A whiff of the spicy aroma emits from a nearby stall, transporting the scavenger in me thousands of miles back to the homeland. My stomach grovels and reminds me that the hurried lunch taken in the afternoon hasbeen digested long ago. I crave for home and a plate heaped with steaming biryani. Memory and aroma intermingle to tantalise the palate.
I begin dreaming of my childhood, of the shiny aluminium pot on the stove, and the multi-coloured, rainbow-hued biryani gathering steam inside in deceptively delicious layers of rice, meat, spices, vegetables and garnishes — each layer hiding a secret ingredient, a treasure of exotic flavour. It used to be a labour of love, the preparation of which would take my mom the entire day, from morning to noon. Yet the result was worth the trouble; and for us, the anticipation and wait was worth the end result.
This was one lunch we used to look forward to as children, constantly visiting the kitchen, eyeballing the pot, appeasing our appetites, waiting for the men of the household to return after the Jumma prayers (when it used to be a weekly holiday on Fridays). Yet before we could enjoy our much anticipated meal, we would be asked to deliver two or three heaped plates of biryani, containing the meatiest portions, to our next door neighbours, and a distant relative living nearby. The neighbours would be eagerly looking forward to receive their share, as the aroma could be sniffed from blocks away.
And then there were the memories. My mother would recount her own fond food-related memories and experiences of living in a large mansion along with tons of cousins in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her own mother, my grandmother, used to share the same kind of tales. Biryani has been a hot favourite for many generations and it's still going strong. The entire household would look forward to the weekends when the servants would cook the biryani and the respective lady of the house would supervise them in selecting, roasting and grinding the spices, mixing the saffron and kewara water. The secret recipes were transferred from one generation to the next.
Biryani is a dish of Persian descent, which has been adopted, adapted, and localised to the sub continental palate. The word biryani is derived from the Persian word beryÃ¢(n) meaning 'fried' or 'roasted'. It is a delectable and delicate combination of spices, rice (finest quality), meat/vegetables and yoghurt, made palatable by the technique and intricacies of the making process. The rice has to be particularly boiled, the spices' combination has to be precise, the meat tender, and the gravy not too thick, the layers applied with care, and steam fully generated. Be it Bombay Biryani, Sindhi Biryani, Hyderabadi Biryani or even the Burmese, Arabic and Sri Lankan versions — each one unique and delicious in its own way, proving it just doesn't have regional but universal appeal.
It is perhaps one of the few dishes in the sub continental culture which are served at home, in parties, at weddings, gatherings and even funerals. It is also served daily at the holy shrines, which act like a holy soup kitchen. The wealthy devotees regularly give money to shrines, which is utilised in cooking daighs of biryani for the langar (free food for the needy).
I also recall how, when we would lament the loss of the choicest meat portions to the neighbours, my mom would reply with conviction “We won't run out; sharing increases blessings.” The depth of this lesson sunk in only after I grew up and began cooking myself. It indeed seemed that the large biryani pot was forever overflowing; it seemed bottomless, brimming over with hospitality and warmth. Friends and relatives would drop in unannounced; a scavenger passing by would ask for a morsel and would get a plateful; and the maid's portion would be kept in the fridge, for her to take home when she would come after the weekend.
Over the years, convenience has crept into biryani's preparation like everything else. The tradition of grinding the mysterious gazillion spices has been replaced by ready-to-use packages accompanied with instructions and recipe.
Frozen meat gets preference over fresh, Saffron is long gone, Basmati rice has been replaced with cheaper rice, while the fragrant desi ghee has been tossed out in favour of vegetable oil and banaspatis (chemically processed shortening). Even the large pot has been traded in for lighter ones, but the preparation fervour is still intact. The sentiments and ceremony attached to biryani's preparation are the same and so is the act of sharing it with friends at home and colleagues in offices.
In fact, the pre-packaged biryani masalas are also a blessing for bachelors and South East Asians living abroad to get a taste of home and to reconnect with their roots. The biryani masala packs have also made biryani cooking a bit convenient and doable for young women like myself, who were far too busy in studies during their teens and didn't get a chance to learn the family's secret recipes. It was in my late twenties that I had the urge to rediscover my roots, the traditions, as I donned the apron which my mother put down. I cook for my family with my heart, and seek blessings through sharing my biryani. The magic still lives on.