The history of biryani, perhaps known to most passionate Indian gastronomes, is one of assimilation. It arrived in Delhi with Persian invaders around the 15th century; by sea, it made many voyages from Arabia with traders. Far more complex and interesting is how, after hundreds of years, we made biryani our own.
Along with butter chicken and dosa, it is a truly pan-Indian dish, with a multitude of regional variations that change with geography, religion and culture. Given Bangalore’s eclectic palate, it is only natural that one finds a richer smorgasbord here than in, quite possibly, any other Indian city. But if there is one kind of biryani that is the Bangalore original, it is the one served at Richies, located midway on MM Road, and hard to miss because of the crowds that throng its takeaway counter.
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
One visits Richies only for the food—tables and chairs made of synthetic wood, and dim light from gaudy chandeliers don’t exactly make for great ambience. A motley bunch of diners cram the place for lunch and dinner (they have only recently built the second and third floors). The biryani here is delicious, and you must love meat to love Richies. The menu is limited; but the mutton and chicken biryani stand out from each other—they are not flavoured with the same masala, or heaven forbid, rice. Both are unbelievably greasy, and violate all norms of a good biryani. The grains are small and stick to each other, and they fail the “authentic” biryani-grains test: That of dropping a morsel on the floor to see whether the grains remain separate or stick together.
Ginger and garlic are used generously, and the lamb is tender and succulent—a culinary secret that continues to elude me. Worthy accompaniments include the fried chicken kebab, seekh kebabs and the tawa-fried mutton chops, but the biryani outdoes everything else on the menu.
On good days, you are likely to get deep-fried teethar (a local word for quail, but it is also used to describe a partridge), which is good too, and the raita (yogurt with seasoning) doesn’t have cucumber. Sometimes, you get a little portion of a very good, not-too-sweet, kheer (rice dessert) along with an order of biryani. They also take orders by the kilogram, and it is an all-time party favourite in Bangalore.
Among imported varieties, it is difficult to ignore the profusion of Andhra restaurants in Bangalore—from the Nandhini chain to stand-alone gems such as Nagarjuna, Eden Park and Bheemas. RR on Church Street was the original, but the long hiatus prior to their latest reincarnation seems to have incurably damaged their reputation. Nagarjuna, on Residency Road, could quite justifiably claim to have the best Andhra biryani in town, but be forewarned, it is very rich in oil and spices, and will almost certainly induce postprandial stupor. Not the best option for lunch on a working day. Side orders that they suggest are chicken roast, copiously garnished with fried curry leaves; Chicken 65, the story of which is as long, disputed and colourful as that of biryani; and masala omelette.
As for the true Hyderabadi biryani, the origins of which are in the royal kitchens of the Nizams —not to be confused with the Andhra variety—there are precious few choices in Bangalore. That said, Hyderabad Biryani House on Victoria Road is perhaps the closest one could get to the aromatic, Byzantine lanes near the Charminar. They do follow the kacche gosht (raw meat) method, where the raw lamb is layered along with the rice and slow-cooked in a pot sealed tight by using sticky dough of flour. A fairly common side order suggestion here is the Fish Apollo. They also do a fair version of khubani ka meetha, a dessert of slowly stewed apricots. For takeaways, their family packs are generous and inexpensive.
From further down south, there is the biryani at Coconut Grove, on Church Street, which is unique because the rice and meat are assembled prior to serving and topped with golden-brown fried onions. It is spicy, which is appropriate given that the dish originated in Kerala. Not for the faint-hearted; by the end of every meal I have had here, I have felt a fiery trail down my throat. Koshy’s also serves a palatable version of this, but it is almost always too moist.
And then there is the Mangalorean prawn biryani served at Fishland in Gandhinagar. Navigating their plate is like finding little jewels in perfectly cooked, spiced rice, and it is served with a curry that has a coconut milk base infused with kokum. Their prawn and fish fries are perfect accompaniments.
Umerkot in Koramangala does serve an excellent Mughlai biryani, which can often be a little too rich in spices, disturbing the delicate balance that a good biryani must maintain. Lazeez does a good impression of a Kolkata biryani, heady with the aroma of cardamom, and with chunks of potato in the mix to soak up the spices.
There are two kinds of biryani that are, unfortunately, not easily found in Bangalore, and even when found, they fail to entice. Lucknavi biryani is special because the rice is cooked in meat stock and the cooked rice and meat are layered in a pot. Dum Pukht at Windsor Manor does a poor version that is cloyingly seasoned with rose water and saffron. Then there is the Kashmiri biryani, where the meat is marinated in yogurt for hours and cooked with the rice in an oven. There used to be a Kashmiri restaurant on Wheeler Road, Wazwan, that was worth the occasional visit, but at some point, it became nondescript.
But despite what’s not available, Bangaloreans are spoilt for choices when it comes to this hybrid dish. And, of course, there is always the biryani served at a friend’s house —always a surprise, depending on where his roots are and how far he has travelled from those roots.
Gautam John is a project manager at the NGO Pratham Books. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org