The Story of Biryani: How This Exotic Dish Came, Saw and Conquered India!

Biryani is an evergreen classic that really needs no introduction. India offers so much on its culinary platter but the one dish Indians unanimously love indulging in is the mouth-watering biryani. With local and hyperlocal variations having evolved into distinctive styles of biryanis, one is spoilt for options when it comes to experiencing this melting pot of flavours.

The deliciously complex blend of flavours, spices, and aromas in biryani have come to epitomise the zenith of Indian cuisine.

So if you are a die-hard fan of this delicious dish, take things up a notch and tease your taste buds a little more with the story of what makes biryani so extraordinary.

Though it may appear to be a dish indigenous to  India, in reality the dish originated quite far away. Biryani is derived from the Persian word Birian, which means ‘fried before cooking’ and  Birinj, the Persian word for rice. While there are multiple theories about how biryani made its way to India, it is generally accepted that it originated in West Asia.

One legend has it that the Turk-Mongol conqueror, Timur, brought the precursor to the biryani with him when he arrived at the frontiers of India in 1398. Believed to be the war campaign diet of Timur’s army, an earthen pot full of rice, spices and whatever meats were available would be buried in a hot pit, before being eventually dug up and served to the warriors.

Another legend has it that the dish was brought to the southern Malabar coast of India by Arab traders who were frequent visitors there. There are records of a rice dish known as Oon Soru in Tamil literature as early as the year 2 A.D. Oon Soru was said to be made of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was used to feed military warriors.

However, the most popular story traces the origins of the dish to Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s beautiful queen who inspired the Taj Mahal.

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It is said that Mumtaz once visited the army barracks and found the Mughal soldiers looking weak and undernourished. She asked the chef to prepare a special dish that combined meat and rice to provide balanced nutrition to the soldiers – and the result was biryani of course! At the time, rice was fried in ghee, without washing, to give it a nutty flavour and prevent it from clumping. Meat, aromatic spices, and saffron were added to it before cooking the mix over a wood fire.

The Nizams of Hyderabad and Nawabs of Lucknow were also famous for their appreciation of the subtle nuances of biryani. Their chefs were renowned the world over for their signature dishes. These rulers too were responsible for popularising their versions of the biryani – and mouth watering accompaniments like mirchi ka salan, dhanshak and baghare baingan – in different parts of the country.

The perfect biryani calls for meticulously measured ingredients and a practised technique. Traditionally , the dum pukht method (slow breathing oven in Persian) was used to make biryani. In this method, the ingredients are loaded in a pot and slow cooked over charcoal, sometimes from the top also, to allow the dum or steam to works its magic. The pot, sealed around the edges with dough, allows the steaming meat to tenderise in its own juices while flavouring the rice.

Other than the technique, spices also play a critical role in dishing out a good biryani – some recipes call for a very limited use of spices while others use more than 15 different spices. Meat or chicken is often the main ingredient, though in some coastal varieties, fish, prawns, and crabs are also used. Use of rose water, sweet edible ittar and kewra water in biryani is also common, a practice prevalent since the medieval era.

In the north, long grain brown rice was traditionally used to make biryani. It has today been replaced by the fragrant basmati rice. On the other hand, in the south,  biryanis were and are still made using local varieties of rice, like the zeera samba, kaima, jeerakashalaand kala bhaat, that lend their distinct taste, texture and aroma to the dish.

In general, there are two types of Biryani – the Kutchi (raw) biryani and the Pukki (cooked) biryani.
In general, there are two types of Biryani – the Kutchi (raw) biryani and the Pukki (cooked) biryani.

In Kutchi biryani, the meat is layered with raw rice in a handi (a thick bottomed pot) and cooked, while in Pukki biryani cooked meat and rice are layered in the handi, where they come together in a marriage of flavours.

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The evolution of biryani spans many centuries, many cultures, many ingredients and many cooking styles. From an army dish to a dish fit for royalty, the biryani today is a pan-India culinary favourite. Its many varieties reflect the local tastes, traditions and gastronomic histories of their regions of evolution. Here are some lip-smacking regional variants that every biryani lover should know about.

1. Mughlai Biriyani

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The Mughal Emperors were very fond of lavish dining experiences and looked upon cooking as an art. The regal Mughlai biryani fit the bill perfectly. Succulent chunks of perfectly spiced meat, enveloped in kewra scented rice, emanate an irresistible aroma that makes one hungry instantly. This biryani definitely smells and tastes royal !

2. Hyderabadi Biriyani

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The world-famous Hyderabadi Biryani came into being after Emperor Aurangzeb appointed Niza-Ul-Mulk as the new ruler of Hyderabad. His chefs reportedly created almost 50 different versions that used fish, shrimp, quail, deer, and even hare meat. While most other biryanis are dominated by their flavoured meat, in the layered Hyderabadi biryani, the aromatic saffron  flavoured rice is the star of the dish. Hyderabad was also the place where the Kacchi Akhni Biryani was fine tuned and perfected.

