Biryani: Its History & Variants

Biryani is a perfect mix of spices (chillies, mace, saffron, and cardamom etc), basmati rice, onions, lemon, meat (chicken, lamb or goat) etc. This dish is special as it is prepared in an intricate way. Meat is marinated for 10-12 hours and then it is soaked in yoghurt and sandwiched between rice and is cooked in a handi and is cooked on wood/charcoal. The perfectly cooked meat is irresistible and has good taste, fragrance.

Restaurants usually serve the dish with flavored yoghurt, salads and chilli sauce, thus making it a complete meal and a great value for money. For the vegans, there is a veg pulao version available which is loved by all.

Although it looks like the dish originated in India, but the fact is that it originated from very far away. Biriyani is derived from Persian word Birian, which means ‘fried before cooking’ and Birinj, which is a Persian word for rice. It is believed that biryani originated in West Asia.

It is believed that the Turk-Mongol conqueror, Timur, brought biryani to India in 1398. The dish, which is believed to be the war campaign diet of Timur’s army, an earthen pot which is full of rice, spices and any meats which were available would be buried in hot pit before being dug up and served to warriors.

According to another legend, the dish was brought to southern Malabar coast by Arab traders who visited there frequently. According to records of Tamil literature, a rice dish called Oon Soru. Oon Soru was prepared with rice, meat, ghee, coriander, pepper, turmeric and bay leaf. It was used to feed military warriors.

The most popular story of biryani traces its origin to Mumtaz Mahal, who was the beautiful queen of Shah Jahan and inspired Taj Mahal.

According to legend, Mumtaz once visited the barracks of army and found that the Mughal soldiers were weak and undernourished. She asked the chef to prepare a special dish that contained meat and rice, thus providing balanced nutrition to soldiers. The resulting dish was biryani. At that time, rice was fried in ghee, thus giving it a nutty flavour. Before cooking, meat, spices and saffron were added to it.

Biryani was also given promotion by the Nizams of Hyderabad and Lucknowi Nawabs. Throughout the world, their chefs were known for their signature dishes. These rulers had their own versions of biryani.

A perfect biryani contains a lot of ingredients. Biryani was traditionally prepared with dum pukht method(slow breathing oven). In this method, the ingredients are loaded in a pot and slow cooked on charcoal. The edges of pot are sealed around edges. This allows the steaming meat to tenderise and also flavours the rice.

Spices also play a major role in making good biryani. Some recipes use limited spices while others use more than 15 spices. The main ingredient is often meat or chicken. In some coastal varieties, crabs, prawns and fishes are also used. Some other commonly used ingredients include rose water, kewra and sweet edible ittar.

Biryani was traditionally prepared with long grain brown rice in the north. Today, it has been replaced by fragrant basmati rice. In the south, the biryanis are prepared with different kinds of rice like kaima, zeera samba, kaala bhaat and jeerakashala that give a distinct texture, taste and aroma to it.

There are 2 kinds of biryani, the kutchi biryani and pukki biryani. In kutchi biryani, the meat is mixed with raw rice in handi and cooked. If we consider pukki biryani, cooked meat and rice are layered in handi, thus giving it great flavours.

Some great variants of biryani include: –

  • Mughlai Biryani

The Mughal Emperors were fond of great dining and cooking was an art for them. Mughlai Biryani is a perfect dish that is prepared with delicious chunks of spiced meat that is kept in kewra scented rice. Due to its smell, you become instantly hungry.

  • Hyderabadi Biryani

This famous biryani came into being when Niza-Ul-Mulk was appointed by Emperor Aurangzeb as the ruler of Hyderabad. Almost 50 different versions were created by his chefs. These versions used quail, deer, shrimp, fish and hare meat. Most other biryanis are filled with flavoured meat. While, Hyderabadi biryani is filled with aromatic saffron.

  • Calcutta Biryani

The legendary gourmet Nawab Wajid Ali Shah tried to recreate his beloved dish in Calcutta. Due to budget constraints, the recipe was given a tweak by local cooks and they replaced meat with perfectly cooked potatoes. The dish, which has very low spices uses yogurt-based marinade which is cooked separately. Like most Bengali dishes, Calcutta biryani is sweet in taste.

  • Lucknowi Biryani

The dish, which is cooked in royal Awadhi style has softer textures and milder spices. The first step involves making yakhni from meat that is boiled slowly and is filled with spices for 2 hours or more. This makes the biryani more tender, moist and delicately flavored.

  • Tahari Biryani

Tahari biryani is usually cooked without meat. Rice is usually cooked with different vegetables in handi. Potatoes and carrots are the most used vegetables of India. According to legend, this biryani was created in Mysore when Tipu Sultan hired vegetarian Hindus as bookkeepers. Thus, a vegetarian version of this cult dish came into being. Tahari is also a very popular street food of Kashmir.

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