For something that is as straightforward and unambiguous as meat cooked along with rice, we seem to make such a song and dance about a biryani. The biryani, whether you like it or not, still remains the most contemplated, coveted and compared dish in the Indian cuisine. I have engaged in scores of discussions on whether biryani should be cooked in layers or with raw meat, whether it should have potatoes or not, whether spices should be used as whole, powdered or in a bouquet garni. Whether chicken and veg biryanis have any defendability against parochial and narrow-minded mutton eating evaluators. And the bickering is never-ending. As for myself, I’ve already spent over two-and-a-half thousand words expounding over biryanis in the east and south of the country with the west and north still waiting to be drooled over. So, without burning anymore daylight, let me get to it.
The biryani from the western parts of India is dear to me because I grew up in these parts. It’s the meal that my grandfather and I went hunting for in the narrow lanes of Null Bazar, and Islampura in Mumbai. It’s, in fact, the first meal that I, as a 12 years old, went out and ate by myself alone and paid from my own pocket albeit from my treasured weekly allowance given to me by my mother.
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The Irani Biryani
Don’t get waylaid by the name, it’s a name that I am calling this biryani by. It’s the kind of biryani that you can eat in Irani Cafes in Mumbai and Pune. Whether the Irani Cafe is a Zoroastrian Irani-owned restaurant or a Muslim Irani-owned restaurant, the biryani is quite similar. The rice is half white and half yellow and the chunks of meat, juicy and tender, seem like they have been added at the last moment. There is no co-relation between the both, and both rice and meat have been cooked separately, and kept in two different vessels only mixed together on a plate when ordered. A bit like mixing a bowl of rice and mutton masala before serving. Delicious when hungry, quite popular but definitely not a biryani.
The Cutchi Memons migrated from Sindh to Kutch in Gujarat in the 15th century and their cuisine draws influences from the Arabs as well as those regions now in Pakistan. Their food is aromatic, mildly spicy and subtly favoured as is their biryani. What sets this biryani apart from others is the minimal use of oil and spices. The rice and meat are enhanced with green chilies, chopped tomato and lemon juice. The community is a well-to-do business community and can afford the luxury of saffron in the biryani and so, when invited to a Cutchi-Memon, you will always find the biryani adorned with the colour and fragrance of saffron. The masala never overpowers the rice and this biryani is the least greasy one of them all.
The Sindhi Biryani has all the integrity of a Cutchi-Memon Biryani but it has, over the years, been embellished and enriched by Sindh (now in Pakistan) and culture. It’s a bit spicier than most biryanis because the proportion of the masala to the rice is a little more than most. While the meat in most biryanis is marinated in plain yogurt or curd, the meat in a Sindhi Biryani is marinated in khatta or soured yoghurt and heavily spiced with garam masalas as well as chillies.
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So, on one hand, you get the floral notes of the star anise, black and green cardamom, and, on the other, the tanginess of sour yogurt, and tomato. What sets the Sindhi Biryani apart from most other biryanis is plum or alu-bukhara that is added to it along with caramelised onion to add a certain sweetness. Making this biryani a medley of sweet, sour and spicy flavours and a robust and commanding dish.
And finally, the biryani I like the most, the Mumbai Biryani. I have had umpteen battles over which is the best biryani in the world, and, for me, the argument always culminates in a Bombay Biryani. I think more than the actual virtues of the Bombay Biryani, it’s because this is the taste I grew up with, and I am just purely biased and completely partisan. It’s a solid good Biryani – Basmati Rice, steeped in masala, with oil-soaked potatoes, onion and tender meat. But quite spicy with a pungency and fortitude to the masala that could be overwhelming for some. Oily, spicy, with slight notes of sweetness and sourness, embellished with nuts and raisins and served with a flourish. That’s my biryani, whatever anyone else may say.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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