Date:06/02/2003 URL:
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A dish to die for

Hyderabad is synonymous with biryani, a dish which is ingrained in the societal fabric. The journey of this delicacy which is manna for most Hyderabadis traverses perhaps hundreds of years - from a wholesome dish eaten by the royalty and hoi polloi to one which is the `piece de resistance' even today, consumed with relish by one and all, writes RADHIKA RAJAMANI.

POSH SPICE: Regal cutlery for a royal dish.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE had it in an Irani café when he visited the twin cities. It is served in style to the visiting heads of State and other dignitaries.

Hyderabad cannot be imagined without the biryani - the very mention of which sends taste buds ticking. Its aroma has wafted down the decades and is still floating through its length and breadth. Perhaps the history of this 400-year-old city is so intertwined with this ubiquitous dish that it has become intrinsic to it.

No other dish has captivated people like the biryani except perhaps curd rice, which is an integral part of Tamil Nadu cuisine. All the celebs (actors, film-makers, cultural personalities) who descend on Hyderabad do not leave the city till they have tasted it. Others including foreign nationals are game to having it.

"It is a celebration dish which has transcended all barriers of caste and religion," says Chef Vijay Banja, Executive Chef, Taj Krishna. So passionate are the Hyderabadis about biryani that it is part and parcel of their lives. And it has crossed the frontiers as well into international territories. For an outsider this biryani mania may be baffling but he/she will surely go ga ga once they taste it. Such is its power. The repertoire of the biryani has gone beyond the original mutton biryani. The innovative ingenuity of the cooks resulted in a number of biryanis - chicken, fish, prawn, vegetable and more. Today there are about two dozen varieties.

The history of the biryani is shrouded in `myths' and secrecy. There is no authentic documentation although there are quite a few stories of its origin. One is that it was originally the food of the nomads in West Asia who would perhaps dig a pit in the ground, put in the rice, meat and spices in a container (perhaps earthen or metal in the later stages) and cover the pit only to find the appetising flavour seeping from the ground in the evenings.

HEAVENLY DISH: So intrinsically Hyderabadi. — Photos: K. Ramesh Babu

"It is not an Indian one - has its origins in the Middle East, perhaps Iran (Persia)," says Chef O.P. Khantwal, Executive Chef, ITC Kakatiya Sheraton Hotel and Towers. "The dum form of cooking is more a Persian form," says Chef Banja.

This is plausible because of the Persian, Arabic and Turkish influence in the Deccan which was a melting pot of cultures. Slowly the dish worked its way to royal kitchens where it graduated from the humble to the stately status. Biryani was popular in the princely States of Hyderabad and Awadh (the cooking styles are distinct in both). Possibly it was served to soldiers as well as it was wholesome and a one-meal dish containing nutrients. A legend attributes the creation of this dish to Mumtaz Mahal who once visited the barracks and on finding the soldiers undernourished created it using meat, rice and spices also to give them the necessary proteins. In the royal kitchens, the cooks had perfected the art of cooking it - for the rulers and nawabs who served it with a sense of pride thereby showcasing the culinary skills of their cooks. "The cooks may have done so to be in the king's favour," chips in Chef Banja.

In the good old days even cooks belonged to `gharanas' where the skills were passed on to generations in a hereditary manner. Therefore, the recipes were a trade secret. Making the biryani was certainly an art. It remains so even today as one needs to use the ingredients in the right proportion to make a perfect biryani.

The connotations of the dish may have changed over a period of time. One needs to reiterate that it came to be known as a celebration dish. It is made for special occasions like weddings, birthdays and of course festivals. People treat their friends to biryani on joyous occasions. Often girls of marriageable age in Muslim families are asked "When are you treating us to biryani?" thereby implying "when are you tying the knot?"

People are absolutely fond of it. "I simply love it. When I travel to Mumbai I have to carry it for my friends there as they insist on having only Hyderabadi biryani (there are two preparations using raw mutton and cooked mutton). The Hyderabadi flavour is so inimitable that it lingers long after one eats it," says Sharad. For Frauke Quader, a German settled here, biryani was something which she had to get used to over many years. "Initially I found it spicy of course. I found the rice and meat boring to eat as well. I also wondered why everybody praised it so much. Now it has grown on me and I eat it. I also appreciate it more. It is a nice change from the routine food. It is now a more a symbol of festive food. Since it is rich it cannot be eaten very often."

JUST INDULGE: A regular at five star hotels. — Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

Biryani is one of the few dishes which is so addictive. "The overall combination of taste, flavour and visual appeal make it so captivating that it is the centre piece of discussion anywhere. It captures all senses and it is difficult to put away," says Chef Banja. "The passion for this dish and the pride in serving it is so enormous here," says Chef Khantwal that people have even taken the lead in promoting it in the international market as well. "It can vie with a pizza, burger or a Kentucky fried chicken," he adds. Today it is neatly packed to be transported anywhere - even abroad.

What is so special about the Hyderabadi kacche gosht ki biryani? It is perhaps to do with the meat. Meat of the Telangana goat is the best, endorse both the chefs. Add to it yoghurt, spices and other condiments and voila! you have a simple and wholesome meal. A royal repast from the royal past.

What perhaps adds to its popularity is the fact that it is a meal by itself - can be had with (usually mirchi ka salan, bagare mirch ka salan and dahi ki chutney which is a raita) or without an accompaniment by anyone - rich or poor. With the advent of the five-star hotels, the biryani culture too has gone deluxe. What was probably served in metal thalis and eaten with hand in the erstwhile nawabi State is now done in fine crockery and cutlery. This is perhaps a major `landmark' in the development of different varieties. Although mutton biryani was the original one, there are other varieties now - non-vegetarian and vegetarian. One must add that veg biryani is not accorded the same treatment as the mutton. It is rather stepmotherly - it is made just to cater for the veggie. At times there are hardly any vegetables barring potatoes or occasionally carrots and beans. It is a poor second to the mutton biryani.

While there are die-hard biryani fans at the other end of the spectrum, there are people who would rather give it a go-by. "I find it too rich and heavy. If there is something else I will prefer that certainly," says Shahina.

In a world where every day is a struggle for something or the other, mere mention of the word, biryani, brings a smile on everyone's lips and joy on the face. So why not have biryani and feel happy and revel in the mania. Want to have biryani? Go get it!

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