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Biryani on the brain

Updated December 18, 2016

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India has mind-boggling and palate-numbing versions of the biryani. To understand the culinary culture of any state, all one needs to do is to understand how people make their biryani. This one dish regularly makes it to the national headlines. It has been behind matrimonial alliances that have gone sour, can make political parties win or lose influence, and has been gifted to others as a token of ‘good wil’.

From Persia, the rice dish has found its way to India where every region of the country boasts of its own version. To a foodie, a well-made cauldron of the dish is a pilgrimage unto itself and a biryani does indeed transport you to the place it has come from.

Biryanis are essentially of two types based on the way they are cooked. The ‘kache gosht ki biryani’ where all the ingredients such as meat, rice, and spices are sealed in a cauldron and cooked overnight and the ‘pakki biryani’ where all rice and meat are cooked separately, and then layered together in a huge, dough-sealed metal pot.


Every part of India has its own version of the famous rice dish


While it’s hard to make a list of which biryanis are the best. Here’s a guide to the famed rice dish by region:

Kashmiri Biryani

Known for its unique taste of earthiness — which come from asafetida, a spice not used in any other biryani in the country, it is also rich in dried fruits and saffron.

Mughlai Biryani

One of the most sought-after biryanis, it is made with basmati rice which is commonly available in the farming belt (the ‘tarai’ region) close to Delhi. The cooking process ensures that each grain of rice is coated with spices and flavor from the meat. Foodies often argue that this version is the closest to the original Persian biryani.

Lucknavi Biryani

In competition with the Mughlai Biryani, many foodies firmly believe that this is the version closest to the Persian biryani. In many ways, it’s the opposite of its Mughlai cousin.

Also known as ‘Awadhi’ biryani in the region, unlike the Mughlai, it is mildly flavoured and spiced and is a distant cousin of the Kolkata biryani. Mutton is the main ‘star’ ingredient while rice is more of an accompaniment.

The technique used to cook Lucknavi biryani is ‘pakki biryani’. Some die-hard biryani fans might find Lucknavi too mild for their taste.

Ambur Biryani

This version is said to originally hail from Ambur, an area in Tamil Nadu. The town boasts of the most number of biryani shops per kilometer than anywhere else in India. This style uses Seeraga Samba rice, and not the traditional basmati rice. The addition of mint, red chilli paste (and not the powder) and a few local spices add a South Indian twist to this import from Mughal kitchens.

Kolkata Biryani

The least spicy and mildest of all biryanis, the one ingredient which makes it stand apart from other biryanis is the addition of potatoes. Since potatoes get cooked along with the meat, they soak up the flavour and are considered to be a welcome addition to the dish.

Dindigul Biryani

Also originally from Tamil Nadu, and like its cousin Ambur Biryani, Dindigul Biryani is also made from Seeraga Samba rice which is grown in the farmlands there. Apart from the difference in the quality of rice grain, copious amount of peppers are used to make the dish hot. Not for the faint-hearted.

Memoni Biryani

Lesser known commercially, it is known for its fiery red colour that comes from the spices it is cooked in. One of the spiciest biryanis, Memoni biryani is from the Gujarat-Sindh region, and is a shared legacy between India and Pakistan. Unlike other biryanis, tomatoes are an integral ingredient.

Fish Biryani

Popular in port and seaside cities such as Mumbai, this version of the biryani stands apart from the rest as it uses seafood as its star ingredient.

Bombay Biryani

Known for being a pot-pourri of ingredients and influenced by various regions, Bombay Biryani encapsulates the ethnic and cultural diversity of Mumbai. Ingredients used include saffron, potatoes, and kewra, an essence from the Pandanus plant which is a tad sweet and adds fragrance to the dish.

Kerala Biryani

Another biryani from a coastal area, it has chicken and mutton versions but the more famous versions use seafood and eggs. It gets its distinct flavor from star-anise which is grown in abundance in Kerala. The spices and other ingredients, which are slow-cooked over hours, lend a sweet, earthy flavor to the resulting fare.

Hyderabadi Biryani

One of the most commercially popular biryanis and served with salaad and raita, it is a ‘kachchey gosht ki biryani’. It is a tight-rope walk of sorts because in the process of cooking the rice, the meat must not get overcooked.

A well-cooked spoonful of this dish is poetry in morsels: something to be felt in the soul and not just what meets the eyes. The magic of slow-cooking with dum is a perfect antidote to the fast life. Spice-infused meat and rice is the one thing that can soothe a city-bred tired soul.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 18th, 2016