What’s a biryani anyway?


The last weekend I cooked mutton biryani – the much-loved dish on the paternal side of my family. Even though my father and uncles are not foodies, any mutton dish is the one food item that is revered. On special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries etc, a typical family get together would most certainly include Mutton Biryani.

Handed down to my grandmother by a patient of my grandfather, this recipe is a special one. My late grandfather was a police surgeon. My grandparents lived in police quarters and from time to time had to change locations as is common to those in the service. When they had settled in their final place of residence at Byculla, my grandfather was in the higher ranks and usually had a couple of constables at his service. They also had many a servants who lived with them in servants quarters. When I now try to imagine their lifestyle, I find it highly interesting and quite aristocratic. But I digress..

Once it so happened that my grandfather treated a poor patient and didn’t take any fees from him. A few days later, to show appreciation for the kind act, the servant brought home a huge handi full Mutton dum biryani. After tasting it, grandma and grandpa were hooked.

After that day, my grandma nagged grandpa to ask the patient to provide her with the recipe. Every time he conveyed the message, they would receive the biryani in the huge vessel. After repetitive incidences, my grandma finally got hold of him personally and asked him.

Next day, an old woman with a bulky frame, piercing eyes and a paan stained red mouth visited my grandma. In her intimidating presence, grandma felt like a small mouse. In the kitchen she sat down with her pouch of tobacco and paan and told my grandma, “start peeling the garlic..” She was the mother of that patient.

Without going into the details of the recipe, the gist is to par boil rice and keep the mutton raw. Layer these in this manner:  mutton at the bottom of a wide based thick vessel, then raw potatoes, tomatoes, dry fruits, finally the par boiled rice with fried onions at the top. The edges of the vessel had to be sealed with wheat dough before putting on the lid. Additionally, another vessel filled with water was kept on top to avoid any steam from getting out. The biryani was cooked on slow heat for about an hour or so.

My grandma swears that this is the authentic biryani recipe as the woman who taught her was a Muslim and this is how they do it. We accepted it and thought this was the only way to do it.

That is until I got married. As with every other food item, the biryani was also an elaborate affair at my in-laws’ home. The major difference between the recipes being, mutton was thoroughly cooked, potatoes, dryfruits and other garnishing items fried or cooked in some manner. The layering then involved only arranging these materials alternately and steaming them in a tight lid vessel.

Now I don’t remember when this thought formed but I simply believe that if you cook the rice and the meat separately and then assemble them,  the dish is not a biryani but is merely a variation of pulao. I mean what is the point in cooking everything separately and then only assembling them together? To get the flavours of the spices and mutton into the rice, the meat has to be raw.

Whatever recipe you choose, these two methods of cooking give out distinctly different flavours to the rice and I for one believe that the flavour of the rice is highlight of any biryani. Some people are astonished from the combination of cooked rice and raw meat but trust me on this, the meat does get cooked and the rice is not over cooked in the process. If you follow the instructions exactly and not try to add you own little ingredients or variations, then you will be able to make authentic dum biryani.

So what kind of biryanis have you tried and which do you think is the most authentic one?

PS: Read this to know the origin of biryani.

PPS: As you can see, I have not given up blogging 🙂

4 thoughts on “What’s a biryani anyway?

  1. Pingback: Risotto, jambalaya, paella, biryani: The OFFICIAL argument « Ben Williams' World

  2. Pingback: What’s a biryani anyway? – Maddie's Musings

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