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The Great Indian Biryani War

What’s the food that most Indians order for when struck by hunger pangs? The answer is Biryani! And the strangest fact of all is that in India, you will find 29 varieties of the hallowed preparation in 29 states! Every area has adapted the original recipe to its own taste buds and the range of flavors is quite mind boggling. This is exactly why when I saw a Hyderabadi, a Lucknowi and a Bengali walking towards me on the streets, I could not help but breach the (un)holy topic with them.

What ensued were three passionate accounts of the three most appreciated Biryanis of India – told straight from the heart… or maybe the tongue. I will leave you to judge the finer things but all I can say is that discussions about Biryanis can often be injurious to health, by leading to riots between otherwise peaceful foodies. Here’s what they had to say…

Hyderabadi Biryani- by Shyam ‘Hyderbadi’ Mohan

Hyderabadi Biryani
Hyderabadi Biryani

Picture a gamut of complimenting ingredients creating layered chapters, each being played by various degrees of our protagonist’s (Rice) fate over fire, resplendent with marinated meat, all tightly packed in round time capsule sealed by a veil of dough, basking under fire fueled typically by coal, only to be resurrected at the opportune moment to form this epic culinary experience that is “Hyderabadi Biryani”.

Every bite, preceded by its tantalizing woody aroma, provides a consistent culmination of rice, meat and spices giving you rollicky taste buds by the end of it. Admittedly heavy on the spices, those with delicate palates can look to “Dahi chutney” or “Raita” for respiting company. Boiled egg, although not typically provided in most joints, will definitely accentuate your experience as well. Bon appetit!

Awadhi Biryani- by Gaurav ‘Lucknowi’ Sharma

Lucknowi Biryani
Lucknowi Biryani

The best thing Mughals gave to this world is Biryani. Amongst the richest preparations of meat, Biryani sits right on top & Lucknow is a mecca for biryani lovers. Being the capital of a rice-eating state, biryani has brilliantly coalesced with the culture of the city, reflecting how the city believes that life is all about good food.

Lucknowi Biryani, unlike its Hyderabadi counterpart which is more about rice or the Calcutta version which shares the Awadhi roots, is all about meat. The rice, the Kewra, the rich spices or the optional company of Yogurt are all there just to celebrate the magnificence of the meat. And the very first rule of the Awadhi preparation affirms the same, layering the rice with cooked-meat & spices ensuring a more balanced taste with rice and all the other stuff convoying the meat to its full glory.

Most of the famous Biryani shops in Lucknow are located in the past, no fancy cutleries, a seating of 6-8 on a shared basis & not even a menu or the board with the restaurant name. The three finest Biryani places are Idris, Lalla & Wahid. While the former only serves chicken biryani & is easily accessible, Lalla & Wahid, located in the narrow bylanes of the old city, only serve mutton biryani. And the mutton is so good, I mean, its goat attaining nirvana. A plateful of this royal happiness shouldn’t cost you more than 80-100 bucks. It’s crazy, how in this city, people from all walks of life can afford the finest food in the world.

Kolkata Biryani- by Souvik ‘Bengali’ Ghosh

Kolkata Biryani
Kolkata Biryani

The deportation of the last Nawab of Awadh in 1856 did not only mark the fall of the garden-district of India, but it also marked the birth of the Kolkata Biryani. He was exiled to Metiabruz, a suburb of Kolkata, and with him, he carried into Bengal his troop of cooks, who were experts in the art of the Biryani. As happens with every great dish, the local Bengali workers wanted to reproduce the magic, but they did not have enough money to buy the meat that is a must for the preparation – hence appeared the quintessential potato! The potato which has now come to define what the Kolkata Biryani is.

The biryani is a cousin of the puritanical Lucknowi version, and tastes very similar. The spices used are almost identical – with shah zeera, shah morich, jaitri and jaifal forming the body and the ittar and keora forming a definitive aroma. Add to that the spiced potato chunk and soft-as-butter mutton, and you would have what a Bengali’s wet dream is made of. The boiled egg is not mandatory, but it makes the meal hearty and more sumptuous. The thing about the Kolkata Biryani is that it is mostly devoured solo; however a few onion rings or Raita surely complements the rice. The legendary Shiraz, Aminia and New Aliah (along with many many others) have kept the magic going, and if you ever find yourself in Kolkata, do make sure to drop in at these places and sample what defines ‘bliss’ for every Bengali soul.

Drooooooool… by the time I was done listening to these guys, I almost lost myself to the reveries of the aromas, the spices and the succulence of the meat only punctuated by the flavor of the rice. I almost missed the rivalry that was transforming into a riot, as the three foodies were heatedly trying to prove their own points. They decided to part ways and make peace only after I pointed out all of them needed a change of shirts, in lieu of uncontrolled salivation. That seemed to do the trick; these were foodies who liked to dress well. 😀

But anyways, that’s literally the tip of the iceberg. Even if the Awadhi, Hyderabadi and Kolkata variations are the most talked about Biryanis in the country, there’s a lot more to explore. For example, do not miss the signature Thalassery Biryani from Kerala – Khyma rice infused with whole spices,  the Ambur Biryani from Tamil Nadu – replete with ‘dhalcha’, a sour brinjal curry and ‘pachadi’ or raitha, or the Bhatkali Biryani from Karnataka – heavily onion-based preparation served typically with Burhani, a spiced yoghurt drink.

Please dream about these for a while as I go and polish off my plate of…. yes, Mutton Biryani!

*****

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About Souvik Ghosh

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