It came, it saw, it adopted, it conquered and then it ruled. If there is one Indian dish that befits this epithet, it is biryani, the ultimate comfort food.  

There is something ridiculously familial about biryani—more like a deep affection that borders on obsessive possessiveness. Think about it, it is a dish that has the highest rate of popularity—you may like one variety more than the other, but you would never hate it; it’s Indian-ness or rather lack of it hasn’t bothered us one bit, and almost anyone who has had biryani instantly becomes a subject authority on it, and rightly so. After all, biryani is all about a beautiful melange of rice, meat, and spices—ingredients indigenous to us. 

But is that the only reason that biryani—a medieval to modern innovation—holds such an ace position in the Indian culinary landscape? Or is there more to the military comfort food, which for its sheer varieties could easily become a national dish? Interestingly, for biryani, that battle of supremacy is almost won. According to a recent StatEATstics analysis done by popular food aggregators, a biryani is ordered every second. 

So how did a dish that came along with Timur or from Persia gain so much ground in Indian soil, not just in terms of its instant acceptability first as the worker’s food, then as military ration and eventually making its way into the royal dastarkhwan?

To understand this we need to start from the beginning. 

Biryani is as much a commoner's dish as it is a dish for royalty. Image: shutterstock
Biryani is as much a commoner’s dish as it is a dish for royalty. Image: Shutterstock

According to popular food lore, biryani was an on-the-spot innovation by Empress Mumtaz Mahal. The story goes that while accompanying her husband, Mumtaz Mahal came across the tent where food for the soldiers was being cooked and was taken aback by the frugality of it and designed what eventually became biryani by adding bone broth, chunks of meat, and a few spices to the rice cauldron. The one-pot meal wasn’t only easy to serve but also satiating and gave the soldiers strength. Plus, the taste made it a popular food option while on the move. Such was the addiction to this functional food that it became a part of the army not only while they were on a siege but even when they were guarding the fort. 

This perhaps explains how biryani—a Mughal innovation—reached all corners of India and was locally adopted because of the ease of making (and, of course, the time saved). However, historically, the possibility that biryani existed before the famous empress decided to come out with her signature version is found in Fatehpur Sikri where next to the palace kitchen is a piece of land set aside to create biryani or the meat-rice-spice iteration that existed at the time. Another proof that biryani in its Indian avatar existed around the time of Akbar is the Urs ki Biryani, a deliciously moist yet simple preparation of rice, meat, meat broth, and whole spices. Void of the customary orange (and green) colour, it is what the Urs travellers indulged in after praying at Sheikh Salim Chishti’s dargah. So when and how did biryani—a colloquialisation of the Persian words bririnj meaning rice and birian meaning smoked meat—arrive on our shores?

There are two theories, and each contradicts the other, says Chef Nimish Bhatia. One credits Humayun, who after spending a long time with the Safavids brought back not only their culture and art but their food as well, and biryani or birinj biryani was one of them. This continues Chef Bhatia, “could have been possible because a similar dish finds mention in Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari, which has a list of the Badshah’s favourite dishes including one titled zerd birinj, which essentially means ‘yellow rice’ and is made with rice, sugar candy, ghee, raisins, almonds, pistachio, salt, ginger, saffron, and cinnamon. Another factor, of course, is the mention of dum pukht in the description of the dishes—not so much as the explanation of the technique but as a mere mention of how it is made along with the ingredients: meat, oil, onion, pepper, cloves, cardamoms and salt.”

Biryani is often dum-cooked in an earthen pot or hands. Image: shutterstock
Biryani is often dum-cooked in an earthen pot or hands. Image: Shutterstock

Another theory, says Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “that predates the existence of the beloved rice dish by almost a few centuries is the fact that four dynasties that ruled Delhi before the arrival of the Mughals, namely, the Mamluk dynasty (1206–1290), the Khalji dynasty (1290–1320), the Tughlaq dynasty (1320–1414), the Sayyid dynasty (1414–1451), and the Lodi dynasty (1451–1526), were all Pashtuns from Afghanistan where the one-pot rice-meat dish was a popular food for the battalion. 

Chances are that biryani in its original avatar may have come then and had changed garb to suit the weather here. Kamal Amrohi’s film Razia Sultan, based on the first queen of the Delhi Sultanate, in fact, has a scene dedicated to the food habits of the House of Mamluk, and biryani features prominently. 

