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May the best biryani win

A week and a half ago, I found myself in the middle of a Twitter controversy.

I entered the picture when I quote-tweeted the journalist Rohini Singh who had made fun of Kolkata biryani. Perhaps because I lived in Kolkata for so long, I get a little defensive when people make fun of the food of that city, especially when they compare Kolkata biryani to classic Avadhi briyani.


Only a fool would deny the excellence of Avadhi cooking. (And only a man with a permanent case of heartburn would say that he eats it every day − but that’s another story.) And, of course, I am an admirer of their local pulao (which is what they call it though it becomes a biryani when it travels out of Lucknow).


   But equally, we need to be clear that the pulaos and biryanis of Avadh are part of a royal tradition. They are court dishes, created to please nawabs and nobles. The focus is often on things like aroma and fragrance, the sort of luxury that ordinary people can hardly afford. Of course you get excellent biryanis at homes in Lucknow but there is no doubt that they are descended from a royal tradition.


   The Kolkata biryani, on the other hand, is roughly as royal as you or me. It is a poor person’s dish with potatoes and (sometimes) boiled eggs. These are included because they are cheaper than meat and I can see why some goat-nuzzling, meat-guzzling nawab would look down his whiskers at such down-market ingredients.


   And the people who make biryani in Kolkata (often from neighbouring Bihar and other states) search for face-saving excuses to explain away their biryani. The most common version is that this biryani was invented when Wajid Ali Shah lived in exile in Bengal. The potatoes were included because he liked them/he had a problem with his teeth/he knew that a potato could suck up flavour and add texture. (Strike out the options you don’t like; it is all speculation anyway.)


   A more rational explanation is that when Wajid Ali Shah’s descendants ran out of money they took to finding non-meat options such as potatoes and eggs to add to their biryani.


   I have no idea which story is true. Perhaps none of them is. Perhaps Wajid Ali Shah had nothing to do with the Kolkata biryani. But what is undeniable is that for the most part, the best Kolkata biryanis are found in inexpensive restaurants where no nawab would dream of eating.


   Obviously the potato-egg thing touches a nerve because in my years of living in Kolkata, whenever a rich Muslim sent over biryani or served it at his home, it was full of meat to the extent that I began to wish that they would just get the balance of meat and rice right and stop trying to prove how prosperous they were.


   Anyhow, back to the Twitter storm. So when I quote tweeted Rohini, I pointed out that I could eat Lucknow and Hyderabadi biryani less often than I could eat biryani from Kolkata or Kerala.


   I expected the usual protests. And I got predictable responses. There were jokes about Yogi Adityanath’s biryani fetish − it sometime seems as though the great yogi is unable to make a speech without including some sneering or sinister reference to biryani. There were sneers about Shaheen Bagh and about how people like me should go there and eat biryani.


   And there were the foodie comments. Many people suggested that I had never really eaten a proper Lucknow/Avadh biryani.


   Others that I should go to Shadab in Hyderabad to have a real Hyderabadi biryani. (Thanks guys. I go to Hyderabad quite often and Shadab is not the best biryani. And so on.)


   None of them surprised me.


   But what did astonish me were the responses to my praise of Kerala biryani.


"Yes, Avadh may well produce the best biryani but it seems clear that biryani was not created in Lucknow."

   Do they have biryani in Kerala? Really? Many Northerners were astonished. Wasn’t biryani actually a North Indian dish? How did Malayalis come into it?


   I am something of a bore on the subject of biryani and have written about it often. So, the following day, I tweeted a link to a Rude Food from 2019, which dealt with India’s biryani tradition. But by then, the controversy had taken on a life of its own and the following day, South Indian newspapers (in Bengaluru and Kerala) even carried stories on the Twitter debate.


   Even Amitabh Kant (a Kerala cadre officer – the God’s Own Country campaign was his baby) got in on the act, recalling a fish biryani he had eaten in Kerala.


   For people who came in late, who believe that biryani can only be found in Sher-e-Punjab or Kwality, here is a little primer on the subject of non-North Indian biryani.


   Yes, Avadh may well produce the best biryani but it seems clear that biryani was not created in Lucknow. It was probably invented in Delhi, perhaps at the Mughal Court and then travelled to Avadh where eager chefs were standing by waiting to throw kewda and God alone knows what else into it. When the Mughal emperors sent a Nizam-ul-mulk to Hyderabad, his cooks took the Delhi biryani with them and created Hyderabadi biryani, using some of the flavours of the Deccan.


   These are what we may call the classic biryanis.


   A Hyderabad biryani is a South Indian biryani, I guess. But frankly nobody regards it as one. That distinction goes to what has come to be known as an Andhra biryani, an extremely spicy rice dish made famous in much of India by such restaurants as Nagarjuna, RR and Amaravathi.


   I asked Purushotam Naidu, the master chef at the Leela group about South Indian biryani. Purushotam is from Andhra but specialises in Malayali food (he was trained by Mrs. Leela Nair, after whom the hotel chain is named).


   Purushotam does not believe that an Andhra biryani is really a biryani at all. He thinks that it is a local rice dish (some kind of pulao, perhaps) that later came to be called biryani on menus. As many historical texts suggest, meat and rice were often cooked together in the South and given names that sounded not unlike pulao.


   Is this true of other South Indian biryanis?


   The obvious contenders are the two most famous Malayali biryanis: from Thalassery and Malabar. Purushotam has an interesting take. He argues that both dishes may have different origins. He thinks the Malabar biryani may be related to the North Indian biryani while the Thalassery biryani, he reckons, is probably a South Indian dish that predates the arrival of the Mughals.


   I asked Regi Mathew, my old friend from his Taj days who now runs the two highly regarded Kappa Chakka Kandhari Malayali restaurants in Chennai and Bengaluru. Regi who has spent his life researching the food of Kerala reckons that the Thalassery biryani is a pre-Islamic dish. There were trading routes linking the Kerala coast with the Middle East long before the Prophet was born. Many elements of the coastal biryani, including the use of roasted nuts and raisins suggest to him some Arab influences. He doubts if this biryani got to Kerala from Delhi.


   We forget that there are also many biryanis in Tamil Nadu. They are distinguished by the use of short-grained rice, the very antithesis of basmati. (This is true of much of Kerala too.) I spoke to ‘Nat’ Natarajan, who used to be the Taj group’s top chef in South India and who researched the food of the South extensively before opening Southern Spice in 1996.


    Nat says that all over South India, they make a biryani in an unusual way. They first cook a mutton in gravy and then, as the dish is cooking, they add raw rice. The rice cooks in the gravy and when the curry has been soaked up, the biryani is regarded as finished. Obviously, this requires more skill than the average North India biryani because you have to add exactly the right quantity of rice to the gravy to ensure that the biryani is not too dry or too wet.


   And yet, Tamil Nadu never gets the credit it deserves for its biryani tradition.


   In North India we still argue about what the difference between a pulao and a biryani is. We act as though Avadh is the home of the great biryani tradition. What we do not realise is that all over India, there exists a biryani tradition that is more complex than anything we encounter in the North.


   So yes, there is life beyond saffron and kewda. And there is biryani elsewhere in India that beats the hell out of Avadh.


   That’s what we should be tweeting about.



Posted On: 15 Feb 2020 06:30 PM
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