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McBiryani: Why India’s favorite dish is losing its dum



It’s a dish that incites love and war. A dish that can be anointed India’s national dish given how pervasive it is, and how reflective of a country where inventiveness is a national trait. The biryani is, of course, an innovation — created as the subcontinent’s cooks tweaked and refined the Central Asian pulao. But having established itself as a culinary superstar in different regions where variations evoke extreme passions, the biryani’s pot is bubbling once more.

As more and more restaurant chains seek to McDonaldise the dish and feed the growing appetite for rice with spice, there’s a danger that the country’s rich and nuanced regional traditions may get obliviated. Quick and cheap takeaways may feed a need but a generation of millennials exposed to only these may grow up believing that the indiscriminate masala, rice and meat (or veggies or soya chunks) meal they are forking up is the real McCoy. After all, for a majority, cardboard pizza or pasta in red and white maida-laden sauce is “Italian” and supermarket sushi dunked in soy is “Japanese”. Still, these are aspirational, foreign cuisines, and you could overlook the bastardisation.

For a complex dish like biryani, representative of the depth and diversity of India’s food culture, to be reduced to its lowest common denominator, is rather inexplicable — especially when it has been cooked in homes and single-dish shops for centuries and its consumers have been thought to be discerning regardless of the wealth they possess.

Which is the best biryani? It’s a question bound to bring tempers to a boil. The refined, restrained-on-spicing “pucci” Avadhi biryani has always battled it with its Deccani counterpart, Hyderabad’s bolder “kachchi” biryani, sometimes labelled a “pulao” by champions of Lucknow because rice and meat are cooked together in the same pot. A biryani, by definition, is a layered dish. Rice and meat are cooked separately, then layered and cooked on dum in the Avadhi version.

The Calcutta biryani holds up its distinct identity with potatoes and eggs intact. There is the Ambur biryani of the south, made famous ostensibly by a former cook of the Arcot royals who opened a shop in the small town of Ambur and had loyalists and imitators queuing up. There are the non-courtly varieties, such as from northern Kerala’s Moplah community, showing off spice and dried fruit bounty as well as connections brought by ancient trade. And there are hyper-local versions like Dindigul biryani which, loyalists say, is distinctive not only because of its short-grained rice but the very water it’s cooked in, from a local lake!

This dum diversity is one reason why local biryani joints have never really been able to establish large-scale presence in other parts of the country. In Kolkata, where small biryani shops sprout in every lane, brands like Arsalan and Aminia have been expanding but only within the city and areas in Bengal. Hyderabad’s famous Paradise is trying to go national but yet to replicate its Deccan success all over. Dindigul’s best known Thalapakatti is a phenomenon in Tamil Nadu with 38 stores, and plans to expand in southern India but a nationwide presence is debatable.

Meanwhile, bolstered by middle India’s appetite for rice-with-spice, a clutch of startups without any culinary legacy have also entered the space, trying to emulate QSR scalability. One of the best of this lot, Biryani By Kilo, for instance sells 40-50,000 kilos of biryani per month, says its founder Vishal Jindal. With an initial funding of Rs 10 crore, they hope to have a topline of Rs 100 crore-plus in the next two years. India seems to be biting, but the question is what exactly?

While Jindal says that “we follow (traditional) recipes, SOPs and processes very stringently”, commercial biryani inevitably lacks nuances and flavours that aficionados crave.

“There’s nothing wrong with commercial biryani but I don’t recommend it! Hyderabad has so many amazing home cooks, who cater. Their food is soulful, authentic, full of flavour and the ingredients are more carefully selected,” points out Upasna Konidela, vice chairperson, CSR, Apollo Foundation, known to be a fit foodie. Entrepreneur Shaaz Mehmood, who belongs to an old Hyderabadi family known for its biryani, adds: “The biryani recipe can never be set. It depends on andaz, the skill of the cook and how ingredients change with changing weather et al. Only one person is allowed to marinate the meat in our home, no two hands,” he says.

Dum Pukht’s Ghulam Qureshi, perhaps our top chef for traditional Indian restaurant food, confirms how making the biryani is an art. Cooking it is an elaborate process that begins with identifying and procuring prime cuts of meat and the best old basmati money can buy (for Avadhi biryani). “The aroma of basmati is what gives flavour. In the old days, the area around Tehri had the best rice and the story goes that the nawabs got rice from a particular village called Manjara there,” says Qureshi, as he cooks up a dish that is aromatic, restrained and just exquisite.

Pearly white grains of rice, each separate yet coated in flavour, glisten with ghee and milk. There’s no hodge-podge masala, so the saffron stands out. The meat falls off the bone with the touch of a fork. Finally, as the pot is unsealed, a beautiful fragrance escapes, beckoning us to lunch.

Take away these nuances and you realise, a biryani not so artfully crafted is not really biryani!

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