On a donne biryani trail

Virtually unfamiliar outside Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, donne biryani has a history as rich as its flavours.
Served in a dried banana leaf bowl, it's the plating that lends this biryani its unique identity. Image: shutterstock
Served in a dried banana leaf bowl, it’s the plating that lends this biryani its unique identity. Image: Shutterstock

While on a culinary trail tracking the evolution of donne biryani, the Shivaji Military Hotel in South Bengaluru, Karnataka is a no-brainer. In a country that loves its biryani, it’s but natural that each state has its own trademark style of preparing this unofficial national dish. As for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, that’s the delicious donne biryani. 

Unlike other biryanis which are known by their origin states, this signature dish owes its name to the dried banana leaf or leafy bowl (known locally as donne) that it’s served in. It’s also known as military hotel biryani, but it’s the packaging style that sets this delicacy apart.

According to art historian Suresh Jayaram, “These military hotels were run by Maratha descendants of Shahaji Bhonsale, an erstwhile military ruler in India. They were primarily started during the Maratha rule after they conquered Bengaluru in 1638. Over a period of time, these places catered to not only Tippu Sultan’s soldiers but also the British army.”

Raita and salan aside, people often pair donne biryani with a variety of meat dishes, like this drumstick chilli chicken at rnr. Image: susheela nair.
Raita and salan aside, people often pair donne biryani with a variety of meat dishes, like this Drumstick chilli chicken at RNR. Image: Susheela Nair.

Coming back to Shivaji Military Hotel, 11 am sees the kitchen in full swing. The iconic eatery started by S.Mannaji Rao in 1935 is currently run by his grandsons, Rajeev and Lokesh. According to them, it was Mannaji Rao who first introduced the proverbial donne biryani. 

“The genesis of donne biryani can be traced back to the local military hotels which were small eateries [that were] started to satiate the cravings of spicy and protein heavy food requirements of Maratha soldiers in the 17th century,” says Lokesh.

It’s intriguing to note how involved the brothers are in each and every aspect of making the biryani. Adding a fistful of the right quantity of the masala, tasting, checking the consistency of the chicken curry, etc, it’s a treat to watch them in action. 

Lokesh, the owner of shivaji military hotel checking the donne biryani. Image: susheela nair
Lokesh, the owner of Shivaji Military Hotel checking the donne biryani. Image: Susheela Nair

“We have our own unique style and recipe which remains a well -guarded secret. What sets us apart is the consistency in taste and quality of ingredients used, all of which are naati (locally grown). We source the donne from Chamarajnagar, natti ginger from a farm in Kanakapura, but the spice mix is prepared at home,” adds Lokesh. 

Popular accompaniments to the donne biryani are mutton fry, mutton bone broth and chilli chicken. The biryani itself is available in both chicken and mutton variants. However, it’s the masala that’s the hallmark of any good donne biryani. Which is why the mind-boggling array of spices used is unsurprising. The basic spices include staples like coriander, cumin, whole grain masalas as well as ginger and garlic paste. 

“What makes our donne biryani extra special is the perfect blend of local spices along with quite a bit of mint leaves, green chillies and sometimes a bunch of coriander leaves too. One can sense the aroma of fresh masalas, mint and coriander, the richness of ghee and the fat from the meat. We also use Marathi Mogi, star anise, mace, bay leaf, keluva (dried buds of silk cotton tree), cardamom, onions, etc.” explains Lokesh.

When everything is done, it’s the plating on the donne that completes the whole theatrical culinary experience. “The flavour is when the biryani is ladled in the donne which is softened with the heat of the biryani. The heat breaks down the dry leaf and imparts its aroma to the biryani. The flavourful rice adds to the taste of the dish which is often served with a spicy gravy and onions spiked with curd. Even the aroma from the donne in which it is served has a role in its flavours,” he adds. 

Rajeev, one of the owners of shivaji military hotel stirring the donne biryani to perfection. Image: susheela nair
Rajeev, one of the owners of Shivaji Military Hotel stirring the donne biryani to perfection. Image: Susheela Nair

Another popular version of history attributes the origin of donne biryani to the 1800s. The city was struck with the bubonic plague which forced women and children to migrate to far flung villages. The military hotels were then established to provide food to the farmers who stayed back. SG Rao military hotel, the city’s first recognized hotel of its kind, was then established around the Cottonpet area by Govinda Rao Rannave in 1908. 

