Perzen Patel on the iconic dish that unites and divides India.
Friday nights are take-out nights in my house – there just isn’t enough steam in the parent engine to cook one more meal. The challenge, of course, is to order something that everyone will eat. Last year, I cracked up: we started ordering biryani.
The aromatic fluffy, yellow-tinted rice at the top, sitting among a bed of boiled eggs, was perfect for my toddler who hates spices. The juicy, almost falling apart chunks of lamb, adored by my hubby “I need to eat meat every day”. As for me, there is nothing that satisfies my Indian soul more than a bowl of rice. But what I liked the most is that there are almost always enough leftovers for Saturday lunch. Another meal riddle solved!
A celebration of all that is great about Indian cuisine
Growing up, biryani wasn’t something we ate regularly or cooked at home. This is because it tastes best when cooked slowly, ideally in a large copper handi over an open fire. Imagine: an intoxicating aroma of slow-cooked whole spices, the vibrant color of marinated meat cooking in its own juices, and long grains of rice bringing it all together. Dig around a large pot of biryani for that perfectly succulent piece of lamb before someone else steals it. Not quite the same experience when cooked at home in small batches.
My grandfather, the connoisseur of OG food, taught me that if there was a party worthy of a biryani, you had to order it at Delhi Darbar by Jaffer Bhai on Grant Road, Bombay. While Jaffer Bhai – affectionately known as the Biryani King of Mumbai – passed away in 2020, his restaurant established in 1973 continues to serve biryani that is still out of this world.
A dish that unites and divides at the same time
It is widely believed that biryani originated in Persia and was brought to the Indian subcontinent by the Mughals. Legend has it that Queen Mumtaz Mahal once visited her army troops to find that the soldiers were malnourished, so she asked the cooks to create a dish containing both meat and rice. and whose origin was biryani. Lucknow, a city in Uttar Pradesh, claims to be the homeland of biryani – although in a typically Indian fashion, the same goes for Kolkata and Hyderabad.
In a country where the food you eat changes every 100 km, biryani is a dish we all eat and it continues to evolve. Hyderabadi, Mumbai, Awadhi, Thalasserary – there are so many different styles of biryani to choose from. It is a dish that both unites and divides and is the source of endless debate. Go to any Indian party and you’ll find a middle-aged uncle or aunt explaining that the biryani they’ve eaten from such and such a place is actually the best there is.
Is vegetarian biryani still biryani?
Biryani’s signature flavor comes from its “pakki-dum-pukht” style of cooking. Dum pukht literally translates to “breathe and cook” in Hindi and pakki means ripe or already cooked. Unlike pulao, where meat and rice are cooked together, biryani is layered.
The meat goes in first, followed by a layer of fried shallots and saffron water – and fried cashews if you want to go all out – which is followed by rice. When baking for large crowds, the layers would be repeated two or even three times depending on the depth of your utensil before being sealed with a simple batter and slowly baked one last time. The idea is that the steam produced by the layers of meat sauce rises, further tenderizing the meat and rice, and then condenses, preventing everything in the pan from drying out.
Does it still work if there is no meat and therefore no meat broth? This is another area that is under debate. One camp argues that biryani made without meat is most definitely pulao, while the other soldiers do all sorts of variations by cooking biryani with vegetables and sometimes with eggs or even paneer.
Cooking biryani at home
I don’t know why I resisted making biryani at home for so long – it’s probably the long list of ingredients and multiple cooking steps. Also, I have no patience for making a paste that is only for sealing in steam.
If you want to make biryani as close to the real thing as possible, you can’t escape the multiple cooking stages, but there are a few tricks to make your life easier. Mine is to buy pre-marinated tandoori lamb from my local Pakistani butcher, to which I simply add ginger garlic paste and yogurt. From the same butcher, I often go hunting Shan Biryani Massala, who has a cult in India. Finally, instead of dealing with the dough, I layer my biryani in my dutch oven or seal with foil.
Not quite like Jaffer Bhai’s – but still tasty enough to pass the aunt-uncle test.
Finding a good biryani in Aotearoa
There are plenty of places to grab a good bowl of biryani across the country, with many Indian restaurants offering family packs – be sure to ask for the special pack which includes a portion of chilli chicken and boiled eggs .
With Paradise and Bawarchi in the same street, Sandringham in Auckland is always a good place to start. Savvy Indian foodies (including the aforementioned aunts and uncles) will tell you that Catering Ace Akbari also serves the real deal.
Alternatively, if you’re ready to cook biryani at home, my small business Dolly Mumma offers arBiryani box ready to cook to help you cook delicious biryani easily, wherever you are.