My wife is a vegetarian, and there is obviously nothing wrong with that. But every other week or so, we decide to order in some biryani, and that's when this fact REALLY comes to the forefront. Obviously, true to her roots, my wife insists on ordering a paneer biryani, or a particularly alarming kind of biryani called cashew-paneer. Of all the things that a biryani can contain, how did cashew ever make it to the top of the list is a marvel worthy of some investigation. But, let's do that some other day, shall we?
The OG biryani, which arguably originated in Persia, was always a non-vegetarian dish. In fact, more often than not, the meat in question was either mutton or some form of red meat. I mean, obviously, famished Persian troops weren't going to be too fussy about 'goat' meat while they wandered across the desert, fighting and pillaging. 😋
This Persian staple was then adopted and perfected by the Mughals, who were kind enough to drop the biryani at our doorstep while Babur decided to play settlers of Catan with our land. What's more interesting is that biryani infiltrated different parts of India at varying times through diverse channels. Hence, it is one of the most common dishes in almost every state of India and yet, one of the most divisive ones.
Just take a biryani across India, and you will find at least ten to fifteen variations of this dish, with subtle to significant differences. You've got the classic Nizami, Awadhi, Lucknowi and Mughali variants from north and central India. In the south, we have the Chettinad, Malabar, Donne, and Rayalseema-style fiery hot biryani. But if you dissect each of these biryanis across the various regions, they have certain things in common across the board but are peppered with minor deviations.
Let's start with rice. Every biryani has rice, duh! If you've been eating a biryani made of quinoa or anything else, it is not a biryani, but just a biryani flavoured something. But even with the biryanis that have rice, most of the south Indian variants go for short-grained fluffy rice whereas, the north Indian varieties emphasize using fine long-grained basmati.
Next comes the meat. Okay, before we get to discussing the meaty part, let's address the vegetarians. Pulao is a great dish, which many people argue is nothing but a different form of biryani. So have pulao. 🙂 But if I am being honest, I do get rare pleasure in adding well-roasted cashew nuts to my wife's leftover vegetarian biryani the next day. But, ONLY because I don't want to waste food. 😋
So yeah, meat! While originally biryani was always intended to be equal parts 'gosht' and rice, a custom still followed in most Muslim wedding celebrations, times have gone less red. The current health guidelines suggest that we eat less red meat and consume chicken or fish instead. But, while most of India chose chicken to be the rightful heir to the biryani throne, Kerala went another way. These guys have managed to make a fiesty fish biryani using such a limited range of spices that I am amazed at the depth and versatility of the Indian culinary brilliance.
There is also the rare breed of people, think Kolkata when I say this, who love mixing veggies with their meat, preferably a potato. Having stayed in Kolkata since birth, my wife often tells me that a Bengali will not touch his biryani if there isn't at least one piece of potato in the mix. 😱 That's the only ridiculous jaw-dropping reaction to non-vegetarian food that I've ever had since I discovered the Parsi 'dhansak'.
Garnishes on biryanis across India are similar to the range of options that you get in a DIY pretzel shop. You can choose from basic options such as caramelized onion or the Indian staple - coriander, or go fancy in the direction of dried fruits, nuts, coconut shavings, rose water and specific flowers. Either way, a biryani is incomplete without a garnish of some sort.
Where most biryanis showcase their identity is their spice mix, and here's where the khamsanas split into two camps. One group of culinary legends went down the aromatic route, while others adopted a more fiery side.
Kashmiri, Awadhi, and Nizami biryanis are better known for their aromatic touch and light-handed spice mix. Try the Dum Pukht Biryani by ITC, and you'll know what I mean. That biryani first hits you with a subtle aroma of kevda, followed by the gradual introduction of heat through a mild mix of whole spices and the elusive yellow chilli. Andhra and Rayalseema biryanis, on the other hand, favour the red chilli, and it is very evident from the moment the first bite hits your tongue. There is also a third category of biryanis like the Donne and Malabar, which manages a healthy mix of both elements when executed perfectly. Honestly, the Karnataka style Donne biryani is one of my favourites amongst all, but it is just so easy to screw up!
Biryanis is an art form when you consider the finer details of each preparation. You not only need to nail the spice mix, but the rice needs to be perfectly cooked - soft but not mushy. The meat needs to be tender and juicy, while the overall dish should feel moist and not greasy. However simple the core ingredients may seem, the execution is hardly so.
And that's why my logic for biryani is actually independent of any of the above factors. I go for the biryani that is readily available near my place, with the least tolerable flaws. For me, Thalaivars Biryani is that place.
After all, one can only eat Dum Pukht Biryani so many times a year. 🤷🏻♂️