While the varying origin of stories of Bengaluru’s military hotels continue to baffle and fascinate historians, it is the former link to Maratha history that finds widespread acceptance.

Another important distinction that sets the donne biryani apart from other biryanis is the significant lack of onion and tomato flavours in the masala. While other states might be yet to discover this dish, the hype in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is real enough for more than one signature joint to hit for the same. 

One such place is the Huliyappa Donne Biryani, where Ravindra, a software professional, uses his eponymous grandfather’s 106-year-old secret recipe. “It is not made with the long-grained basmati rice you find in typical Hyderabadi, Mughlai or Lucknowi biryanis but with the shorter grained seeraga samba, a star ingredient used in biryanis in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This is a [much denser] rice that readily absorbs the masala,” he explains.

The donne biryani at huliyappa's is served with raita and salan. Image: susheela nair.
The donne biryani at Huliyappa’s is served with raita and salan. Image: Susheela Nair.

To keep alive the legacy bequeathed by great grandfather, Ravindra has now expanded his business operations to different parts of the city. Traditional half boiled egg aside, here the accompaniments vary slightly. You’ll find bowls of raita, salan, and some chopped onions with a quarter of a lime. You can also choose to pair your donne biryani with Guntur chicken, and egg chilli among other items. 

“Bengaluru’s signature biryani is traditionally not as spicy as the Hyderabad biryani, and it gets its unique flavours from the aromatic seeraga samba rice, the mint tempered masala, the unique technique of marinating the meat with curd and spices and the stock,” adds Ravindra. 

Guntur chicken is a favourite at huliyappa's, donne biryani aside of course. Image susheela nair.
Guntur Chicken is a favourite at Huliyappa’s, donne biryani aside of course. Image Susheela Nair.

From military hotels and small hole-in-the-wall eateries, donne biryani has traversed a long way to keep up with the changing times. A perfect illustration of this is RNR Donne Biryani. The restaurant has gone from being a small kitchen serving donne biryani to a  cloud kitchen with a nominal investment of Rs. 5 lakh. 

“Cloud kitchen is the best route when you are venturing out into a new segment. I opted for cloud kitchen because it is a very low investment model and one of the best channels to test the credibility of the idea. We took the risk, challenge and bold step to launch our brand during the pandemic. Our unique selling proposition is in the packaging. We deliver biryani in a unique royal format in a blue tin-box. At present, we have 14 cloud kitchens across Bengaluru. RNR has crossed Rs 8 crore and is now clocking to touch Rs 10 crores.” comments Ramya Ravi, co-founder, RNR Restaurant.

Donne veg biryani as prepared by rnr, with several other variations of the dish available to cater to evolving culinary preferences. Image: rnr restaurant.
Donne veg biryani as prepared by RNR, with several other variations of the dish available to cater to evolving culinary preferences. Image: RNR restaurant.

What RNR also managed to do, more importantly, is establish itself as one of the first brands to catapult donne biryani to the mainstream segment. “Our brand is one of the first to have placed donne biryani in the organised sector. Though we continue our Ajji’s (grandmother’s) same recipes, we have introduced variants of other biryani like boneless biryani from the naati (native) cuisine,” adds Ramya. 

Currently the recipe of donne biryani has undergone a change in keeping with the evolving preferences of customers. Apart from the core biryanis the best sellers also include the Nati style chilli chicken-Starter, Drumstick Chilli, Mutton bone soup , Mutton liver masala, Mutton Nalli, Nati Style chilli chicken Nati koli ,Drumstick Fry, Nati Koli Roast, Nati Koli Saaru and Elaneeru Payasam (Tender coconut kheer).

Despite the proliferation of donne biryani joints in the city, only a handful of them stand out when it comes to satisfying true flavour cravings. In addition to the aforementioned, it is recommended to follow your instincts as you scour the city. Happy hunting! 

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