The Politics of Biriyani


The first time I heard Hotel California, it was a version with a beautiful guitar intro from the 'Hell Freezes Over' live album. I listened to it over and over again and fell in love with the song. Later on when someone played the 'Original', I couldn’t relate to it. I couldn’t bring myself to accept this ‘original’, when all I loved was the version that I first heard. No other version cut it for me, even the Eagles’ new version played at a later concert. What’s this got to do with the biriyani?

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Biriyani, a dish that makes many a human go weak on the knees! A mere mention of having biriyani can start a drool that is hard to stop. But Politics and Biriyani? You’d be surprised.

As much as it creates drool, it also creates tension. One man’s biriyani is another man’s tomato rice, the ultimate insult for a biriyani. Chefs have fought over what a biriyani should and shouldn’t be, but with a distorted history and years of evolution, the biriyani fight isn’t going away easily. Not only home cooks, amateur food writers and even chefs cling on to the biriyani they know and dismiss the other versions. 

But is Biriyani the only such dish with a tormented history? Apparently not. Most cultures from around the world have some form of a one pot rice dish. The Italian Risotto? With a mishmash of rice, cooked to the way Italians like it is one. While the risotto clearly originated in the Lombardy region of Italy, there are similar versions that are not appreciated by those from the other parts of the country. Go down to West Africa and the Jollof Rice, with its heavy tomato flavours is another one that appears to have satiated the palates. In Kenya and South Africa, there are no synonyms, they are called the Biriyani with different spellings, most commonly Beriyani.  The Mandi in Mid East with its tomato heavy rice and meat is also an example that tomatoes weren’t entirely left out to create one pot dishes, and the Mandi being cooked underground (in its classic form), one pot dish creators found creative ways to increase flavours. 

India hasn’t been left out. In the Tamil Sangam literature, there is a dish called the Oon Soru, that loosely translates to meat rice, a form of one pot rice dish meant to feed soldiers. Quiz masters like to refer to a Mumtaz, who asked her cooks to prepare a more nutritious meal when she found her soldiers weak, but the cook ended up mixing all left overs to create the biriyani, is also doing the rounds.

The origin of the word biriyani is often credited to 'Beriyan', a Persian word, but if the Biriyani originated from there, then what is Beriyan? In Iran, which is largely the modern day Persia, Beriyan, the dish still exists, but it is a sandwich. Scholars have often referred to the Biriyani first being a rice sandwich, something that hasn’t really caught on with chefs, but for me that seems the most plausible explanation, since it clearly explains the layering of rice. Maybe the biriyani was an exotic sandwich to begin with! And a sandwich needs heat on both sides, so maybe that is why the 'dhum' came to being!

Since India was a collection of princely states before them, the Moghuls are largely credited with bringing Biriyani to modern India. Which is why, most of India’s biriyani variations are similar, except the South Indian ones, namely the Tamil Muslim and the Malabar variations. In today’s day and age, while national political parties have struggled to capture power in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, imagine a few centuries ago, the Moghuls’ logistic difficulties in managing the boundaries from Delhi. With the strong South Indian kings keeps them off, the Tamil Nadu and Kerala biriyanis are a stark difference from the biriyani’s from the rest of the country, simply because they weren't the subjected to the influence from outside.

The Nawabs of Awadh probably created the richest version with extensive use of saffron and the choicest cuts of lamb. When Wajid Ali Khan, one of the Awadh rulers was exiled, he moved to Calcutta, and depending on which version you read (and agree to), he either didn’t have the money to have so much lamb or because potato was then an imported vegetable and therefore had a high snob value, he substituted some of the lamb for potato and thus was born the Kolkatta biriyani with its ubiquitous potato. The Nizams of Hyderabad were no different and hence these three major versions of biriyani have more similarities than differences. The Nizams of Hyderabad, though perfected a variation of cooking the biriyani, called the “Kacchi” style, where the raw lamb and rice along with the rest of the ingredients are cooked together. 
Mughal Empire at the greatest extent*