3. Calcutta Biryani

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Banished by the British, the legendary gourmet Nawab Wajid Ali Shah tried to recreate his beloved dish in the city of Calcutta. Unable to afford meat due to budget constraints, the local cooks gave the recipe a tweak, replacing meat with perfectly cooked golden brown potatoes – the signature of the Calcutta biryani. Much lighter on spices, this biryani primarily uses a yoghurt based marinade for the meat, which is cooked separately from the light yellow rice. Also, just like most Bengali dishes, the Calcutta biryani has a hint of sweetness hidden in it.

4. Dindigul biryani

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A much-loved local favourite, Chennai has many outlets dedicated to serving just the Dindigul biryani. The jeera samba rice used in making this biryani is distinctive and gives it an entirely different flavour. Also, instead of large chunks of meat, Dindigul biryani uses tiny cube-sized meat pieces. Curd and lemon lend the biryani its tangy taste, while the liberal use of pepper leaves its fiery mark on the palate.

5. Lucknowi biryani

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Cooked in the royal Awadhi style, the textures of Lucknowi biryani are softer and the spices milder. The first step involves making a yakhni stock from meat that is slow boiled in water infused with spices for about two hours or more. This is the reason why this biryani is more moist, tender and delicately flavoured than other biryanis.

6. Arcot Biryani

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Introduced by the Nawabs of Arcot, this biryani originated in the towns of Ambur and Vaniyambadi in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu. The biryani is generally accompanied by dalcha (a sour brinjal curry) and pachadi (a type of raita). The best known sub-variety of the Arcot biryani is the Ambur biryani that uses the squat seeraga samba rice, a traditional Tamil Nadu variety.

7. Memoni Biryani

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Similar to the Sindhi biryani, this extremely spicy variety is made by the Memons of the Gujarat-Sindh region. Usually made with lamb, yoghurt, browned onions and potatoes, Memoni biryani uses less food colouring compared to other biryanis. This allows the natural colours and flavours of the various components- meat, rice and vegetables – to emerge and shine  in this traditional dish.

8. Thalassery biryani

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The Thalassery biryani, one of India’s most loved biryanis, is both sweet and savoury. The main ingredients are soft chicken wings, mild Malabar spices and a type of rice known as kaima. Lots of sauteed cashew nuts, sultana raisins and fennel seeds are used generously in preparing this biryani. The rice is cooked separately from the gravy and mixed only at the time of serving.

9. Kampuri Biryani

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The Kampuri biryani originated from the town of Kampur in Assam. In this simple yet delicious dish, the chicken is first cooked with peas, carrots, beans, potatoes, and yellow bell peppers. This concoction is then mildly spiced with cardamom and nutmeg before being mixed with the rice. This little-known biryani, which fuses the fresh flavours of local vegetables into meat, is an ode to the Assamese flair for creating distinctive dishes.

10. Tahari biryani

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Tahari biryani is cooked without meat. Typically, rice is cooked along with different kind of vegetables in a handi with potatoes and carrots being the most used vegetables in this dish. Legend has it that this biryani was created in Mysore when Tipu Sultan hired vegetarian Hindus as his bookkeepers. Thus, a vegetarian version of a cult dish was born. Tahari is also a popular street food in Kashmir.

11. Beary Biryani

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A cousin of the spicier Mangalore biryani, the Beary Biryani belongs to the Muslim community of the Dakshin Kannada region in Karnataka. The predominant flavour is of the rice, which is kept in a mixture of ghee and spices overnight. This process allows all the potent flavours to seep into the rice. The light dish is also highly versatile and uses all kinds of locally available meat and seafood.

12. Sindhi Biryani

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Unlike any other biryani, the Sindhi Biryani is loaded with finely slit green chillies, fragrant spices, and roasted nuts.A distinctive characteristic is the addition of aloo bukhara (plums) in the spices, which gives the biryani a beautiful aroma; lots of khatta (sour yoghurt) in the layering gives a tangy note to the spice mix.

13. Bhatkali Biryani

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The Bhatkali biryani is an integral part of the Navayath cuisine and a speciality of Bhatkal, a coastal town in Karnataka, where it is a must-have at wedding feasts. The meat is cooked in an onion and green chilli based masala and layered with fragrant rice. The Bhatkali biryani has a unique spicy and heady flavour that sets it apart from the other biryanis of coastal Karnataka.

14. Bombay Biryani

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Just like the city it was created in, the Bombay biryani is a melting pot of flavours – spicy, hearty and zesty. Bombay biryani, whether it’s made with chicken, mutton or vegetables, always has fried spiced potatoes too.  It also has a slight sweetness to it, which comes from dried plums and kewra water. It may not be as famous as the other varieties, but this biryani still finds a place in the hearts of all who taste it.

15. Doodh Ki Biryani

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An absolutely unique Hyderabadi speciality, Doodh ki Biryani is known for its light flavours. The blending of creamy milk with roasted nuts and aromatic spices results in a dish that is subtle, refined, and delicately flavoured. Definitely a gem among the regal biryanis of the Hyderabadi Nizams!

A complete meal in itself, biryani has enough varieties to please one and all. This is also a dish that suits all occasions – whether it is a lazy Sunday lunch, a boisterous college get-together or a formal dinner with the in-laws. Eaten with love and gusto by the rich as well as poor, biryani is indeed a marvel of India’s culinary heritage.

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