Food Katha: History and politics of Biryani

While purists consider it as nothing short of blasphemy, vegetable Biryani has come to stay, it would seem

Food Katha: History and politics of Biryani
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Mrinal Pande

The word Biryani or Biriyani comes from Birinj, Persian for rice. The word Birinj itself is a throwback to an ancient pre-Aryan Persian word for rice: Virinzi. There is even a sweet variant. A rich dish cooked in traditional homes in Iran called Kheer Birinj. Perhaps as the Aryans moved eastwards, the word for rice mutated in Sanskrit as Vreehi.

In both India and Pakistan today, Biryani is a special spicy dish made with mixing partially cooked or raw meat of various kinds (goat, lamb, chicken, rabbit, fish, prawns and occasionally boiled eggs and potatoes)with rice. This layered dish is then cooked over slow fire and topped with browned onions and dry fruits.

India has a number of regional versions. Hyderabad boasts of Kachche Gosht ki Biriyani (in which meat and rice are sprinkled with saffron milk mixture unevenly so some grains are coloured while others remain white). Then there is the Lucknowi variation, delicately flavoured and less full of Ghee, referred to as Pulao. A Kashmiri variant is Yakhni Pulao. Biryani began to be cooked in Nawabi kitchens around the time of Nawab Asif-ud-Daula. The large hearted Nawab had his own version of MNREGA to feed the hungry by building elaborate Imambadas. While workers and masons did their job, cooks created a one-in-all meal for them by throwing in rice, meat, ghee and various spices in one vast cauldron and letting it sit over a slow fire with the sealed top covered with live charcoal cinders.

Once the Nawab was passing by as the hungry workers were being served, and after getting a whiff of the dish ordered that it be made for his royal table as well. The Lucknow version was gradually refined by many master cooks. The final resultant version entered Bengal with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who was very fond of all good things of life.

When the British exiled the Nawab in far away Matiya Burz in Kolkata in 1856, Wajid Ali Shah ‘Qadar Piya’, made sure his army of cooks and their sidekicks (Masaalchis) were also shifted with him to Bengal. Matiya Burz soon became the Adda for the special food, music and dances from the court of Awadh. Biryani thus entered the favourite food list of gourmand Bengali nobility.

Since every regional variation added its own touches to it, Bengalis added potatoes to the dish. This first caused some merriment in Awadh laced with concern about how the humble potato had been given a berth into a dish fit for kings and Nawabs alone.

Hyderabad in the South was ruled by the Nawabs of Persian origin, a rich state with a Shia nobility that traced roots to Persia. Hyderabadi Biriyani remains the ultimate favourite among those who love it rich, spicy and covered with nuts and ghee.

The rich and the powerful, politicians and corporate honchos besides Bollywood stars get their Biryani from their favourite eateries delivered by air, piping hot in Handis sealed elaborately with a paste of flour so that not even a whiff of its rich spices may escape.


The Gujarati Bohra Musim community, that has long lived and traded through the fabled ports of Gujarat, have their own version closer to the Arabic version since they have been closely in touch with Arabs and their trade routes. Likewise the Parsi community has a version called Berry Pulao to which special dried Persian berries are added while cooking.

Spice rich Tamil Nadu and Telengana have always loved chillies, so Tamil eateries serve a much hotter version of the Biryani which is one of the most popular street food down South.

Ever since a Mumbai lawyer claimed that the Pakistani terror accused Ajmal Kasab, who was the lone surviving terrorist in the 26/11 attack on Mumbai in 2008, was being fed Biryani in jail, the food has come to be associated, wrongly, with Muslims.

Anyone seen as secular or being sympathetic to the minority community is now trolled as a Biryani eater.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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