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My quest for the best biryani in Karachi

Updated Apr 23, 2015 05:51pm

If there is one thing Pakistanis can agree on (perhaps), it is that they can hardly agree on anything.

But even in an opinionated nation of various religions, ethnicities, and social classes, where evening news programs quickly devolve into shouting matches between people who disagree on politics, sport, music, faith, world events, and the legitimacy of the 1969 moon landing, few things are capable of uniting people like biryani.

Like many Pakistanis, my love affair with the aromatic yellow spicy rice dish began at a young age in my mother’s kitchen.

Growing up in the scorching hot Middle East at a school where the Arab teachers believed in corporal punishment and the stronger students bullied the weaker ones (essentially it was the Guantanamo Bay of schools), nothing mended the soul like coming home to the delightfully intoxicating smell of home cooked Sindhi biryani.

The prickly flavour of spice coupled with the sporadic tastes of sweet plum made the dish feel like a surprise party in the mouth.

Yes, whether we celebrate life, or mourn the passing of a loved one, we invariably do so while chowing down biryani.
Yes, whether we celebrate life, or mourn the passing of a loved one, we invariably do so while chowing down biryani.

Having had the good fortune of travelling to Canada for my education, like any good biryani connoisseur, I made sure I tasted every type of biryani whenever I came across an Indian, Sri Lankan, or Bangladeshi restaurant.

The variation in the dishes—depending on the corner of South Asia they originated from was incredibly vast - yet some common themes such as yellowish coloring, spiciness, and general flavor, remained.

Admittedly, perhaps because I had been raised on them, none were as near and dear to my heart as our own biryanis.

This is a nation that loves the dish.

In my twelve years in Pakistan I’ve seen biryani served at birthdays, dholkis, mehndis, weddings, grand openings, anniversaries, graduations, and even funerals. Yes, whether we celebrate life, or mourn the passing of a loved one, we invariably do so while chowing down biryani.

Our love for the food certainly knows no bounds: I’ve witnessed a labourer feeding his poor donkey a plate of left over biryani (hopefully it was followed by some Imodium).

And an actual conversation I witnessed at a wedding recently went something like this:

Guest: “So, what kind of biryani will be served tonight? Sindhi, Hyderabadi, Kashmiri…?”

Groom’s father: “We decided to do something different and serve pulao instead.”

Guest (disappointed): “What?”

Full disclosure: the guest was actually me.

My quest for the king of Karachi biryanis began a few month ago when incidentally, I was fifteen pounds lighter. The extra inches around the waist may or may not have something to do with the almost daily consumption of biryani, though I refuse to blame the heavenly meal. (My arteries will disagree, however).


The quest begins with Saddar Restaurants:

I began by exploring the heart of Karachi, downtown Saddar, where I found the dozens of famous eateries serving up biryani.

Aside from the novelty of eating on metal plates in hot open rooms with smog for company and screaming minibus drivers for entertainment, even the most famous of these offerings were merely acceptable at best.

My first stop was at the most famous biryani franchise in Pakistan, Student Biryani. As it turned out, this was the second most disappointing biryani I’d consume in Karachi.

If biryanis were predators, then Student Biryani would be like that poor old toothless lion; living in the glory of his past and waiting to be put out of its misery. A good biryani isn’t necessarily spicy, but Student’s offering simply lacked flavor. What’s more, it was the victim of mass production, tasting almost rubbery in nature.

Somewhat less disappointing was Karachi’s other such franchise, Biryani Centre. Here, both the rice and meat were better cooked than what Student Biryani was selling, yet the food was still ho-hum.

Biryani from Biryani Centre.— Photo courtesy: Biryani Centre's website
Biryani from Biryani Centre.— Photo courtesy: Biryani Centre's website

With established clienteles, it all but seemed that the big biryani franchises in Karachi weren’t keen on selling exceptional food.

Thankfully, the biryani by the Karachi Foods franchise stood above its peers. Although heavy on both grease and spice, their hot plate of biryani stood apart from Student Biryani and Biryani Centre in terms of taste, freshness, and quality of its ingredients.

After trying other merely adequate biryanis from restaurants such as Indus Foods and Jeddah Food Centre, I decided it was time to return to my ‘burger’ roots and sample more biryanis by ordering from home.

