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Go ahead, indulge in a biryani

Hyderabad –the Mecca of biryani. A spot entrenched on the map of the world as the capital of what would be ‘Biryani Country’…But is this true?
Biryani derives its name from the Persian word ‘birian’ which means ‘fried before cooking’. A biryani is essentially made up of rice and spices fried in butter or ghee and the meat or vegetables are marinated and cooked separately. The meat after being fried is cooked in a seasoned broth or stock and then arranged in layers with the rice and further simmered in a covered pot till it is ready. The method of covering the pot, sealing it and cooking the rice in its own steam is known in India as ‘dum cooking’.
Nawab Asaf ud Daula, ruler of the kingdom of Awadh (modern day Lucknow) was the first person to stumble on the method of dum cooking and to popularise it. In 1784, when a famine ravaged his principality, the Nawab decided to feed his people. Not one to indulge in charity that would make his subjects lazy, the Nawab struck a brilliant plan. He embarked on an ambitious construction project of a monument known as ‘Bara Imambara’ or ‘Big Prayer House’. He employed twenty two thousand of his countrymen as labourers. The men worked during the day constructing the edifice, while the women and children worked nights destroying it. Payments to the workers were made partly in cash and partly in form of meals.
One day on an inspection tour, the Nawab investigated a mouth-watering fragrance emanating out of one of the pots that contained the staff meals. The sensual taste of the biryani immediately captured the attention of the Nawab who set off promoting it. Was the Nawab the founder of the biryani movement?
Unfortunately not! The origins of the biryani, lie somewhere in the fifth century BC, in the reign of the Persian emperor, Darius the Great. Darius encouraged the widespread cultivation of rice amongst his subjects and the Persian Empire that at one time stretched all the way to modern day Uzbekistan. In fact, there are references to a ‘pulao’ or ‘pilaf’ being served to the conqueror, Alexander the Great. From people more used to the scarcity of water and the art of conserving it, came the idea of cooking rice in just sufficient water so the rice would absorb it and cook. Arab traders, who had established a sea route to India to engage in trade of spices, carried the secrets of biryani to India, whilst carrying back our exotic spices to make the rather plain and mediocre biryanis more interesting. Now almost every region of India has its very own version of biryani, pulao or fried rice.
In a biryani, the rice is fried before cooking and then it is arranged in layers with the meat, which has been cooked separately. A pulao or pilaf has all the ingredients sautéed together and then simmered till cooked. For fried rice, the ingredients are sautéed or stir fried before being tossed with precooked rice.
Modern day time and convenience constraints have also led to a new innovation called the ‘Jhatka Biryani’ which literally translates to mean a biryani prepared in an instant or through a shortcut. This biryani is a great way to get rid of leftovers. All you require is some curry and rice left over from a previous meal; toss them together with a bit of spices and Voila! One super duper biryani is ready.
Although the Arab traders did teach their fellow traders on the Malabar Coast in South India how to make biryanis, the method did not spread much throughout the country and lay rather confined to that particular region. It required an invasion by Timur the lame (Tamerlane) in the 14th century to spread the concept of biryani all over the place.
Timur the lame – really got to love the guy – in between invasions and lopping off the heads of his enemies, actually found time to spread a bit of Mughal art, architecture and cuisine all over the place.
With the spread of Mughal influence in India, the biryani spread rapidly, often adapted or changed to suit the particular tastes of the region. In the north the long grain basmati is used while Bengalis in the east may prefer using shorter but more flavourful ‘Gobindo bhog’ for their rice based recipes. Coconut oil is used in the southern parts while pure ghee is used in other regions. A vegetarian version was made for the Hindu courtiers in the Mughal Empire and the poor who could not afford meat so often, filled in the gaps with golden fried potatoes.
A biryani is a meal to be savoured. It is to be eaten over a leisurely pace, identifying and relishing all the spices that are put together to enhance it. A biryani descended from the kitchens of royalty. Whenever you feel the need to be someone important or to be a bit pampered…Go ahead, indulge in a biryani.

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