Biryani: India's national dish

Biryani: India's national dish
Photo Credit: Nirala Tripathi

Its antecedents may be foreign but the biryani--s true home is in India. We catch up with the extended family from Lucknow to Cochin

Sharika Nair
November 13 , 2014
08 Min Read

In Lucknow, the story is that when Asaf-ud-Daulah ordered that food be cooked for the labourers working on the Bada Imambara, rice and meat and spices were thrown into giant cauldrons and left to simmer on coal fires. The result so thrilled the Nawab that he ordered the royal kitchen to perfect it. The test of a good Awadhi biryani is the aroma of basmati and spices. The choicest cuts include the agli dast or chaap (front shoulder or chops) and the neck.

The best places to eat biryani are in the nondescript shops in the markets of Chowk and Aminabad. Sakhawat (0522-2621857/2230844) is a Lucknow institution. Opened in 1911, the original restaurant is run from a garage behind the Gymkhana club in Hazratganj. There is a branch too in posh Gomti Nagar. The biryani, although (or perhaps because) cooked in the Kashmiri rather than Awadhi style, is so popular that the supply runs out by 8pm. Equally popular is Tundey, which has branches in both Aminabad and Nazirabad, though, as owner Mohammed Usman and patrons such as Dilip Kumar, Javed Akhtar and Pervez Musharraf will tell you, its fame derives more from its patented galawat ke kebab than its biryani. Chhote Nawab in Hotel Sagar International (14-A Joppling Road; 2206601-5) is partly owned by Ishtiaq Qureshi and famous enough to cater Aamir Khan’s wedding reception. Less plush but with their own fierce followings are the likes of Idris Biryani Corner in Chowk; Zubair Hotel (aka Haji Rahim) in Akbari Gate, Chowk; and Lalla ki Biryani, owned by a Hindu, in Chau-patiyan in the Kashmiri Mohalla.
 — Muneeza Naqvi & Alka Pande

When you think of Hyderabad, biryani can’t be far behind. This is, after all, a city where more than 50% of customers in restaurants order biryani.

Hyderabad House, flocked to by techies and corporate professionals, stirs up kachhi gosht biryani using the dum method. Stressing the impeccable quality of food in his restaurants, Zuber Ahmed says that the biryani at Hyderabad House can be eaten with the hand and promises that there will be no grease on the fingers. The meat undergoes two marinations, the first with two dry masalas: chilli, ginger-garlic, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, shah jeera, mint and coriander, turmeric and salt. In the second round, the sated-with-masala mutton is marinated with yogurt, oil, cardamom powder, fried onions (brista), cream, saffron, ghee and a little milk. The meat, now called yakhni, is arranged in three layers in parboiled rice. In the end, some saffron water, a mixture of ghee and milk is sprinkled over the biryani. Biryani tastes best when cooked on wood fire chullahs. Hyderabad House outlets can be found in Banjara Hills, opposite Green Mosque (040-23554747, 234554848), opposite JNTU, Masab Tank (23327861, 23308463) and in HiTec City, Madhapur (23118900).

When Rahul Gandhi and his friends chose to eat dinner at Paradise (Secunderabad; 27843115), it came as no surprise to locals aware that this landmark restaurant has since its establishment in 1953 served the best biryani and Irani chaat in the city. The chicken biryani at Paradise is as delicious as the mutton and its Persis Gold rooftop restaurant is almost always full despite having 700 covers.

Café Bahar (23243798), in Basheerbagh, near the Police Commissioner’s office, is a city secret. The service here is rough and ready but there is nothing better on a Sunday afternoon than lunch at Bahar. And if you tire of the biryani fascists, the people who know exactly how a Hyderabadi biryani must be cooked and savoured, go to the Blue Fox (Secunderabad; 55117373) in the Bhuvana Complex. ‘Innovations’ here include the mystifyingly popular mushroom and American corn biryanis.  
— Madhavi Tata

