Are vegetable pulao and veg biryani the same?

Dindigul Thalappakatti Biriyani now in Thiruvananthapuram
Many popular chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor, Ranveer Brar, and more have shared vegetable biryani recipes on their YouTube pages. Photo: Manorama Online

Ardent biryani lovers scoff at vegetable biriyani. For them, it is sacrilege to replace the meat with veggies. More zealous fans among them even vociferously dismiss the vegetarian option as 'pulao.'
But how true are they? Popular Indian chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor, Ranveer Brar, and the late chef-writer Tarla Dalal share different recipes of 'vegetables biriyanis' along with 'pulao recipes. The dish also has many popular vegetarian varieties in South India. So what is the fuss about? And what's the difference between vegetable biryani and pulao? Let's explore:

The origin of biryani
The term 'biryani' is derived from the Persian words 'birinj biryan,' meaning roasted or crispy. The name refers to the preparation of the dish with fried onions and meat. Legend has it that Timur, the Turko-Mongol ruler, introduced biryani to India in 1398 CE during his conquest. Timur's army is said to have prepared a dish using locally available meat, rice, and spices, employing the dhum method to prepare the dish.
Another tale involves Mughal Empress Mumtaz Begum, who, witnessing malnutrition among soldiers on her visit to the barracks, instructed the chef to create a balanced meal of meat and rice, resulting in the birth of biryani. In essence, biryani is a delectable dish with a rich historical tradition, and most probably originated in India.
Biryani is cooked by layering semi-cooked rice with meat or vegetables and a flavourful. The rice is cooked using the draining method (where the water in which the rice is cooked is drained).
More spices are used in biryani, as compared to pulao, thereby the dish arguably has a richer aroma compared to pulao. The different regional versions of biryani have their fans, with Hyderabadi biryani enjoying the maximum popularity of all.

The legend of pulao
The history of pulao predates that of biryani. Believed to have originated before biryani, pulao spread to the whole world from Persia (present-day Iran). The term "pulao" is derived from the Iranian or Arabic words "pilaf" or "pallao." This dish is mentioned in the works of the Iranian scholar Avicenna. Pulao also has roots in Sanskrit literature, with references to a similar dish found in the Yajyavalakya Smriti as well as in the 6th-century Tamil literature. In essence, pulao is a dish of significant antiquity and historical tradition.
Pulao is made through the 'absorption method,' where the rice is allowed to absorb the water it is cooked in. A fragrant yet light dish, pulao isn't as elaborate as biryanis and also contains essential nutrients from the many vegetables like beans, peas, carrots, and more added to it.

Vegetable biryani vs pulao
According to culinary experts, any masala layered rice preparation, topped with fried onions, can be termed biryani. Therefore, the argument that 'biryani should have meat in it' does not hold water. While pulao is often made with chicken, lamb, or vegetables, Biryani can be made with chicken, lamb, goat, seafood, egg, and vegetables.
Pulao is made with long-grain white rice, while biryani is made with long rice like basmati, and short variants like kaima or jeerakasala. More than that, pulao is cooked by boiling rice in a seasoned broth, while biryani's complex flavours come from the curry/sauce in which the meat of the veggies is cooked.
So biriyani is a distinct dish with different cooking styles and ingredients. There are also popular vegetarian biryani versions like 'kathal aka jackfruit' biryani in South India, which even found a pride of place in the wedding feast menu of actress Nayanthara.
Therefore, let diversity thrive in biryani land as well, put the debate to rest, and enjoy its regional versatility.

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