Where does biryani come from?
Who invented the biryani? How did it spread all over India? Which of the many biryanis is the real thing? There are no clear answers, but many interesting theories
A couple of years ago, I shot a programme for my Discovery Travel and Living show on tandoori chicken. I argued that the legend of the north west frontier and of burly Baluchis that so coloured our view of tandoori chicken was essentially bogus.
Tandoori cooking had very little to do with Kandahar and the other Afghan cities with which modern restaurateurs try and associate it.
My position was that tandoori chicken was a recent invention. It was invented, I suggested, shortly before Partition, by a restaurateur who had the bright idea of using the tandoor, which Punjabis use for cooking bread, to make chicken dishes and kababs. But, I added, the dish did not become popular till after Partition when a whole generation of Punjabi Hindu refugees to Delhi opened tandoori dhabas. Unlike the great dishes of Mughlai cuisine which have their origins in Turkey, Persia and in the courts of Muslim kings, tandoori chicken was the creation of Punjabi Hindus.
That view was controversial when the programme was shown but it seems that the controversy has died down. More and more people appear to accept that the Afghan origins of tandoori chicken are mythical.
Now, we are shooting a second series of the show. Unlike the first one which was India-centric, we are going international. Much to our surprise, when the first series was shown in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and other parts of Asia, it garnered impressive ratings. Discovery now wants us to make an Asian show on the same sort of theme that does for all of Asia what the first show did for India.
This is an ambitious project and we are struggling with it, especially as none of us is as familiar with Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China etc as we are with India.
But there’s one episode in the new series that will be exclusively Indian. And to my mind, it will be the equivalent of the tandoori chicken episode in the first series. Unlike the tandoori show however, this is one where I have still to solve the mystery. And I would appreciate any help from readers.
The episode is on biryani, a subject that I have long been interested in. Unlike the other famous Mughlai dishes which can easily be traced to Central Asian or Middle Eastern cookery, biryani seems much more complicated. How was it invented? Which of the many kinds of biryani is the real thing? And how did it spread all over India to become the defining dish of nearly every Muslim community?
My producer Robin Roy, who is as fascinated by the subject as I am, has been researching the origins of biryani. Some things seem clear. What we call biryani appears to have originated in the Mughal court. There are few references to biryani in the pre-Mughal period.
It is possible that the origins of biryani lie in the Turkish pulao. (The word pilaf is Turkish). But, how did the pilaf morph into the biryani? On this, there are no clear answers.
Lizzie Collingham in her definitive Curry suggests that the principal difference between a pulao and a biryani is that while the Central Asian pulao depended on the fragrance of the rice, the Mughal biryani was much spicier. This is fair enough. Most Indians will find it difficult to eat a pulao on its own whereas a biryani goes best with nothing more than a raita. So yes, spicing is part of the story.But is that the only difference? Is a biryani no more than a spicy pulao?
We have discovered two other theories. One, which seems plausible, is that a biryani differs from a pulao in that it consists of meat in a thick gravy or paste (as distinct from dry meat) layered carefully into rice. This is certainly true of what we call a pukka biryani. A pulao, on the other hand, has cooked meat which is relatively dry, simply added to the rice.
But the second theory, which Robin has picked up from ITC’s Gautam Anand, and which he now swears by is that there is no such thing as a pukka biryani. According to Robin (or more correctly, Gautam) a pukka biryani is no more than a spicy pulao. The only real biryani is a kuchcha biryani, that is to say, a biryani in which the raw meat is cooked along with partially cooked rice. If you cook the rice and meat separately and then assemble them, the dish is not a biryani but is merely a variation on pulao.
“The Muslim cooks made vegetable pulaos for the Kayasthas. In the process, the mutton pulaos ended up being called biryanis to distinguish them from the vegetarian pulaos.”
If Robin and Gautam are right, then we immediately run into the problem of the Dum Pukht biryani on which Gautam’s very own ITC chain has made its reputation. The publicity surrounding the launch of Dum Pukht and its original chef Imtiaz Qureshi, suggested that Imtiaz had revived the ancient Lucknow tradition of slow cooking biryani with steam in a sealed pot.
Except that Imtiaz’s biryani is a pukka biryani. So is it a real biryani or not?
Many people in UP would argue that it is a pulao. In Agra last week I spoke to the master chef at The Mughal who is also from Lucknow. He was full of praise for Imtiaz’s biryani but insisted “in Lucknow, we would call it a pulao. There is no such thing as biryani in Lucknow.”
So where does biryani come from then?
The Gautam / Robin hypothesis suggests that the only real biryani is the Hyderabad biryani which is a kuchcha biryani in the sense that raw meat is added to the rice and then cooked. (Though of course there are pukka biryanis in Hyderabad as well.) Everything else is a forgery. I guess Gautam would argue in his defence that the Dum Pukht biryani is not a traditional dish but ITC’s contribution to advancing the frontiers of Indian cuisine. It is not from Lucknow but is a Dum Pukht invention drawing on Lucknow traditions.But if the ITC biryani is a modern creation and the only real biryani is the kuchcha version, then this theory poses its own problems. We know that the Hyderabad court was set up by the Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Mughal governor of the region. He brought his cooks with him from Delhi. So where did they get the recipe for a kuchcha biryani from? Did they make it up on the road from Delhi?
A contrary view, favoured by many chefs Robin has spoken to, is that while the legend of Lucknow biryani is bogus, biryani is a genuine north Indian dish invented by chefs at the Delhi court. Thus the biryani you get at places in Old Delhi is the real thing, in direct descent from the Mughal biryani. But how did the pilaf become a biryani? Or does biryani have uniquely Indian origins?
One theory – which I quite like – is that biryani marks a synthesis of two schools of cooking. When the Mughals arrived in India, the food of the common people was khichdi made with rice and daal and perhaps with a vegetable added. Mughal cooks took the pilaf tradition and merged it with the khichdi recipe and came up with biryani as a uniquely Indian dish. If this theory is accurate, then it would explain the origins of kuchcha biryani in which the raw meat is cooked with the rice just as the daal is cooked with the rice in khichdi. Hindus could eat rice and daal separately or they could cook it together as khichdi. Similarly Muslims could eat mutton and rice separately or they could cook it together in a biryani.
Another theory: the Lucknow biryani owes its name to the Kayasthas of UP. Kayasthas were favourites of Mughal emperors and many were happy to eat food cooked by Muslims (unlike many caste Hindus who had all kinds of religious reservations). The Muslim cooks made vegetable pulaos for the Kayasthas. In the process, the mutton pulaos ended up being called biryanis to distinguish them from the vegetarian pulaos.
But this does not explain how you find biryanis in the cuisine of all Indian Muslim communities. How do you explain the spicy biryanis of the Gujarati Muslims (such as the Bohras) which are one of the highlights of Bombay cuisine?
And what about the south Indian Moplah biryani which has a character that is all of its own? How did biryani travel from the Mughal court to these trading and fishing communities which had no contact with royalty or nobility?
Robin’s theory is that these are not biryanis at all. They are pulaos. They ended up being called biryanis only in the last century or so. But if you trace the original names in their native languages, he suggests, you will find no mention of biryanis. These are just variations on pulaos.
I tried Robin’s theory on Tashneem Chaudhury, a former member of Brunch staff, who raves about the Muslim food in her native Assam. Did they make a biryani in her home, I asked. Oh no, she said, they called it a pulao. There was no such thing as a home style biryani among Assamese Muslims.
So perhaps Robin and Gautam are right. Or perhaps they’re not. Either way, this is shaping up to be a culinary mystery on par with the origins of tandoori chicken.