Of course, adds Chef Gorai, “an argument could also be made for the Arab traders who would make Muziris their home and led to the birth of the Mappila community and could have brought along with them their food habits and the earlier iteration of biryani. After all, they too belonged to the Middle East kingdom and given their travelling rituals would be the best food ambassadors to introduce the dishes to a new land and vice versa.”

But if that is true what about our very own country where one-pot meals made of rice, meat and spices were commonplace. In fact, Aimperumkappiyam, the five great epics of Tamil literature, mentions a dish called oon soru that was popular in 2AD and was made of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was part of the food that warriors ate. 

Some key ingredients of biryani. Image: shutterstock
Some key ingredients of biryani. Image: Shutterstock

Fascinatingly, that is not the only text that mentions a one-pot rice and meat dish that seems identical to the one that arrived in India around the early medieval age. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishada too has a shloka that talks about a similar preparation:

Atha ya icchet putro me pandito vigeetah samitimgamah susshrooshitaam  vaacham bhaashitaa jaayeta sarvaan vedaan anubraveeta sarvam-aayur-iyaaditi maa(m)s-audanam paachayitvaa sarpishmantam-asneeyaataam-eeswarau janayitvaa aukshena vaarshabhena vaa||

(He who wishes that a son should be born to him who would be a reputed scholar, frequenting the assemblies and speaking delightful words, would study all the Vedas and attain a full term of life, should have rice cooked with the meat of a vigorous bull or one more advanced in years, and he and his wife should eat it with clarified butter. Then they would be able to produce such a son.)  

Even our mythological scriptures mention an age-old love for meat-rice-spice dishes. According to one interpretation, when Rama and Lakshmana were in exile in the Dandakaranya forest, they would hunt animals to sustain themselves. One dish that was a common favourite, especially of Sita, was rice cooked with deer meat, vegetables, and spices, called mamsabhutadana.

Could it be that biryani is old as well as indigenous?

If the version of Shadab Ahmed Qureshi, Chef De Cuisine of Jyran, Sofitel Mumbai BKC, of how biryani was made in the 16th century is taken as a base then, perhaps, yes. According to the Qureshi scion, “biryani back in time was made with unpolished rice that could withstand long hours of cooking that the meat would need. In fact, even during Akbar’s reign, the rice used was locally grown, unrefined rice that was short and thick, and would need overnight soaking so that it would cook at the same time as mutton. The only change perhaps was in the choice of meat. While traditional Persian rice varieties are made with lamb, the Mughals and those before them adapted to mutton which was more popular in India and was widely bred for consumption.”

It was, continues Chef Ahmed, “much later that biryani attained its more refined form. Not only the rice used changed from the hard-shelled, unpolished rice to the long grain, fragrant variety but also the meat cuts, which went from any cut was good to meat from the leg, shoulder, breast and rump. These cuts not only quicken the time of preparing the biryani but enhance the taste as well. In fact, the meat cuts are one way to identify Awadhi biryani.”

This transformation of biryani from a rustic meal of the masses to a popular treat of the classes is the contribution of the food-loving Shah Jahan and his beloved Mumtaz, who redefined the art of making this one-pot meal. The Nuskha-i-Shahjahani dedicates an entire chapter to beriyan and has recipes and detailed descriptions of five varieties of a dish named zer beriyan: Zer Beriyan-i-Paneer (gourmands with a natural urge to dismiss ‘vegetable biryani’ as an oxymoron, take careful note), Zer Beriyan-i-Noor Mahali (was this the delectable dish, that has been referred to in our legend? We can never be certain), Zer Beriyan-i-Roomi, Zer Beriyan-i-Mahi and Zer Berian-i-Noor Mahali Nu’ Digar (this repetition of the Noor Mahali variety—Nu’ Digar meaning ‘new variety’).

The delectable mutton biryani at jyran, sofitel mumbai bkc
The delectable mutton biryani at Jyran, Sofitel Mumbai BKC

It is some of these rice preparations along with those that were curated for the armies and other servants in the palace that reached the different parts of the empire and were adopted by the maharajas and governors as part of their food habits after, of course, tweaking the recipes to suit their palate.

Interestingly, while those meant for royalty went through little changes aside from the use of local ingredients especially rice, the one meant for common soldiers is what became the base for experimentations—and led to the creation of different varieties of biryani.  

