Though today it sits comfortably on the menus of luxury hotels and roadside dhabas all across India, the origins of the popular biryani are a mystery.
Biryani derives its name from the Turkish biryan, meaning roasted, boiled, grilled or baked and birinj, the Persian word for rice. What we do know is that it has its origins in the meals prepared by the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. These tribes covered vast distances on horseback and would cook meat and rice in a large pot, slow cooked over fire. This is the origin of the popular, though incorrect legend, that the armies of Timurlane introduced biryani to India. Biryani would have come much earlier, with traders and immigrants from Central Asia settling down in India.
Another common legend attributes it to Mughal queen Mumtaz Mahal, but this is incorrect as well. This is largely due to a common practice of generally attributing origins of fine things to Mughals queens, others being the arts of Lucknawi Chikankari and Ittar (rose scent). Whatever be its origin, biryani in its original form was very different from what is eaten in India today. It was usually cooked with meat, rice and dry fruits, with very little or no spices. It was layers of varied Indian influences and food preferences, that make biryani what it is today.
Historian Mohsina Mukadam says “While biryan may not have originated here, I believe biryani, with its spices and flavors is a completely Indian innovation.”
The Hyderabadi biryani shows strong influence of the fiery Andhra cuisine, while the Malabari biryani of North Kerala has influences brought by Arab traders. Interestingly, different communities from different parts of the world migrated to India, they bought in influences of their own. A good example is the Lucknowi biryani and the Moradabadi biryani from two nearby regions of Uttar Pradesh. The Nawabs of Lucknow were originally from Iran, and hence the Lucknowi biryani has a Persian influence, while the Rohilla Pathans from Afghanistan settled in Western UP and created the Afghan influenced Moradabadi biryani.
Then there are other quirks which led to the formation of different biryanis. For instance, the Calcutta biryani is known for having generous quantities of potato. The story goes that banished by the British, in 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, the tenth and last Nawab of Awadh brought his large entourage to Metiabruz, near Kolkata. Feeding the entourage on a stipend of Rs.1 lakh per month was a challenge, so the local cooks gave the recipe a tweak, replacing meat with perfectly cooked golden brown potatoes and this went on to become the signature of the Calcutta biryani!
There is a lot of controversy between what is a biryani and what is a pulao. Scholars and enthusiasts have different opinions on the subject. K.T Achaya in his book Indian Food: A Historical Comparison, records that the Ain-i-Akbari, Abu Fazl's third volume on the official reign of Emperor Akbar, makes no distinction between biryanis and pulaos.
Today, the biryani continues to be popular and is being re-adapted. Quinoa and couscous biryanis have become popular in fine dining restaurants. Those who look down upon fusion food, must realise that all food that we eat today is a fusion food that has evolved over centuries.
Did You Know?
Wealthy nobles in Wajid Ali Shah’s court fed their chickens musk and saffron pills to scent their meat, which was cooked to make a broth in which to simmer rice for biryanis.