“Humari baat maniye Tundey ki nahi, agli gali mein Shakeel ki Biryani khaiyega. Pasand na aaye to paise hum denge.”
I was in Lucknow some years ago when I realized the significance of Biryani in a common man’s life. The rickshaw puller who was taking my friend and me into the lanes of Old Lucknow had overheard our passionate discussion about the biryani places in town and had felt compelled to contribute to it. Later that evening we decided to listen to his advice—he had, after all, bet his money on it. The biryani turned out to be better than most I had eaten. Every morsel was full of soft, rich, and fragrant rice, tender meat, and perfectly balanced flavours and aroma. Until then, biryani had been a rich man’s food for me, but became synonymous of delectable, affordable, and well-balanced meal for the common man since.
The evolution of biryani has many stories attached to it. Some attribute the dish to a Mughal Queen who had ordered to cook rice and meat together for the famished soldiers of her tired army, some say the dish evolved during the great famine of Avadh, and yet others claim that it was created for the labours during the construction of the Red Fort. But all of them agree that the dish was created to ensure that the common man got his share of nutrition – protein from the meat, carbohydrate from the rice, and immunity from the spices.
“There is no doubt that biryani came to India from Persia,” says chef Aamer Jamal, Masterchef, Dum Pukht Begum’s, at ITC Kohenur in Hyderabad. “Here however it was not only aligned to the local ingredients but also adapted as the preferred food of the working class. The royals meanwhile loved it so much that they left no stone unturned to keep it within the boundaries of their royal kitchens,” he explains. The plan to keep the biryani inside the royal kitchens thankfully did not last long, and it was soon back on the common man’s table. Today, centuries later, biryani is loved as much by the man on the street as it is by the gourmand at a 5-star restaurant.
“Biryani was indeed made for the common man,” asserts chef Mohsin Qureshi of Lebua, Lucknow. Chef Qureshi comes from the famous Qureshi family of khansamas of the Nawabs. Even though he makes the royal version of the Avadhi biryani for his guests, he swears by the common man’s version. “Made in gigantic degs with large chunks of beef, biryani was meant to nourish the labours during the famine in the 18th century. It was, however, loved so much that even after the famine ended, the biryani stayed on.” Interestingly, when the Avdhi biryani travelled to Calcutta with the exiled Nawab, it transformed into the Calcutta Biryani and got to be known as much for its potatoes as for its affordability and taste. In the South meanwhile the Mazoor ki Biryani or the Kalyani Biryani of Bidar was already making its presence felt. Also made with beef and earthy spices of the region, this dish had not travelled through the Silk Route with the Mughals but with the travellers of the Malabar Coast.
While there are about 7 types of biryanis, broadly they can be broken into two variants: the spicy South Indian version, often made with raw meat and rice, and the milder yet more aromatic North Indian version, made with cooked meat and aromatics. “In Hyderabad we have something called the akhni biryani,” explains chef Jamal, “it uses curd as a tenderizer a generous amount of masala. The Arcot or Ambur biryani is made with dried chilli paste and whole spices, the Dindigul biryani showcases a mélange of cloves, star-anise, and mace, and the Bhatkal biryani is known for its tartness.” The ingredients are as diverse as the region.
In Delhi however the biryani comes with an interesting ingredient: pickle. “Biryani in Delhi is made with a generous amount of lemon and chilli pickle in it, informs Anubhav Sapra of Delhi Food Walk, an expert on the street food of Delhi. “No one knows of how the trend began, but everyone here adds pickle to his deg,” he says even as he narrates how Shahjahan’s men were fed with this pickled biryani everyday. The tradition of continues till date as hundreds of poor in the shadows of the same fort sustain themselves on this mishmash of meat and rice. The story is similar in Calcutta and Lucknow, Hyderabad and Bangalore, Chennai and Trivandrum and in many, many other places where this humble rice dish provides nourishment to thousands everyday.
“Biryani makes every rupee count. It is a complete meal that is not only affordable but also delectable,” feels noted food blogger and author of The Travelling Belly, Kalyan Karmakar. The credit, according to him, also goes to the places that sell biryani. “Biryani joints across India are warm and buzzing places and do not intimidate anyone. You could be an auto driver or a student, a shopkeeper or a millionaire, you’d be treated equally here, which makes it everyone’s food,” he concludes. Looking at the popularity of this aromatic, spicy dish across regions, classes, and communities, we cannot but agree.
A version of this story first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Provoke Lifestyle.