From Kolkata to Kerala, some lip-smacking tales of biriyani

From Kolkata to Kerala, some lip-smacking tales of biriyani
Biryani. Photo: Shutterstock Images

Is there a dish that satiates our hunger pangs, even while tantalising the taste buds? Food delivery apps, that digitally record our food habits and preferences, have come up with an answer- biriyani.

The apps did not randomly arrive at this delicacy. Biriyani was the most-ordered dish on this New Year's Eve in India. Kerala too claims a lion's share of biriyani gourmets among the total number in India. So, why do Keralites like biriyani so much?

A delicacy that can be easily relished and available in delectable varieties, biriyani is equally loved by both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Flavourful and luscious, biriyani of each land offers a different dining experience.

Food connoisseurs and chefs, who have dished out a plethora of biriyanis, share some lip-smacking tales of the delicacy.

'Most sought-after dish for all occasions'
Popular chef Suresh Pillai says that the very term biriyani evokes the flavours and fragrances of this one-pot dish. “Biriyani is like a festival dish for Keralites. Irrespective of the celebratory occasion, biriyani is the sought-after delicacy. This delicacy, prepared by cooking tender meat along with quality rice, topped with cashew nuts and raisins fried in ghee, would please any food aficionado.

Chef Suresh Pillai

“Though the dish has its origins in Persia, the biriyani or meat cooked along with rice would be the first choice for most people across the globe at any time,” he explained.

“There is no precise recipe to make the perfect biriyani. You can prepare it by adding ghee and your preferred masala. All other dishes have specific quantities for ingredients. But for biriyani, the ingredients chosen by the one preparing it would go into the cooking pot. And this is another feature that adds to biriyani’s characteristic flavour,” the chef pointed out.

“Any mention of biriyani evokes the memory of rice being cooked in a big vessel and the aroma of the spices that fill the air. There are different methods for cooking the meat - the Malabar style, Thalassery style and so on... The meat can be cooked or fried in different methods. That would all be based on the preference of the people from different regions or communities,” he added.

“If you were to visit Kolkata, you will find a certain biriyani that has potatoes added along with the meat. The Bohri biriyani from Mumbai is also very popular. But the most popular variety is the Hyderabadi biriyani, which is followed by the biriyani of Lucknow. There is also a less-spicy version of biriyani, but no less tasty, that has saffron added to the basmati rice,” Suresh Pillai said.

“Back home in Kerala, you will find biriyani prepared with Kaima rice, or Jeerakasala rice in Malabar or Thalassery. My favourite biriyani is the mutton biriyani, prepared using the Kaima rice in Thalassery. That is the most delectable.

“I have had biriyani from different countries. Each biriyani offers a taste that is unique to that land. Jeff biryani, Thalappakatti biriyani, Palakkadan Rawther biriyani... for each of these, one particular type of masala and spices give that distinctive flavour to the biriyani. This flavour is obtained by cooking garam masala, meat and the rice all together in one pot. Even if I had to choose by the taste of the rice that goes into biriyani, my personal favourite is the Thalassery biriyani made with Jeerakasala rice,” vouches the popular Keralite chef.

'An early morning biriyani'
Food vlogger Mrinal Das Vengalat lists three reasons that make biriyani such a popular dish.

"Firstly, there is this desire to eat something that we don't routinely have at our home. Second, you get both rice and meat in one plate, which is a complete meal. You can get a chicken biriyani for Rs 120–140. But you will not get one lunch meal and special fry for even Rs 140. And thirdly, biriyani has a glamour quotient attached to it. Biriyani has a star status among the poor and even the rich. There are like a hundred varieties of biriyanis at restaurants, compared to what you prepare at home,” he explained.

Food vlogger Mrinal Das Vengalat

“I will tell you another tale about biriyani. It is about this Nizam of Hyderabad, who was so rich that he used a diamond as a paperweight. One morning, Nizam did not find the biriyani to be very tasty. And the cook replied - 'Janaab, that is because saffron is not available. That needs to be procured from Kashmir. It is difficult to bring it from there.” Nizam immediately ordered his commander to wage a war and capture Kashmir. There are several ludicrous tales on the kings' love for biriyani,” the vlogger narrated.

