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Nothing about the biryani is simple or straightforward

My friend, the restaurateur and food adventurer Mohit Balachandran (he calls himself Chowder Singh on social media), declared recently, on Instagram, that June 25 was Pulao Biryani Day.

Pulao Biryani Day? Why had I never heard of that? How had I missed it?


   It turned out I hadn’t missed it, after all. When I asked Mohit for an explanation, he responded, “Rather than celebrating World Peanut Butter Day or Nutella Day, we thought it would be good to celebrate a few days around Indian food.”


   We? Who had Mohit drafted in this effort to invent bogus/new foodie days?


   It turned out that his partner in crime was another friend of mine, the food writer Rushina Ghildiyal. “In March this year,” Rushina explained, “I came up with an idea to mark some food observance days around Indian food...”


   Okay. So, they just made the damn thing up. Good for them (and for us).


   But talk of biryani reminded me of another recent social media initiative. Sanjay Hegde, the well-known liberal lawyer, is also a foodie. He declared, on Twitter, that biryani had to be non-vegetarian. There was, he announced, no such thing as a vegetable biryani.


   There is an air of finality to Sanjay’s pronouncements when he delivers them on Times Now (or on my show, even) but Twitter is less inclined to treat his as the last word – especially on matters of food.


   And so a furious Twitter spat ensued. Many people argued that it was perfectly legitimate to make a vegetarian biryani. Sanjay would not budge and cited various foodies to back his claim.


   Eventually one of the many people who opposed Sanjay’s magisterial declaration (which Sanjay might himself describe as “premature adjudication”) asked for my opinion. I took the easy way out: Sanjay is always right, I said. (“Vir Sanghvi is biased,” responded the Tweeters and the debate continued.)


   In fact, I am far from sure that Sanjay was right about this one. In this, as in all other biryani-related matters, there is so much uncertainty and there exist so many grey areas, that I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers.


   One aspect of the Twitter debate that I found amusing was the way in which everyone was so sure what biryani really was. There was a time, a decade ago, when I shared their certitude. But the more I have learned about biryani, the less I really know.


   Long time readers of this column (i.e. my family, mostly!) will remember The Great Biryani Hunt (from 2007 to 2009). This was the phase when I travelled around India trying biryanis in every region and reported on my adventures in these pages.


   A primary objective of that quest was to try and discover the difference between biryani and pulao. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the Turks invented pilaf, which became pulao and biryani. And both were then transported to India by a variety of candidates.


   One candidate is the Mughal dynasty. This can’t be right because biryani was cooked in our country long before Babar got here. A second, even more absurd, theory is that the Empress Noor Jahan invented biryani to feed soldiers. (Ha!)


   A third, more common, story is that Timur brought it to India. But why would Timur, when he was in the middle of plundering our treasures, stop his robbing long enough to give Indians the odd cooking tip? Would his soldiers take time off from raping and pillaging to teach interesting recipes to the local housewives?


"Nobody can define – to my satisfaction, at least – the difference between a pulao and a biryani."

   There’s a more fundamental objection to the ‘Timur brought biryani’ theory. If his army did bring it to India then biryani must have existed in some other place, right? Except that there is no record of any biryani being cooked in Central Asia or any of the primitive places that Timur and his thugs passed through on their way to India.


   Even speculation about the origin of the name is usually confusing. We are told, with great authority, that biryani gets its name from ‘birinj’, which means “frying before cooking.” That sounds good but what is actually fried in a biryani before the cooking process begins? The onions? No, they are part of the cooking process. So, if you had to think of a name that captured the making of biryani, then ‘birinj’ makes no sense.


   There is a simpler explanation. Birinj is rice in Farsi, the Persian language that was used in Indian courts. So, the name comes from the word for rice. (In Iran, a rice pudding is still called Shir Birenj.)


   My conclusion, at the end of The Great Biryani Hunt, was that biryani was invented in India. Certainly, nothing like it existed anywhere else in the world during the medieval era.


   A pulao, on the other hand, is of Middle Eastern origin though the great Indian food historian K.T. Achaya found similar-sounding Tamil words and argued that pulao predated contacts with the Middle East.


