Meat the biryani

Moplah or Moradabad? Calcutta or Hyderabad? Weighing up the merits of a pan-Indian dish (plus, the bestest hack ever)


Hyderabadi chicken biryani
Hyderabadi chicken biryani

When we were kids, my sister and I once stole money from our mother’s locked Godrej cupboard to spend at a day-long Army fete. The reason we decided that the money we had been legitimately given to spend was woefully inadequate was because it just wasn’t enough to cover the one thing we wanted to enjoy over and over again, right through the day if possible. It wasn’t pony rides or the hoopla or lucky 7 or the Ferris wheel or even the candy floss our greedy hearts desired, but the yummy Hyderabadi biryani being sold by Mummy’s friend Aunty Hussain.

Given that we were 7 and 9 years old respectively, I think my mother should have taken into account our discernment and sophistication of palate before whacking the living daylights out of us for our criminality and setting us to writing “I will never steal again” 10,000 times as punishment (a task I have only recently finished). But, on the bright side, in an attempt to curb further criminal activity from us (her resident juvenile delinquents), Mummy managed to cadge the recipe for her incredible kacche gosht ki biryani from Aunty Hussain.

That’s the biryani I fell violently in love with as a small child and the one I have been eating at home ever since. So it’s no wonder that my heart beats a little faster at the thought of it. Rice, about two-thirds cooked, and raw marinaded meat layered together with fried onions, lots of mint, some dhaniya patta and green chillies, and finished with a squeeze of lime, a sprinkle of kesar milk, garam masala and a tablespoon full of ghee before it is cooked on “dum”—that’s the biryani equivalent of mother’s milk for me. When the dum is opened, and the aroma of meat and rice and herbs and spices and ghee all singing in perfect harmony wafts out, that is a moment of perfect happiness. Think about it: When the dough seal on a pot of biryani is freshly sliced open, that’s the possibilities of the whole entire world making themselves manifest to you.

As the more attentive amongst you might have gathered, I am quite partial to biryani. But for me, the only true biryani is made with goat. I have no truck with chicken biryanis, they are ghastly pretenders. And while I love love love the fish and prawn biryanis of the South (the Moplah biryani is now so famous it’s almost a cliche of deliciousness) they aren’t what I think of when I crave a biryani. And finally, I adore all vegetables but, really, everyone will agree that biryani is no place for a self-respecting vegetable to end up in. But the mixture of rice bursting with flavour and tender goat pieces that is a good mutton biryani? It’s one of the ways in which the balance of the universe reveals itself to mere mortals, it is aromatic, flavourful perfection in your grasp.

I know most talk about biryani is centred round the provenance of the biryani and what makes a biryani a biryani and not a pulao. Frankly, I am an equal opportunity glutton and totally origin-and nomenclature-agnostic. I don’t really care beyond a point whether the first biryani was made by Timur the Lame’s able-bodied mother or Shah Jahan’s transvestite cook or indeed brought in a camel’s saddle all the way from the Middle East in a trading ship and handed over ceremonially to natives in Kerala. And I also couldn’t care less about what it’s called. All I care is what it tastes like. And in my never flagging efforts to eat for India (and some of you may be excused for thinking that I actually am capable of eating India), this is a perpetually happy quest—because, every few hundred kilometres or so, there’s a slightly different biryani on offer.

And while all of them are basically the same dish, they are all magnificently, deliciously different. Some are mild, delicate and understated—the Lucknowi biryani (or pulao as it is mostly called there) is a prime example of this. I have spent many happy hours in my misspent youth sampling as many variations as I could: There is a nalli biryani made from shanks and marrow bones that I only have memories of eating in Lucknow, which is transcendental.

And I can make no claims as to the authenticity of what I have devoured as Rampuri and Moradabadi biryanis my whole life, because my acquaintance with these places has been limited to food carts and holes in the wall selling biryanis bearing their names, but the biryanis have been amazing ambassadors for the cities. Subtly different in terms of flavouring and spicing and more robust tasting than the Lucknowi pulao, they have me salivating at the very thought of them.

And while the Calcutta biryani found in restaurants like Shiraz is equally satisfying and flavourful, it is a completely different take on this splendiferous beast. I have tears in my eyes sometimes, remembering my early days as a slave in the corporate world and all the Saturdays spent working; made bearable only by the prospect of being able to dive head first into a Shiraz biryani, potatoes and all and all in all.

The South Indian biryanis, by contrast, are much fiercer in taste and use different rice varieties, not just the bog standard basmati. Given much more to spicing than the subtler aromatics and flavours of their North Indian cousins, they are generally full bodied and dialled up and every bite packs a punch. I love how they have no pretensions to Nawabi excess, but in their own very different way (adding coconut or coconut milk and poppy seeds for some versions, tomatoes and aggressive spicing for others), they manage to make the same thing taste divine and complex yet utterly and completely different.

But really, while everyone talks about the spicing of the biryani and whether or not it is kaccha (uses raw meat) or pakka (uses cooked meat), whether it is cooked on dum or not, and whether the meat is marinaded in yoghurt and whether the fried onions are also crushed to marinade the meat and other terribly important details, the thing that no one seems to talk about is a tiny but quite critical metric in evaluating the overall yumminess of a biryani. At least in my greedy book. And that is the ratio of meat to rice. In his excellent India: The Cookbook, Pushpesh Pant lists roughly 10 recipes for goat biryani and 1kg meat to 500gm-1kg of rice seems to be the standard ratio across these.

Now I don’t want Timur the Lame’s mother to get mad with me for messing with her recipe but here’s the thing. What that sort of ratio means is that three people will be well fed while those who got to the table late will have to scrabble around digging into (incredibly flavourful and aromatic but sadly meatless) rice and look saddened as their treasure hunt yields disappointing results. For my greedy family, I use roughly 400gm of rice to 1.5 kg of meat (out of which half is cubed without bones and half with bones to infuse the rice with meaty yumminess). Yes. Don’t judge me. And also don’t deny you’d love to come over and have biryani at my table—the only digging you will have to do is maybe for the rice.

So, all the biryanis I have not yet tasted which I am dying to: the Gujarati Muslim versions, the Bohra (I really really want to know what khoya does in a biryani), the Khoja, Memoni and Kutchi biryanis. The Ambur biryani, the Bhopal biryani, the Kodava biryani, the Thalassery biryani, literally the ABCT of all the rest of the biryani brigade that are sadly missing from my gustatory memory bank.

So another yummy, same appeal. Please send. Recipes. Recommendations. Invitations. Biryanis. Remember what’s at stake is not just the completion of my biryani education but also my possible career trajectory as a biryani criminal.

If I’ve done it once, I think we can all assume I will happily do it again.

Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.

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