Biryani of the Seas:

My first Biryani of the Seas (BOTS) experience at their restaurant was a disappointment. The rather pricy signature prawn biryani lacked freshness, and was only remarkable in how it set fire to the roof of my mouth.

A few weeks later I ordered a single serving of the BOTS prawn biryani through the delivery service Eat Oye. Shockingly, the quality of this biryani was even worse than what I had eaten at the establishment.

BOTS's Prawn biryani.— Photo by author
BOTS's Prawn biryani.— Photo by author

The rice was dry, broken, and had clearly been prepared several hours before delivery. Meanwhile, the falsely advertised ‘prawn’ was in actuality little pieces of overcooked hard tiny bits of shrimp that was scarce in quantity. At this point I couldn’t recall a single biryani I had had more appalling than this. Paying the price of Rs275 for a single (not even double), plate of this ‘food’ felt like a violation.

Considering the BOTS reputation, it is possible that I was unlucky, but I can only judge what I was served. If their best wasn’t ready, they should have refrained from accepting money for substandard biryani. Leftover food should be discarded, not sent to the customer.

RATING: 0 stars out of 5.

Daily Dubai Restaurant:

Following the worse biryani I had ever consumed I cleverly decided to take a gamble and experiment with a biryani of unknown potential. This from Daily Dubai cost Rs220 for a double plate. As it turns out, it wasn’t a clever idea at all. In hindsight, even walking into a bear cave covered with honey would have been more clever.

I was starving after what had been a long day. I was so hungry in fact, that my pet cats were starting to look good, so it was fortunate for them that the Eat Oye delivery came in on time.

The moment I took out the biryani, two strong scents greeted me immediately. The smell of burnt food, and the smell of black pepper. I tossed some of the food on to a plate and the greasy rice came out in clumps. Daily Dubai Restaurant had used so much oil for this biryani that I half expected them to be liberated by the United States of America in the name of freedom (as the meme goes).

Biryani from Daily Dubai Restaurant — Photo by author
Biryani from Daily Dubai Restaurant — Photo by author

In spite of my hunger I was in a quandary; the food looked incredibly unappetising.

I glanced at my cats. They wisely hid under the bed.

A couple of spoons of biryani later I realised the food was overcooked, devoid of salt, and carried countless bits of whole black pepper that exploded under my teeth with every bite. The use of black pepper was such that it overpowered the rest of the meal. I wondered if someone had played a prank on the chef and mislabeled all of his seasonings.

Daily Dubai Biryani— Photo by author
Daily Dubai Biryani— Photo by author

In an effort to give the biryani a fair shake I sliced a piece of chicken and my fears were confirmed when the meat tasted both tough and dry.

Having only consumed a few spoons my throat was painfully sore. To make matters worse there was little else to eat at home. The evening only grew more tragic when one of my cats disappeared soon after.

RATING: -1 stars out of 5.

Telefood:

After two disappointments on the trot, I decided to turn to an old favourite.

The biryani was unfortunately delivered in a box with an image of a woman’s bare foot on it.— Photo by author
The biryani was unfortunately delivered in a box with an image of a woman’s bare foot on it.— Photo by author

The unfortunate name may seem like a joke, but this restaurant serves the best Sindhi biryani in Karachi. At Rs500 for a three person chicken biryani, and at Rs600 for a three person serving of mutton biryani, the cost is reasonable, while the food is a delight.

The biryani was unfortunately delivered in a box with an image of a woman’s bare foot on it, which considering that I didn’t have a fetish, was in danger of killing my appetite. However, the biryani itself was nearly perfect.

Beautifully balanced in its seasoning, Telefood’s biryani is like a party of multiple flavours in your mouth, like any good Sindhi biryani.

Tele  Foods' Sindhi Biryani. — Photo by author
Tele Foods' Sindhi Biryani. — Photo by author

The strong spices are wonderfully countered by random bits of sweet prune, and herbs such as hara dhania and podina.

The huge chunks of meat are soft, moist, and cooked superbly.Though Telefood’s chicken biryani itself is good, the real star is the mutton variety where unlike other eateries, the quantity of meat is quite generous.

Telefood's Sindhi Biryani.— Photo by author
Telefood's Sindhi Biryani.— Photo by author

My only concern is that on the multiple occasions I’ve had it, Telefood’s biryani has been a little too moist, though this would be nitpicking.

