The great biryani conundrum
Recently, Anaida Parvaneh, the pop singer of Persian origin, was in town at a Parsi speciality restaurant in Jubilee Hills to launch a Persian pop-up menu curated by her. The attractive singer, who had the young, MTV generation of the ’90s croon to her tunes, believes in healing the body through a healthy diet, a lifestyle she imbibed, thanks to successive bouts of sickness, as a musician on the move, and the goading of a naturopath healer mother to eat healthy. While presenting the menu packed with healthy ingredients like turnip, fava beans, ginger and pepper, Anaida had an interesting take on Esfahan, the “no-rice” Iranian ‘Beryani’, as biryani is pronounced in Iran. “This is how biryani was made originally before it became the spice-doused biryani, the way India makes it. Iranian biryani consists of only meat, first boiled with minimal seasonings like salt, pepper, onion and turmeric, then minced to the perfect texture, roasted and fried with a few spices like cinnamon and saffron, or none on a slow fire and served finally on a naan, with a garnish of pistachios etc, without a grain of rice in it, ” she smiled. I was surely happy for her that there was no Hyderabadi biryani mafia lurking around, or otherwise, the offline equivalent of the notorious online trolling might have been a fallout. I mean, biryani without rice? Blasphemy for Hyderabadis! What is biryani if not had in huge bowlfuls of pillowy rice interspersed with ‘masala’ and mutton pieces?
As a resident of the erstwhile City of Nizams, I cannot help but be assaulted by the Great Biryani debate, wherever I go. In living rooms, Irani cafés or at the poshest of star restaurants, (mind you, even if you are a Greek speciality restaurant, you jolly well have biryani on the menu!) in academic institutions, offices, airports, spanning the triplet cities of Secunderabad, Hyderabad and Cyberabad, one is bound to be accosted by the father of all questions, “Boss, Which is the best biryani in town”? And truth be told, I have no answer. I dare not confess especially on virtual threads that I don’t care much for biryani, be it the Hyderabadi Dum biryani or the Kacchi Gosht biryani or any other. I prefer instead the spicier and more robust Andhra pulao which has a more distinct character than its more renowned Iranian-and-Turkish inspired counterpart.
Food historians, writers, bloggers and media persons have tried to crack the question about what makes a good biryani and the places serving a mean one. Even The Wall Street Journal recently attempted to pick five good places in Hyderabad to serve biryani.Film producer-director Elahe Hiptoolah when queried by me on the same, had answered “In old Muslim homes”, and there it had remained. Until I got a taste of what she meant when one fine afternoon, I was treated to some delicious and heirloom Hyderabadi Dum biryani after a demo by ‘Nawab’ Mehboob Alam Khan, considered a connoisseur of Hyderabadi cuisine and rightly so. When the veteran removed the atta dough seal of the huge biryani handi, the air was redolent with the biryani’s aroma, which turned out as light as a feather with the rice grains separately and perfectly cooked and the meat not overspiced and cooked just so right! If this was not authentic Hyderabadi dum biryani, I don’t know what would be! And I got part of my question answered that day. The hunt for the perfect biryani continues, nevertheless, in a city obsessed with biryani-haleem, and yeah there is even a hugely funny play by the same name staged by the city’s theatre group Sutradhar.
(The writer is a journalist, blogger, food critic and a self-professed culture vulture)