It was exactly 150 years ago that the biryani first appeared in Calcutta, in 1856, along with the entourage of the deposed Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Oudh. So not surprisingly, it is the Lakhnavi version of biryani that has since ruled the roost, but with a local variation in the form of potatoes since poorer homes could not always afford meat in their biryani. Nowadays, the potato is an indispensable part of any Calcutta biryani, nestling like a golden egg in a bed of jewelled grains.
Opinion is divided about who does the best dish of biryani in town, but I would award the palm to Rehmania, situated at the Park Street-Mallikbazar crossing and cheek-by-jowl with the other biryani giant, the Shiraz Golden Restaurant. Rs 46 will fetch you a plate of mutton biryani at Rehmania, the meat succulent and tender and the rice fragrant but not overpoweringly so. Next-door Shiraz does a special mutton biryani (Rs 84) with two pieces of meat instead of the usual one; on a good day, it is hard to beat a Shiraz biryani but sometimes the rice can be a bit flavourless. Old-timers swear by the century-old Royal of Rabindra Sarani, which is set to open another outlet later this year, and whose biryani recipes have travelled unchanged from the nawabi kitchens of Lucknow to present-day Calcutta. Another golden oldie is Alia in the Chandni Chowk area which has dispensed both chicken and mutton biryanis to generations of grateful office-goers. 
— Abhijit Gupta

Rule One. Don’t ask for Bombay Biryani in Bombay. It’s one of those things like Chicken Tikka Masala and French Toast, unknown — at least by those names — in the lands of their alleged origins. The area around D.N. Road and Fountain offers an excellent selection of regional varieties, including, I’m told, beef biryani. As do the Muslim-dominated parts of Mahim (Kerala-style) and Bandra (more Bohri). The rest of the extended city yields a sprinkling of biryani joints, as far afield as a five-minute walk from my home in Vashi (where the kababwala near the mosque cooks an excellent dum biryani by the kilo, strictly by prior order), and even a truck-stop in Panvel.

But the mother lode is in South-Central Bombay. Mohammad Ali Road and its bylanes are lined with restaurants and carts offering fragrant mounds of biryani, precise measures of yellow, oily rice shovelled onto two pieces of meat and potato that have been simmering in gravy. There’s also the more expensive dum biryani, layers of rice and meat cooked together in flour-sealed vessels. This happy situation extends northwards, to the belt that stretches from Byculla to Bombay Central, with one major outpost just off Haji Ali, the famous Noorani (022-24943054), much loved for its combination of tastiness, reasonable prices and very liberal meat:rice ratio. Aside from the standard varieties, Noorani does a mean Kerala-style fish biryani, and if memory serves, a mild ‘Arabi Biryani’, sprinkled with nuts and dry fruit, that caters to the Middle East clientele.

Many believe, though of course many do not, that the best biryani in town is served at the Olympia Coffee House (22021043) in Colaba opposite Leopold’s. And, come to think of it, there’s the Reshmi Tikka Biryani, which, if I remember my Busybee, is a uniquely Bombay concoction.
— Peter Griffin

While chicken and mutton biryanis are common all over the country, fish and prawn biryani is Kerala’s very own. It is the northern part of Kerala, broadly known as the Malabar region,that is famous for its biryani. But if you know where to look, you will find good seafood biryani in Cochin as well.

Most locals will direct you to the Kadaloram restaurant at Hotel Abad Plaza (0484-2381122; in Ernakulam for mouth-watering fish biryani. The beautiful layout of the restaurant, comfortable furniture and live music do not quite make up for the inordinate wait you have to endure. But it’s extraordinary what you’ll forgive the moment you catch sight of the chunks of lightly fried seer fish on its basmati bed. The biryani is moderately spicy with a garnishing of fried onions, cashewnuts and a generous sprinkling of cumin seeds. For a late night biryani, try Canopy, the Abad’s coffee shop.

But the restaurant that is synonymous with biryani in Cochin is Kayeekas (2226080). It was established in Mattanchery more than 50 years ago. A new outlet on D.H. Road (called Kayees; 2354321), which opened just six months back, is housed in a capacious, old bungalow, refurbished in the traditional tharavadu style. The layout and furniture is functional but the service is unparalleled. The prawn biryani here is pure ambrosia. The date pickle accompaniment hints at Arab roots.

Shabbir, the grandson of the original chef and proprietor Kayeeka, explains that while the smaller sized Kaima rice is used when cooking the Malabar biryani, it is the better-known basmati that is used in the Cochini version. At Kayees the biriyani is cooked in pure ghee. But then biryani is not food for the abstemious. Counting calories with a plate of Kayees’ best in front of you is gastronomic blasphemy.


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