Tracing its evolution from the days of the Mughals and Nizams, we explore myriad flavours of the dish
When you think of Delhi and its rich legacy of Mughlai cuisine, you cannot not think of biryani. Long grains of rice are cooked on dum with aromatic yakhni, dry fruits and kewda, served with raita, pickles or eaten on its own. Quintessentially a Persian import, biryani is now available in many variations. The dish derives its name from the Persian word biriyan, which translates to ‘fried before cooking’, referring to the golden fried onion rings. Veteran chef Ghulam Qureshi, says, “It is not just the preparation that matters; there is also a way to serve biryani. No grain of rice should break while serving biryani.”
Tracing the journey of biryani, chef Osama Jalali, says, “Initially it didn’t have any spice in it. There is also a theory about Isfahani biryani that didn’t have rice at all. Brown fried onion and pieces of meat were served on bread. It was in India that rice was added to it. Pilaf used to be made with rice, but as it reached India, the two got mixed together and we got biryani.” Shedding some light on different types of biryanis made in India, he says, “Awadhi biryani is basically yakhni pulao, and when Nawab Wajid Ali Shah went to Kolkata, the cooks added potato to it. Rice is boiled in yakhni water and then everything is mixed and cooked on dum. Hyderabadi biryani is not a Mughlai preparation; it is a Nizami preparation. It is called kacche gosht ki biryani in which the meat is cooked first with masalas and then rice is layered on top of it.”
The biryanis available in Delhi have an Uttar Pradesh influence, and the addition of green chillies and achaar is a very recent one, says Jalali. “In Old Delhi, they also serve haleem biryani. It originated in Meerut and eventually came to Delhi. Also, biryani is made with basmati rice, but in most places in the city, it is being made with sela rice. This is a corruption of the dish,” he says.
Biryani is interestingly a street food speciality in the city, and you can have your fill even on a shoestring budget.
A sweet and savoury biryani
If you are in the mood to tickle your taste buds with true-blue Mughlai preparations of biryani, then look no further than Pehelwan Biryani in Chitli Qabar Bazar. Priced at ₹120/kg, these biryanis are a labour of love. “We cook biryani in dum style and it takes one hour for preparation. We have namkeen biryani made with mutton, masala biryani made with garam malasas and served with pickle. There is also a sweet and salty biryani made with sugar. In parts of UP, biryani is served with raita, chutney etc. But this is Dilli ki biryani, a pure Mughlai preparation which is flavourful on its own,” says owner Haji Mohammad Anwar. Started by his father Haji Mohammad Asghar in 1947, the shop is always teeming with customers. When asked about the rate at which the biryanis go, he says, “Everything is cheaper here. This was the main city; they used to call it Shehar,” he adds. And just like the Walled City, the shop also never takes an off day.
Half boiled, half dum biryani
Loaded with khada masalas and dry fruits, the biryanis available at Dil Pasand Biryani Point pull in crowds from not just Old Delhi, but other parts of the city, too. “We use two cooking techniques—half boil and half dum,” says owner Mohammad Taufeeq, who started the shop in 1997, after moving here from Meerut. The masalas consist of the meat, onions, garlic and spices, all of which are cooked in a separate degh (cauldron). The half boiled rice is then layered on top of the masala and cooked on dum. Only buff and chicken biryani is available here, served at ₹160/kg. As we set out to taste and test the biryani, the cook piles our plate with chunks of meat. He also refused to take money and bade us farewell with a smile. This kind of adab is hard to find anywhere else in Delhi.
Adding the biriyan to biryani
Outside Gate Number 2 of Jama Masjid, there lies an array of shops and small establishments selling biryani. It is here at Haji Nadeem’s shop that we get to see the star ingredient of biryani, the one ingredient from which biryani gets its name—biriyan. Golden brown rings of fried onion that are served with a steaming plate of biryani are not found at most biryani shops. “We make biryani with yogurt, biryan and use sela chawal. Our boneless chicken biryani is served at Rs 200/kg, and buff biryani is for ₹120/kg,” says Nadeem.
Served with a side of chutney
The lane leading up to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is filled with shops selling kebabs, tikkas and biryani. We stop at Muradabadi Mashoor Biryani for a bite, where the aroma of ghee and kewda lures us. The shop was started by Abdul Majid in 2005, who hails from Rampur in UP. Now, he and his brother run the shop. “We have three types of biryani which we serve with chutney and achaar. The masala chicken biryani is cooked with sela rice. The white chicken and buff varieties are made with basmati rice,” says Muveen. The biryani is available at ₹180/kg. Just then, two men rush in holding a very hot degh and place it at the shop front. Muveen tells them to remove the lid and lets us take a good look at his creation.
Around the bend from the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is Ghalib ka Corner, a 40-year old shop that has the attention of food connoisseurs for its kebabs and chicken biryani. Mutton biryani is available only on demand. “We buy our masalas from Old Delhi. Some people cook everything together in one cauldron, but that is not biryani. That is pulao,” says Mohammad Hanif Qureshi. The chicken biryani is priced at ₹260/kg. But unlike the biryanis of Old Delhi where the masalas hit you first, here the rice dominates. There is a bite to it and the flavours are subtle. It is food that gets you going on gloomy, rain-fed days.
A taste of home-made biryani, straight out of Purani Dilli
At homes in Old Delhi, the cooking method is completely different than that deployed at shops. Here, the food is simple and cooked with a labour of love, which sometimes involves the entire family. “The recipes are simple and passed down generations. The biryani we make at home uses yakhni in which the meat is cooked with spices and yogurt. Spices such as kesar and zarda are used in most home-made biryanis. The rice is half-cooked in a separate degh, and yakhni is added on top of it. Then, it is cooked it dum style. In shops and restaurants, rice is added over the masalas and then cooked,” informs Abu Sufiyan, founder of the NGO Purani Dilli Walo Ki Baatein.
Source: The Hindustan Times