The two events were a thousand kilometres apart. Not to mention a couple of centuries
In the autumn of 1983, I took a girl out to lunch.
Two hundred years earlier, 1783 saw the start of a famine in Avadh that is said to have lasted a decade. (This much is certain. The rest of the story is not substantiated.) Asaf-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Avadh, started construction projects to provide employment to the hungry farmers. The first, the biggest and arguably the most beautiful was the Bara Imambara in Lucknow. Every morning an army of workmen and their families would assemble before dawn, to work till sunset. These were mouths to feed. Wherefore each evening huge pots were filled with layers of rice and meat, the lids sealed with dough, then lowered into pits where charcoal fires had been lit. They would remain upon the embers all night, thus providing, next morning, a slow-cooked breakfast for the army of workers. An awesome breakfast. Because this, of course, was the origin of dum pukht biryani.
What a wonderful story. But alas, unsubstantiated. By common consensus, biryani actually came to India many years before Asaf-ud-Daulah. The recipe probably came over the passes of Kandahar and Baluchistan in the 14th century, with the hordes led by one of the most fearsome names in history – Tamerlane. Timur the Terrible, Timur the Lame, Timur the Scourge of the Infidels. His sack of Delhi in 1398 was a thing of blood and horror, but some of my friends might say it was a small price to pay for the next six hundred years of biryani delectation. (Not, I hasten to add, my own point of view; my friends tend to have extreme opinions.) There may be more than a grain of truth in the Timur story, though; it is at least likely that the idea, the concept of biryani came to us from Persia. Birian is the Farsi word for “fried when raw” or “fried without cooking”, which is a good description of the way the meat is sautéed for traditional biryani. But what IS traditional biryani?
Depends on the tradition, of course. Hyderabadis will assert that their version of biryani is the older one, brought into the Deccan when Aurangzeb’s governor started the Asaf Jahi dynasty. This version is based in Paradise, or at least the earthly version that has now opened branches across the twin cities. One of the nicest things about buying from there is the sealed pack. Voila! Biryani and haleem that one can stash carry on as cabin baggage!
Another version that also claims its origin in Aurangzeb’s reign, by a similar process of osmosis-through-Nawab, is Arcot biryani. This is even spicier than Hyderabadi and perhaps less well known for that very reason. After all, the taste of biryani should be very different from a spicy pulao. Otherwise grand old Boman Kohinoor, lord and master of the legendary Café Britannia in Bombay’s Ballard Estate, could claim that his signature dish of Berry Pulao is actually biryani in Iranian disguise! There is even a Calicut biryani which is supposed to have come across the seas with the Arab traders.A footnote to the southern saga is the development of Tahiri Biryani, supposedly for the Brahmins who supervised the Nawabs’ estates.
The Hyderabadi tradition of biryani is pretty elaborate. Apparently there were 26 distinct variations in the Nizam’s kitchens. The most major point of differentiation was and is the kachchi / pakki divide. In kachchi biryani, the meat is only marinated before being placed between layers of rice in the deg or handi for the slow cooking process. For pakki biryani, the marinated meat is sautéed with spices before placing it between layers of cooked rice redolent with ghee and spices. The specific spices, the precise meat – whether goat mutton, venison, pigeon or beef (chicken is actually a late 19th century entrant at the very earliest) – are secondary issues of improvisation. But I must confess I can’t accept a dish as biryani if it’s seasoned with kari pata!
The Calcutta variant of Avadhi biryani is a comparatively recent development, since Wajid Ali Shah’s retinue of bawarchis and masalchis only settled in Metia Bruz in the 1850s. For Calcuttans, however, there IS no other. Biryani is limited to the products of Shiraz or Aminia or Sabir’s or, for the hardier souls who can stomach cupfuls of ghee, from Royal on Chitpur Road. Or, more recently, Zeeshan and Arsalan. Straight up Avadhi biryani fragrant with ghee and spices, with the addition of a sautéed potato and – when it’s a plate of “special” – a boiled egg. Having been initiated into this most glorious tradition by the age of ten, I am definitely biased in favour of Calcutta biryani. I’ve tried the others, I don’t deny that some of them are very good, but the real stuff? For that, give me a winter evening with a nip in the air and the woodsmoke from the little lanes back of Park Street. And a table shared with like-minded friends, to scoff down platesful of asli biryani with firni and thick sweet “spesul chai” to follow.
And oh – that lunch date in 1983? It was my first biryani at Shiraz. Also my first date with that girl. Who, despite the fact that she’s now married to me, still shares my enthusiasm for the real thing. After some 27 years of dining at Shiraz, we took our daughter there last month. She loved it. And the waiters smiled benignly as one more generation was introduced to tradition.