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Biryani was always meant for the masses and not the kings

Biryani, we know, provokes strong emotions.

But it also provokes stupidity. A month ago, I wrote a post about different styles of biryani for the Culinary Culture Instagram page. The post was generally well-received. But there was one controversy.


Writing about what we now call Calcutta Biryani (which I love), I noted that it is a common man’s biryani. It is made with potatoes (and sometimes boiled eggs) so it requires less meat and is cheaper to make than, say, the meat-rich biryanis of North India. Certainly, all of us who enjoy the dish have loved it at the unfancy restaurants of Park Circus, where it is a filling and inexpensive meal by itself.


   Fair enough?


   Er, no. Soon after the post went up, there was outrage from indignant Bengalis. How dare I call it a common man’s biryani? Didn’t I know that this was the biryani served to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah? Yes, there were potatoes in it. But, said the angry Bengalis, this was only because potatoes were rare and very expensive when Wajid Ali Shah lived in Bengal.


   The outrage was ill-informed but the assertions contained just enough truth to make them dangerous. The facts are as follows.


   Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, was exiled to Bengal by the British around 1858. He brought his court with him: nobles, courtiers, wives, concubines, servants, cooks, etc. The British paid Wajid Ali Shah a lakh of rupees a month, which was a lot of money in those days. But even so, it was difficult to keep a whole court going on a lakh and the court chefs found it cost too much to cook lots of meat for the huge entourage twice a day.


   In Awadh, in those days, the nobles ate yakhni pulao and that was probably what the Nawab ate during his enforced holiday in Bengal.


   But there was also a kind of biryani in Awadh. According to Mohona Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time, Asaf-ud-Daula, the fourth Nawab of Awadh, built the Bara Imambara in Lucknow during the terrible famine of 1774. He ordered the construction so that the 20,000 workmen he hired to build it would not starve. Each day a huge cauldron was filled with meat and rice and sealed with dough before being slow-cooked (“dum” cooking) so that the workers could be fed.


   This kind of biryani was the working man’s food while the palace stuck to pulao. By the following century, when Wajid Ali Shah arrived in Bengal, this tradition was firmly established. His entourage was fed this kind of biryani.


   As for the potatoes, they were not like rare and expensive medieval truffles. Over two centuries before Wajid Ali Shah set foot in Bengal, the Portuguese had already planted potatoes in India.


   But potatoes had not yet entered the Bengali home kitchen, so they had a certain novelty value on the East Coast. According to the food historian Pritha Sen, they were added to the biryani as an economy measure, either because a lakh of rupees was not enough to meet the court’s expenses or, after Wajid Ali Shah’s death, the court fell on hard days. The eggs, says Pritha, were added much later.


  "As I have discovered, the thing about biryani is that the more you learn, the less you know."

   Because potatoes are now such an integral part of Calcutta biryani, legends have been created to suggest that Wajid Ali Shah loved potato biryani but there is no textual evidence for this claim. Nor is it clear that the nawab even ate any kind of Bengali biryani. He may just have eaten pulao while the common people were fed biryani.


   The myth-making around Calcutta biryani reminds us of two questions that have come up again and again. First of all, was biryani a great court dish anywhere? Or was it just something that could be made in large quantities for the masses?


   And second: what exactly is the difference between a pulao and a biryani, anyway?


   The first question may be easier to answer. Despite the claims advanced for the Nawabs of Awadh, biryani seems to have been invented during the Mughal period in Delhi. There are various apocryphal stories dating the invention to Shah Jahan’s time but Rana Safvi, the distinguished historian, says she could only find a recipe from the later Mughal period, from Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time. It is not her claim that there was no biryani before that; just that she has not found a recipe. Other historians who have gone through texts say that the first references to biryani only appear around the 18th century.


   So, was biryani a court dish? Nobody is sure. It may well have been cooked at the court. But what is clear is that it was usually made in large vessels in vast quantities, which suggests that its original purpose may have been to feed lesser mortals and not the emperors.


   Most chefs treat biryani as the offspring of pulao, which seems fair except that the origins of pulao are hard to pin down. There was always a South Indian dish of meat and rice with various names, many of which sound like polo or pulao. But even KT Achaya, the great food historian who usually managed to find an ancient Tamil origin for every dish, concedes that despite the linguistic similarity, this was not the same dish as the medieval pulao.


   That pulao may have a Persian origin. Certainly, it was well known in the Middle East. Rana Safvi spoke to Krishnendu Ray, the Chair of the Department of Food Studies at New York University, who said there was a recipe for pilaf aruzz mufalfal in a 15th Century Egyptian cookbook. So, the pulao, in one form or another, has been around for centuries.


   So, how does a pulao differ from a biryani? There is no clear answer because the terms are now often used interchangeably. One clue lies in the name. Biranj usually suggests frying (though Rana Safvi has found a 15th Century cookbook where the term means baking) and the celebrated chef Kunal Kapur, who is fascinated by Awadh cuisine, says that in most biryanis you have to fry the meat, whereas for a pulao the meat is not fried but is stewed.


   There are other distinctions, too. The key to the flavour of many biryanis is fried onions. A pulao does not use fried onions. A biryani is usually (though not necessarily in Hyderabad) assembled: the meat and rice are cooked separately and then finished together.


   On the other hand, meat and rice are usually cooked together (for the most part) in a pulao. A biryani depends more on spices. A pulao gets its flavour from yakhni.


   The problem with all this is the Awadhi biryani, which the great chefs of Lucknow insist on calling a pulao, regarding biryani as somewhat inferior. Kunal Kapur says that an Awadhi biryani uses stewed meat, not fried meat. And the absence of frying leads Lucknawi chefs to deny it is a biryani.


   As I have discovered, the thing about biryani is that the more you learn, the less you know. But some things are clear. It is not a Persian dish. It is Indian. It is descended from pulao. The chances are that it was always meant for the masses, not the kings. As my friend Gautam Anand, who has spent his life around biryani chefs, says, it is time to reclaim it for the people and rid the dish of its royal pretensions.


   And one last thing: there is no evidence that Wajid Ali Shah ate potato biryani.


   Now they can stone me in Kolkata!




  • Ramamoorthy 24 Jul 2021

    So many thoughts here, I wait for lifestyle posts by Vir and often get excited when I see one. It's one of the pleasures of my life. And the high priest of Indian food has spoken - Biryani is Indian, not Persian. The people's dish, much like The Rock's elbow. Pulao I always thought was veg, now I learn there's meat too. I am a bit lost. But is Biryani a contribution of Muslims? Can they be chauvinistic about it because 'secular liberal' Hindus certainly use it to poke their political opponents..

Posted On: 24 Jul 2021 12:12 PM
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