Arjumand Banu Begum, famously known as Mumtaz Mahal, is believed to have been a beautiful woman. I’m sceptical about her beauty; however, what I’m certain of is the pathos and pain Mughal emperor Shah Jahan felt at his queen’s passing, and the legendry biryani his queen gifted to the subcontinent.

Mumtaz Mahal truly left her mark on history and the biryani lovers of the world. What is biryani and why exactly do we love it so much? Is it the aroma, the flavour, the presentation, or the mere fact that it is a complete food and hits all senses at once, invoking the passion of foodies and the not-so-foodies alike?

The story of biryani is rich and royal, and here’s a glimpse.

Mumtaz Mahal was a true consort of emperor Shah Jahan, and would periodically take walks to meet, greet and mingle with the soldiers. One day she left the palace for a stroll, dressed in her finest jamawar and zardozi. Her royal self was adorned in emeralds and diamonds, and accompanied by a flock of kaneez (ladies in waiting) and a multitude of guardsmen. The empress decided to go to the army barracks instead and chat with the soldiers.

She made her way to the army camp because she enjoyed listening to their stories. In addition, the empress felt it was her duty to be in touch with the commoners who protected her family’s legacy. Upon touring with the troops, the queen observed that they were weak with malnutrition. She empathised and sympathised with their conditions and, upon returning to her palace, was deeply contemplative. In her wisdom, she concluded that a weak army was as good as not having an army at all. What strength could the soldiers display at the time of battle if they could not stand straight, smile and have an energetic dialogue with their queen during peaceful times?

The deliciously complex blend of flavours, spices and aromas in biryani epitomise the pinnacle of South Asian cuisine

She summoned the chefs and cooks serving the troops’ kitchen and commanded them to create a dish bursting with flavour. A dish packed with nutrition, a perfect well-balanced meal that would create food passion and make a foodie out of the most boring of soldiers. And voila, the modern-day biryani was born.

Mumtaz Mahal believed that it was a complete food and was suited best for troop consumption every night, during wartime and peace. The question is — is biryani an aphrodisiac, or just a sublime food?

Was it meant to keep the emperor’s attention exclusively on Arjumand Banu so he would not go to his other wives?

Was it simply the empress’s gift to her subjects? Whatever it was, the world has fallen in love with it. Today I share a recipe with you that is one for the ages.

Pulao Biryani

Ingredients for yakhni

1 kg mutton
4 pods of garlic
½ inch ginger
2 bay leaves
2 ½ tablespoons coriander seeds
1 ¼ teaspoons fennel seeds
1 ½ large onions, sliced
6 to 7 standard size mugs of water
Salt to taste

Method

Put all ingredients in a pan and place on a stove. Make stock (yakhni), reducing water content to approximately half and until the meat is tender. Remove the mutton and put in a separate bowl, and strain the yakhni through a muslin cloth (old school style) and set aside.

Ingredients for pulao biryani

1 stick cinnamon 4 cloves 6 peppercorns 1 large brown cardamom 3 green cardamoms Mace 1 ring, chopped Pinch of nutmeg Ginger-garlic chopped 2 tablespoons 3 to 4 tablespoons yoghurt Salt to taste 1 ½ to 1 ¾ cups rice Oil to taste Brown onions, 3 tablespoons Kewra water Pinch of orange food colouring in one tablespoon olive oil

 Method

In a large pot heat oil, put sabut garam masala, mace, nutmeg, ginger-garlic, add meat (set aside earlier) and stir. Add yoghurt and keep stirring. After stirring the pot for a few minutes, cover and lower heat, let it cook covered for three to four minutes, lift lid and stir again, once the oil is separated add yakhni (stock) and bring to a quick boil, add rice and let cook uncovered on high heat. Once water is almost dry and rice has almost plumped, sprinkle brown onions, kewra water and food colouring mixed in oil, seal pot with foil and cover with lid and initiate dum. Five minutes on high to medium heat and 10 to 15 minutes from medium to low heat.

Turn off the fire and let sit for 15 minutes. Your masterpiece is ready to munch.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 26th, 2020