In Lucknow, for instance, says Chef Ahmed, “the Moradabadi biryani was tweaked further and turned into the Awadhi biryani which is more fragrant than its Kolkata/Hyderabad peer because of two things: the use of ittar from Kannauj and the rice variety that ranged from the traditional arua rice to sela and kala namak variety that gave the Awadhi biryani its distinct lightness and fragrance. The use of basmati rice, especially the Golden Sella Basmati came much later when biryani thanks to its appeasing nature made it to the diplomatic table where it was regularly featured for the British who also took a liking for it.”

Co-incidentally, says Chef Gorai, “it was biryani’s ability to adapt to local ingredients, spices and cooking styles that proved to be the ace in biryani’s success not only as a dish but as a popular dish that is loved by all. The ease with which this recipe could be adapted to newer ingredients and cooking techniques led to the many versions of the dish, each with its unique character and flavour nuances.”

Whether it was the two varieties of Sindhi biryani, one that had liberal use of potatoes, dry fruits, khoya and meat (occasionally) and the Memoni biryani that made caramelising onions to add flavour to the dish a trend. Or, adds Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels), the lesser-known Holdaar biryani made from lobster that is a very delicate preparation often confused with a pilaf. In fact, he continues, “the popularity of biryani among the soldiers and their ilk nudged the serais to have their own signature variety thus leading to the creation of over three dozen biryanis.”

The experiments curiously were not limited to the use of different kinds of meats to make the rice dish, but also led to the curation of some interesting vegetarian options. A fine example is the kale moti ki biryani. Made of Bengal gram with liberal use of potatoes, tomatoes, and milk, it is a relatively new version that many believe was inspired by Lucknow’s moti pilaf (which uses egg white turned into pearls) and Hyderabad’s doodh ki biryani.

Another is the Assamese Kampur biryani. An elementary but delectable dish, it’s made of local rice, vegetable and local chicken. In fact, it’s one of the few instances where you will find the yellow bell pepper play the flavourant.

What makes biryani such an inherent subject of discussion (and discovery), adds Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Culinary Director, Bob’s Bar), “isn’t just its simple yet immensely adaptive format of using rice, meat, and local spices, it is also the clever composition that stems from the culture of having one-pot rice dishes in the past.”

Goat is the preferred meat for biryani in the indian subcontinent, while in persia it may have been lamb. Image: shutterstock
Goat is the preferred meat for biryani in the Indian subcontinent, while in Persia it may have been lamb. Image: Shutterstock

Adds the culinary historian, “Having rice-based one-pot meals are inherent to our culinary fibre since ancient times. These dishes were not just functional and nourishing, they were built on the premise of satiation and taste as well. That perhaps explains why biryani, which charted a new chapter in rice-based dishes that used long, non-glutinous rice grains, was so appealing to the palates that were used to one-pot dishes like the muri ghanto.”

The fact, adds Chef Dewan, “that biryani was designed on the broader concept of using local rice, meat and spices with indigenous techniques not only allowed it to have this easy penetration pan India, with every serai, town, dynasty having their own version, but also encouraged variety since each version could be designed on the food culture of the space.”

By 1900, India had close to 200 variations of the biryani, tweaked according to season, and the produce and spices available. A few of these travelled to Karachi and other parts of India where the delicious taste and familiar flavours made biryani a popular food. In fact, says Chef Ritesh Sinha (Head Chef, Biryani By the Kilo) “the mark of a good version of biryani for a long time was not the pearl test but based on the one that brought out the flavour of the meat and spices used, the moistness and how the different flavours have penetrated into the vegetable or meat used.” Chef Sinha, who has worked extensively with the nobility of Lucknow and Hyderabad, believes that the benchmark of a good biryani—“even that made in a pressure cooker these days”—is the quality of ingredients used and how well one can taste the nuances of great produce. 

One of the many reasons, adds Chef Dewan, “why old-school khansamas often insisted on using the right kind of fat and rice that could elevate the flavours well, and developed culinary techniques that could prove effective in achieving the goal. That perhaps explains why there are a certain variety that are made with dum, others made in kachchi or pakki style where the meat is either cooked or not, and still more work well with chilmun (layering).”

Biryani during its golden era of evolution was never about a recipe, says the chef, “but about showcasing a technique, ingredient and the secrets of giving it the unmistakable characteristics that eventually went on to define the region it came from. Like the Beary biryani. A spicier cousin of the Mangalorean version, in the Beary biryani the dominating flavour is of the rice, which is kept in a blend of ghee and spices overnight, and then comes the meat or seafood.”

Incidentally many chefs today follow the same rule of “showcasing the finest” while making a biryani instead of following the recipe. After all, it is this charm of being able to play around with ingredients that make biryani such an endearing dish. 

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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