The Tamil Muslim biriyani, though is an entirely different story altogether. Without too much of Mughal influence, the tastes buds had probably already developed and with existing popularity of tomatoes, the biriyani was already evolved. The Mughals though were not completely cut off from the Southern most part of India. Zulfiqar Khan was appointed by Aurangzeb as the first Nawab of Arcot, which was the capital of the Arcot state, which is probably where the saffron use in South Indian Biriyani comes from, but is still the most different among the various biriyanis of the Nawabs from the rest of the country with the significant use of tomatoes. But the Tamil Muslim biriyani still holds on to its roots with the use of tomatoes. Was the Tamil Muslim biriyani influenced by the Arcot biriyani or is it an evolved form of the Arcot biriyani? 

The Dindugal Biriyani with the use of short grained rice and a little more pepper gives it a fiery flavour. The Thalassery biriyani in its purest form is where the rice and gravy are cooked separately and mixed only at the time of serving. In some places, bits of rice is mixed in the gravy for some flavour, but I believe that is more of an exception than the rule. The biriyani also has more nuts and dry fruits than in most other types of biriyani. The Donne Biriyani from Karnataka is another biriyani with little traces or trails to the Mughal biriyanis. 

But with such a long British rule, did they add anything to the Biriyani? Appears not. For a country whose greatest culinary creation seems to be fried fish and chips, the biriyani doesn’t appear to have undergone any change and has largely stayed out of the British culinary influence. More so, England’s national dish is the Chicken Tikka Masala, so clearly, Indian subcontinent has contributed more to the British palate than the other way around. The British probably stayed out of influencing the Biriyani or did they reduce the spice levels to what it is today? We'll probably never find out.

So does the biriyani have to be cooked a certain way for it to be called biriyani? Chefs think so, though I have no idea why. We have evolved so much that if we are able to find efficient ways to replicate the flavour, then why not? Then of course, I’m not a fan of adding biriyani masala or taste maker, though that is my personal opinion. Then OPOS a form of cooking with one pot, called One Pot, One Shot which is essentially what a biriyani is, was apparently finally cracked by  Ramakrishnan and team who found a way to make the biriyani in a pressure cooker in one shot. Again, chefs have come out with their swords; while those who’ve tasted it have said that they can’t tell the difference and others refusing to accept it as an innovative cooking method, leave alone accepting biriyani cooked by the method. If you can cook the same thing in a microwave, then why not? Can you extend the same argument to Biriyani masala?  I'm sure Anisa Arif's customers have a view that is equivalent to calling her a saviour. She makes different Biriyani masalas that makes home cooking of biriyani a breeze. To each his own, I guess. 

It has happened before and it will happen again. What? “I found that biriyani has been lost and I wanted to bring it back to full glory and so I started this biriyani restaurant.” Since there is no single authentic recipe from the past, there is no perfect biriyani recipe, what most of them are referring to is what they’ve had as biriyani either as their first experience or as a regular childhood ritual or the one biriyani that they’ve been wowed with. The Hotel California analogy!

Then there is a slightly bigger problem? What meat for biriyani? While most biriyani lovers do not consider vegetarian versions as anything more than joke, purists believe that only mutton/lamb is biriyani. Even chicken biriyani is a joke for them. Going back to the origins of the biriyani where beriyan is a sandwich, maybe the original biriyani was a mutton sandwich! 

Well, who would have thought the Biriyani has such a troubled past? For most of us, Happiness is biriyani. But the next time you try biriyani from a different region, you should probably try to understand the difference before dismissing it as tomato rice. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are not too many terrible versions of biriyani that are made by short changing the recipe for cost cutting that deserve the ultimate insult! They certainly do. 

*Pic credit By Gabagool - Own work, CC BY 3.0,


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Grub Waz: The Politics of Biriyani
The Politics of Biriyani
Grub Waz
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