RATING: 5 stars out of 5.

Hyderabad Biryani & Haleem:

It carries the fiery taste of Hyderabad.— Photo by author
It carries the fiery taste of Hyderabad.— Photo by author

In the mood to experiment again, I discovered this eatery, which is located at Badar Commerical in D.H.A. Phase 4 Karachi, and carries the fiery taste of Hyderabad.

The powerful spices, coriander, saffron, and sour bits of lemon come together in a crescendo of tasty biryani which is muscular enough to put hairs on your chest.

Where the food is found wanting though is in the cooking of its meat, which is a little tough to chew, though I suppose that goes well with the weightlifter nature of the biryani.

Biryani from Hyderabad Biryani & Haleem— Photo by author
Biryani from Hyderabad Biryani & Haleem— Photo by author

If you consider yourself to be an alpha male, or love the scent of Old Spice, at Rs120 for a single plate, this could be your favorite biryani.

RATING: 3 stars out of 5.

Z’apa:

Having just consumed the tractors of biryanis, I was now in the mood for something more refined. Here, I turned to Z’apa, and their two people serving of Kachay Gosht Ki Mutton Biryani, which is priced at a rather expensive Rs585.

Kachay Gosht Ki Mutton Biryani.— Photo by author
Kachay Gosht Ki Mutton Biryani.— Photo by author

This was an incredibly good biryani. As I served myself I was hit with a gorgeous minty aroma that was complemented by a feathery touch of spice. In terms of presentation, it was certainly the best looking, featuring an aesthetically pleasing gradient that flowed from white to yellow, and finally to brown, where the wonderfully cooked soft mutton rested at the base of the food.

While the serving of rice itself was rather small, pleasingly, the food carried a generous helping of meat. Thankfully, the taste matched the other elements, and then some.

Z'apa's Kachay Gosht Ki Mutton Biryani.— Photo by author — Photo by author
Z'apa's Kachay Gosht Ki Mutton Biryani.— Photo by author — Photo by author

The biryani carried just the right moisture, blend of spice, and unique flavour. Perhaps what I liked best was that unlike other biryanis it was both fresh and light. If not for the diminutive serving size and high price, the Z’apa biryani could have certainly earned a higher score.

RATING: 4 stars out of 5.

The White Biryani:

It is the biryani recommended by every food page in Karachi. It has also earned glowing praise from users of services such as Eat Oye and Food Panda.

The White Biryani — Photo by author
The White Biryani — Photo by author

At first glance, it had me question whether it was a biryani at all, as it is completely white. But is a white tiger not a tiger?

Upon my first mouthful I began to question the food again, after all, aside from the bits of red pepper, it carried none of the defining flavors of a biryani.

A few underwhelming bites later; the beautiful taste slowly began to register on my palate. I was now savoring the divine flavor on every bite. By resorting only to a few basic ingredients, the chefs behind The White Biryani had concocted an unassuming looking biryani that made love to my senses rather than aggressively ravage them in the backseat of a car.

The percentage of oil and moisture was nearly perfect, as if it was not a dish from a small restaurant finding its footing in Karachi, but an expert biryani prepared by a five star chef.

The White Biryani— Photo by author
The White Biryani— Photo by author

The meat was so beautifully cooked, that I could imagine the chicken smiling down at the restaurant from poultry heaven. The rice was full grained, large, and wonderfully prepared; each grain was separate from the next. The high quality of these ingredients was especially remarkable, considering the generously large single plate only cost Rs190.

This was a biryani that made me question how I defined biryani itself. It was modern, innovative, and boldly subtle for a dish that has a reputation for excessiveness.

Wondering if I had lucked out, I ordered twice again and on both occasions I was impressed by the consistency in quality.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars.


The final verdict:

And then there were two.

After eating various biryanis in Karachi, the race was down to:

  • The White Biryani

  • Telefood’s Sindhi biryani

I could see myself returning to both biryanis time and time again, depending on mood.

Deciding between the two was like choosing between the splendour of dawn and the complex verve of dusk; the elegant yet powerful style of Imran Khan and the gritty streetwise traits of Javed Miandad.

In the end, I found it an impossible task. These are two best biryanis in Karachi.