The world over, the humble biryani is as varied and versatile a dish as they come. Aftab H. Kola tucks in to explore this comfort food’s global appeal.
Food mirrors a culture; tracing its social history and documenting its rites and rituals through the food on our plates to create an understanding of a people, a time and place. And for Oman’s South Asian communities there’s one dish that rises to the top when it comes to our collective appetite for its endless depth of flavour and subtle regional variations – the simple, humble biryani.
With origins dating back more than 600 years ago to its early Persian and Indian roots, cultures and countries across the subcontinent from Pakistan to Bangladesh and branching out even further to Iran and Afghanistan and nations across the GCC – all have adopted some form of the beloved rice dish. From Iranian Isfahani beryan, to Omani makbous, to Bangladeshi kacchi biryani its name may differ, and its spices and protein may vary – but the essence of this historic dish remains the same.
Believed to have originated in Persia, biryani entered the Indian kitchens in the 14th century by the conqueror Taimur, biryani is a dish usually made with long-grain, aromatic rice, cooked with rich spices, a touch of saffron, and meat such as chicken, goat, or mutton – or even seafood. In some parts of South India, short-grain rice varieties are sometimes used and a myriad of special regional flavours make biryani a global favourite.
The aroma of biryani has wafted down the centuries and still lingers over the length and breadth of the subcontinent – with an estimated 30 regional varieties. Stemming from the Persian ‘beryan’, which means ‘fried, and ‘berenj’ meaning ‘rice’, biryanis interplay of condiments, spices, and depth of flavour profiles define it on the palate.
Here, we shine the spotlight on India’s most popular varieties:
For India’s vast Muslim population on the Deccan Plateau, Hyderabd serves as its epicentre – and Hyderbadi biryani is relished on a daily basis and on every festive occasion. Served with ‘dahi ki chutney’ (whipped yogurt with thinly sliced onions, finely chopped green chilies, and coriander leaves), and ‘baghara baigan ka salan’ (whole aubergines in peanut gravy). A more exotic (and spicier!) incarnation comes served with ‘mirch ka salan’ (a curry made with whole, large green chilies). A feast of Hyderbadi biryani is often followed by a sweet serving of ‘double ka meetha’ (a version of bread-and-butter pudding), or ‘khubani ka meetha’ (a sweet dish made of dried apricots).
Moving to the south of the subcontinent to the state of Tamil Nadu, Chettinad biryani is yet another dish that forms the essence of the region’s culinary canon. At first blush, it’s the onslaught of chilies that set your taste-buds tingling and your senses on fire – the hallmark of a good Chettinad biryani. It’s a dish that has a good dash of pepper and a sprinkling of local spices such as ‘kal pasi’ and stone flower to further heighten its flavour profile. To add more colour to the biryani, papad, pickles, and ‘raita’ come as traditional accompaniments.
This fragrant biryani, with its origins from the small coastal region of Bhatkal in the southern Indian state of Karnataka is a unique preparation whose taste is nothing short of heavenly. Prepared in two layers, the bottom layer consists of half-cooked meat stewed in a rich emulsion of spices, while the upper layer contains half-cooked spiced rice. The pot is then sealed for ‘dum’ – or slow-cooking – which, when opened spreads its aromatic magic. Long-grained delicately fragrant basmati rice is a must for making Bhatkali biryani, along with fish or prawn as the protein of choice.
For those seeking a fire-in-the-belly biryani experience, this spicy Kerala biryani is prepared using ‘khaima’ (short-grained, aromatic rice), freshly-ground masala, and garnished with deep-fried onions and curry leaves to add a mild yet sweet depth of flavour. Other favourite Kerala varieties include the Kuttanadan beef biryani with its distinctive and generous dash of pepper, and the authentic Calicut biryani which is cooked over coconut shells.
In north India, ‘Awadhi’ – or Lucknowi biryani made ‘dum pukht’-style (slow-cooked) is the common preparation in this region of Uttar Pradesh. With the primary protein being chicken, the tender meat is flavoured with spices and first partially cooked separately from the rice – which is flavoured with saffron, star anise, and cinnamon. They’re then layered together in a ‘handi’ (a deep-bottomed vessel) and slow-cooked for hours to tease out and enhance the flavours. Once known as ‘Awadh’, Lucknow is the epicentre of Awadhi cuisine – redolent with recipes brought from Persia and developed to the taste of the Mughal kings who ruled the northern regions of India for centuries.
Traditional Lucknowi biryani is lighter in colour, texture and spices – with each fine grain of rice separate from the other. Commonly served with ‘boondi raita’ (a whipped yogurt base with drops of fried batter) other accompaniments include onion, tomato, coriander or lemon chutneys and pickles – and, with guests to impress, Lucknowi biryani may be served alongside other dishes such as kebabs.
With winter setting in, there’s no better time to than now to try your hand at one of these fragrant varieties!
This lush north Indian biryani is replete with the ideal balance of aromatics and spice and slow-cooked to perfection.
• ½ kg, chicken, cut into pieces
• 3 cups, basmati rice, boiled
• 3 medium onions, finely chopped
• 3 tsp, ginger-garlic paste
• 4 medium tomatoes, puréed
• 6 green chilies, finely chopped
• 3 Tbsp, mint and coriander leaves, finely chopped
• 1 ½ tsp, chili powder
• ½ tsp, coriander powder
• ¼ tsp, turmeric powder
• 1 Tbsp, garam masala powder
• 4 Tbsp, ghee or oil
• Salt to taste
For the sauté:
• 4 Tbsp, butter or oil
• 2 tsp, coconut powder
• 1 ½ tsp, sesame seeds
• 1 tsp, cumin seeds
• 3 medium onion rings, golden fried to garnish.
• Heat ghee/oil and sauté onions until golden brown. Add three teaspoons of the ginger-garlic paste, fry, and then add tomato purée, chili powder, coriander powder, and turmeric powder. Stir until tomatoes become soft and he oil separates from the gravy.
• Turn up the heat, add the chicken, and mix well. Cover the pan and simmer on low heat until the chicken is cooked and tender.
• Prepare the ‘baghar’ (tempering). In a saucepan, heat butter or oil and fry the cumin seeds, coconut powder, and sesame seeds on low heat until light brown. Pour over the chicken gravy and mix well.
• Prepare the garnish. Fry the onion rings and green chilies in the ghee (clarified butter) or oil.
• Grease a large pan with ghee or oil. Arrange a thin layer of chicken topped with a thick layer of rice, and sprinkle onion rings, green chilies, mint, coriander leaves, and garam masala powder. Repeat with a thick layer of chicken and a layer of remaining rice. Sprinkle with onion rings, green chilies, garam masala powder, coriander, and mint leaves.
• Heat four tablespoons of ghee or oil and pour over the rice. Cover and leave on a very low heat for 10-14 minutes. Serve hot with raita. Makes six portions.