The biryani is probably the most egalitarian food in India. From the wealthiest and most privileged to the huddled masses, the biryani is that one dish that is quite easily attainable, come-at-able and loved.
Mutton Biryani was the first meal I ever ate in a restaurant, all by myself. I was hardly 12 years old, and quite used to eating out, albeit with my family. But it was this cheap Malayali-owned Muslim restaurant, called Café Bahar at Gogha Street in Mumbai’s Fort area, where I could afford to order a biryani for myself on my meagre pocket money. It cost me Rs 8 and came with one piece of meat, one bone, fragrant rice and lots of grease, and it was astonishingly delicious and plainly, very long ago. Though even today you can still eat a portion of mutton biryani in a cheap Mughlai restaurant for as little as Rs 80, or for as much as Rs 900 (before taxes) at a five-star hotel.
The biryani is within reach of everybody, and is available everywhere, and in all parts of the country. So, while platitudes usually attribute and ascribe pulao and biryani to the kitchens of Lucknow and Delhi, I was elated to realise that nearly every state in India, be it the north, south, east or west, flaunts its own kind of local biryani. So, I thought I’d dedicate the next few columns to the varieties of biryanis from these four Indian regions, one at a time, starting with the south of India this time.
When you speak of the south, the first and most eminent and touted biryani that comes to mind is the Hyderabadi Biryani or more specifically the ‘Hyderabadi Kachche Gosht Ki Dum Biryani’. It’s blue-blooded meal, indulgent, understated and luxurious. Pieces of mutton marinated in thick curd, ginger-garlic, spices pure ghee and golden fried onions layered with half-cooked long grain Basmati rice flavoured with saffron, rose and kewda and cooked on ‘dum’, the pride of the first Nizam of Hyderabad Asaf Jah’s kitchens. Still considered one of the finest Biryanis in the world. Unfortunately eaten with Mirchi-ka-Salan.
From Ambur, a small town in the Arcot region in Tamil Nadu, once ruled by the Nawabs of Arcot, comes the famous Ambur Biryani. An infusion of ghee, nutmeg, mace, pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, onions, tomatoes, and garlic in meat and Jeeraga Samba Rice. Interestingly, Jeeraga Samba Rice also known as Jeera Samba is an overpoweringly aromatic rice with a very tiny grain, and it gets its name from its resemblance to Jeera or Cumin. The Ambur Biryani is discernible by its meaty flavours, bolstered with chilli paste and whole spices and that typical Brinjal curry (Khattay Baigan) and Cucumber Raita that it is normally served with.
Dindigul is 60 km from Madurai and is home to the Dindigul Thalappakatti Biriyani. Thalappakatti means turban and comes from the name of Dindigul’s oldest biriyani restaurant started by Nagasamy Naidu. The Dindigul Biriyani made famous by Nagasamy Naidu is recognisable by meat cooked with the strong aromas of anise, cloves and mace in Sreeraga Chamba rice. This aromatic, small grained, and expensive, rice cooks well, nearly disintegrates and absorbs flavours passionately. Thalappakatti also does two more ‘biriyanis’ — the Ponram Biriyani, and the fairly recent, Venu Biriyani.
The Beary Briyani (Manglorean Muslim Biryani) is a specialty of Beary (Byari) Muslim community in coastal south Karnataka. The Bearys are a Muslim community of traders, and the Beary Biryani is distinctly different not only from most Biryanis in the south, but as well biryanis from the north. The Beary Biryani is cooked in a green masala, with green chilli paste, mint leaves, fennel seeds, poppy seeds, mace, and above all coconut paste. So distinctly south Indian.
Bhatkal is a coastal town in Karnataka, infamous for being the birthplace of the founder of terrorist organisation, he Indian Mujahideen. But I would say it’s more famous for their unique biryani. This Biryani originates from the Navayath Muslim community, a sub-group of Konkani Muslims. Here the meat and rice is cooked separately, and then layered in a pot and steamed in the ‘Dum Pukht’ style. The meat, which could be chicken, mutton or even fish and prawns, is cooked in a generous amount of onions, tomatoes and spices. Before putting on a Dum, the rice is layered without adding any ghee or oil. This biryani is served with a mashed onion masala.
Finally, Thalassery Biryani is Kerala’s most famous biryani and comes from (obviously) Thalassery, a port town in Kerala, a trade destination for Arab merchants. No wonder that the cuisine and the biryani bears influences of Arabian, Persian, Indian and European styles of cooking. Once again, this biryani prefers small grained, short and a fragrant rice called Khyma instead of long grained Basmati. This biryani is thought distinctly different from its other south Indian cousins, though the meat here is not tenderised in a curd marinade, but is slow-cooked on a ‘dum’ over hours for it to fall off the bone. But what sets the Thalassery biryani apart from the rest is the spice mix – the Thalassery Biryani masala consists of eight spices, and oddly with an emphasis on Thalassery black pepper.
Honestly, even after all this, I have just scratched the surface of south Indian Biryanis. I’m sure every little region, district, erstwhile empire and town has its own distinct biryani. Like the Raju Gaari Kodi Pulao (with Andhra heat from green chilli paste), Ulavachaaru Biryani (a tangy biryani cooked with horse gram, vegetables and chicken), Konaseema Chicken Biryani (a combination of the Andhra biryani and Hyderabadi biryani), Gongura Biryani (cooked with Gongura or sorrel leaves), the Aavakaya Biryani (made with mango pickle) or the spicy, meaty Natu Kodi Biryani, I could go on and on. I may run out of words, but run out of Biryani… never.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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