“Ambur mutton biriyani is offered at the 'Star Biriyani', which has the most number of outlets in Tamil Nadu. Ambur biriyani is just mind-blowing. Only mutton biriyani is available there. Chicken or beef biriyani is not available. Either you will get mutton biriyani or a fish biriyani, prepared with the fish 'avoli'. They will not entertain any other biriyani. Whether the outlet is in Kolkata or Hyderabad, the star biriyani is always synonymous with mutton biriyani,” he pointed out.

“But about 95 per cent of restaurants in Kerala sell chicken biriyani. There are mainly two reasons for this - many people, especially women and children, do not eat mutton in Kerala. Another reason is that it would be double the price of a chicken biriyani. In Bengaluru and Chennai, some shops serve biriyani even at 3, 4 and 5 in the morning. And there is a huge rush for this.

“Once during a journey, I went to a shop in Bengaluru that serves biriyani at 6am. I went to the shop at 5.30am. Even that early, there was a long queue. I was so elated after having that biriyani at 6am. But there was one drawback. After returning to the hotel room, I slept off and woke up only at 6 in the evening. Singer-actor-director Vineeth Sreenivasan first told me about the early morning biriyani in Chennai. People turn up in really expensive cars to have that biriyani,” he added.

Biriyani at film sets
Palace Kitchen had prepared the biriyani for actor Dulquer Salmaan's wedding. Even at his movie locations, Dulquer’s father and actor Mammootty occasionally treats everyone to some sumptuous biriyani. At all these occasions, the quality of the food is of paramount importance, points out Palace Kitchen partner Abdul. Mammootty insists that food served to others should have the same quality as what is offered to him. We have been doing this for 10 years, Abdul added.

Mammootty preparing biryani in a film set

Among the various dishes served at the hotel, the biriyani takes the top slot. But now the trend has changed, Abdul pointed out.

Elaborating on the changing trend, Abdul says, “People are fond of all kinds of food. In Malabar, the biriyani made with Kaima rice is a favourite among all. Irrespective of whether it is mutton, chicken, prawns or fish, everyone is keen to have the biriyani. Similarly, most people are fond of seafood and give us good feedback. But more number of people asks for mutton biriyani. Then lagoon chicken biriyani is also a hot favourite.

“When the lockdown was imposed, the number of attendees at festivities reduced. But once lockdown relaxations were announced, people started trying out different varieties of food. At events with 100 to 150 attendees, we serve fusion variety of food,” he explained.

“Now, people have started showing more interest in food. Ever since the Covid pandemic struck, many vloggers have been actively putting up posts on food on social media. This has prompted more people to try out new flavours. It has also set a trend to serve a variety of dishes for parties and weddings. Also, as the number of people reduced at the events, the practice now is to serve a good variety of food to those who attend,” Abdul added.

“The lockdown period also saw a large number of people foraying into their kitchen. Prior to the pandemic, people who lived in flats mostly preferred to eat out. But during the lockdown, they found time to try their hand at cooking. There has been a real change in the food sector after the Covid pandemic," Abdul explained.

Side dish
Vlogger Mrinal shares an interesting anecdote on biriyani. In the Malayalam movie 'Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi', Dulquer Salmaan and Sunny Wayne are adventure bike riders. In one sequence of the movie, they are eating biriyani from a shop in Kolkata.

“I got curious about this and wanted to know if the place was set up just for the film shooting. After making some enquiries, I got to know that it is actually a very famous biriyani shop there.

“I went to that same shop and ordered biriyani. Normally, I have mutton or chicken biriyani. The dish will have rice with two pieces of meat. Here also, there were two pieces and the rice. But one piece turned out to be potato. But as a Keralite, I felt that I had been duped. But you will probably not believe me. The potato turned out to be far more tastier than the meat in biriyani. Later, I learned that this is how they serve biriyani in Kolkata,” he explained.

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