   A lot of effort has gone into trying to explain how Indians turned the pulao into a biryani, but I’m a little hesitant to comment on the transition because there is one glaring gap in the story.


   Nobody can define – to my satisfaction, at least – the difference between a pulao and a biryani.


   All the existing qualifiers seem to me to be inadequate. One claim is that a pulao must reek of rice fragrance whereas a biryani has so many spices that the fragrance of the basmati vanishes. This is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First of all, great biryanis do often give out a basmati fragrance. And secondly, accepting this definition would mean that if a pulao did not reek of rice, it would not be a pulao at all, which is nonsense.


   A second distinction sounds more reasonable: a pulao is drier than a biryani. But this is too vague. How ‘wet’ does a pulao have to become to qualify as a biryani? If a biryani is a little dry, then does it automatically become a pulao?


   A third definition is that most so-called biryanis are actually pulaos and that the only true biryani is ‘kachcha biryani’ or a biryani where the meat and rice are cooked together. This is silly. Except for a few versions (some in Hyderabad) all biryani is made by assembling cooked meat with cooked rice. There is no point in using a definition that excludes most biryanis.


    And all of these definitions and distinctions run up against another problem. Some of the greatest biryanis in India are actually called pulaos by the people who make them. For instance, you will be told that the two greatest biryanis in India come from Awadh (Lucknow) and Hyderabad.


   But, in Lucknow, what we call an Awadhi biryani is always referred to as a pulao.


   I asked Imitiaz Qureshi, the legendary chef (from Lucknow) what he thought the distinction between a pulao and a biryani was. His answer was that when he made the dish at home it was a pulao but when it was made in a big degchi to be served at restaurants and banquets, it sounded fancier to call it a biryani.


   In the old (pre-ITC) days, when he was a caterer, Imitiaz recalled, he always described it to clients as a biryani because it sounded grander (and he could charge more for it) than pulao. But in the kitchen it was always referred to as a pulao.


   So, as you can see, nothing about the biryani is simple or straightforward.


   Eventually, when The Great Biryani Hunt was at its height, I accepted a simpler definition. Any spiced rice dish can be called a pulao. But if you want to call it a biryani then the dish has to be assembled in layers. You cook the rice and the meat (with some gravy) separately. Then you put a layer of rice in the pot. A layer of moist meat goes on top of that. Then, another layer of the rice. Then, another of meat. And so on till you reach the top of the pot.


   If you use that definition then Imitiaz’s ‘pulao’ is a biryani because he layers it, puts a little stock on top for flavour, seals the pot and then steams it (‘dum pukht’) so that the flavours mingle. But this definition is not perfect either: what about a kachcha biryani?


   So back to where we started: was Sanjay right in saying a biryani had to be non-vegetarian? Well, I know of no definition that requires that meat be used. In theory, there is no reason why you can’t layer the rice along with spiced vegetables.


   And finally, how sensible of Mohit and Rushina to call it Pulao Biryani Day rather than just Biryani Day! They are both pros and they know, from experience, what a minefield the subject of biryani can be.




  • Dr Rajeev garg 09 Jul 2017

    Very informative and mouth watering article , I think to know history of pulao/Biryanis, we have to dig h/o rice cultivation. In Ancient period, when agriculture started, rice cultivation was domesticated in China and then spread quickly to Southeast Asia and then to india. we haven't heard biryanis in China, Hongkong, Singapore, Philippines or other southeast Asian countries, though Chinese food give veg fried rice or other rice based dishes. I feel biryani is Rice dish with Indian spices

  • Deepak Kapur 09 Jul 2017

    Layering and Dum are the two most important pre- requisites of a Biryani. If even one of them is missing the thing will qualify as Pilaf only.

  • Srrinivas Rao 09 Jul 2017

    you must spend some time in Dubai the next time where you get all the varieties of biryanis from Pakistan, India, Malabar, Sylheti, Iranian, Afghanian, Turkish as well as what passes for this in British restaurants.
    The best way to settle any arguments, though it would result in a tie

Posted On: 08 Jul 2017 12:45 PM
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