours.
Cooked in a traditional dum-pukht way, the charcoals over the slow-fire technique perfume the dish. That is to say, the whole spices are thrown in the pot to release an aroma, and the rice and meat absorb the delicate flavors of such spices added together at the very start.
The Pakki-style is when rice and meat are cooked separately and assembled by the layering of par-boiled rice, cooked meat, and pouring down the Yakhni ( meat stock) before sealing the lid. Once the steam gets generated inside, halfway in the cooking, the flames are put out, and the result is the permeation of flavors in all the ingredients present.
Food for Festivity
In India, Biryani was never an everyday meal – it was always a festival dish. All I remember when Biryani was cooked what the spewing out aromas that filled all corners of our home.
There is a gamut of memories with Biryani engulfed in my mind, how we welcomed guests with a home-cooked Biryani and how there could never be any celebration without a plate of mutton biryani.
Every house has its preference for Biryani and each one is loyal to its gastronomic history. There are many kinds of Biryani cooked in India, and the most famous are the Lucknowi or Awadhi Biryani, Hyderabadi Biryani, Chettinad Biryani, and my favorite Kolkata style. Each has a unique flavor and is threaded with storied history just as unique as their recipes.
A Grand Notch-up of the Royal Kitchen
History has it that this style of cooking was an innovation by the Nawab Wazir of Awadh – Asaf-ud-Daulah. In 1984, during the great famine, the Wazir (King) brought in an initiative of a food-for-work program, employing thousands in construction of the Bada Imambara shrine, the Mosque complex of Lucknow.
Large handis were filled with rice, meat, and spices and then sealed, and the ingredients stayed warm inside the massive double-walled Bukhari (ovens), built to prepare the food for such a big congregation of workers.
This way, handis brimming with Biryani were cooked in the gentle heat of the Bukhari. One day, the Nawab caught a whiff of the aromas lingering from the Bukhari and immediately ordered for it to be served at the royal court, and since then, Biryani became a part of the royal menu.
Legend has it that northern India popularised its versions of the story in the Mughal court of the emperor, Shah Jahan. It was his beloved wife's, Begum Mumtaz Mahal, instruction to the khansaama (the cook) that a "wholesome meal (Biryani) packed with nutrition got prepared to feed the war-weary soldiers" at the battlefield.
Act of resilience
Eighteenth-century India saw another variation of the Biryani when Nawab of Awadh was sent on exile to Bengal.
He traveled with his entourage of cooks to the Metiabruz region of present-day Kolkata, and reluctant to turn down royalty even at times of bankruptcy, his cooks decided to bring a twist to the already popular Biryani by cutting down on meat and adding potato instead. Spices were toned down, giving birth to the local variant which turned out to be the most popular dish in Kolkata today.
The dish is a symbol of the people’s darkest time worth remembering and the resilience to survive despite the odds. While the tradition of dum-cooking in India could be traced back to the royal kitchens of Awadh, from where it spread to other regions across India, Biryani was popularized as a war food as well: a one-pot nutrition fed to soldiers in dire conditions.
The remarkable resilience of those cooks, re-creating a subtle version of the Lucknowi Biryani in Kolkata by adding the potatoes, was a stroke of brilliance. Whole potatoes were smeared in saffron and baked inside the pot with the yakhni (a broth from mutton and spices cooked together), giving taste to the staple starchy vegetable of India, exotic.
Even sitting in the 21st century, we relish this century-old novel addition, and a plate of Biriyani remains incomplete without one. In these fast-changing times, a dish holds on to the legacy of a bygone era and many insightful anecdotes take the lid off to its origin.
In the end, it is these stories threading us to Biryani that never let us forget how it all started. The extra pounds Indians put on, I would love to believe, come from nurturing their love for this delicious high carb dish. A biryani lover like me would relish a plateful at whichever time of the day, with eyes down on the plate and conversations postponed.
If you would like to try your hands at Dum Biryani, here is my favorite recipe, a hit among my friends and family. Come any weekend, or a busy weekday, a biryani will always knock your socks off.