Why biryani is food for thought
I love how we are territorial about biryani. The ‘complete’ meal that combines carbs, protein and fat — and an unseemly amount of calories — should have been a ground of commonality; yet, it divides.
I grew up devouring ‘Calcutta’ biryani, which I later found has Awadhi roots (whatever that means) but had been, over decades, customised to cater to a certain cadence evident only in those with a Calcutta chromosome. For me, it was all about the goodly pat of potato and one boiled egg that accompanied the rice and meat. And the flavour that doesn’t hit you with its full-bloodedness, preferring instead to delicately creep into your bones and rendering you spoilt for life.
It becomes a culinary benchmark, holding you in thraldom.
When I moved to Delhi from Calcutta at the turn of the millennium, I didn’t have the heart — or stomach — to sample the ‘north Indian’ version for the longest time. Had heard too many non-flattering reviews from fellow Bengalis. The “local” biryani was overcooked, over-spiced and underwhelming (and reportedly, vegetarian biryanis were a rage, a dissembled carrot instead of a chicken leg). The fine dining (read: less oily) ones were taxing to savour: I’d find it odd to have biryani in a haute setup where a liveried server would be hovering around, placing a precise smidgen on a pre-heated plate, while a sitar played in the background.
Biryani, I felt, should be eaten with gusto and scant regard for etiquette and ambience.
Also, parochially, I felt it would be a betrayal to my roots: after all, what did they know about my kind of biryani? The subtle flavour that doesn’t subsume, only teases, and the intellectual gastronomy that lays open its soul for more experimentation with side dishes, such as chaap and rezala?
This was an era when Delhi had not really “opened up” to regional cuisine. It would be a fight to find a restaurant that served, say, south Indian biryanis or the ‘typical Bombay’ avatar. I remained in a biryani black hole, the only throwback to it being my Calcutta connection of yore.
In Dubai, the first time I had biryani was when a Bengali friend (from Calcutta) took me to Daily near Maktoum Bridge. “It’s a Pakistani restaurant so you may think the biryani here will be more like north Indian versions, but, believe me, it’s the closest that comes to the ‘Calcutta’ one,” she said. I realised why. There was a big potato dunked inside the copious mass of dum-cooked rice and meat. It didn’t cut the mustard in the taste department, but at least I enjoyed the aloo.
Over the next couple of years, biryani became a mainstay at numerous get-togethers and house parties I went on to attend. (“There’s a reason for this,” a friend explained. “It’s the cheapest and most convenient option, you don’t need anything else, just stir up some raita and cut a few slices of cucumber, and, voila, you have a spread!”)
I had to fall in line, and got acquainted with a host of variants: the Kerala one, the Hyderabadi one, the Lucknowi one, the Pakistani one, the Iranian one and so on. Many of these had piquant portions at the bottom — which was never the case with the consistent Calcutta one — which I found (and still find) overwhelming, so I ate (and still eat) the upper echelons with the meats.
There were fierce debates on which was the best; I never took part in any of those since there was no trace of Calcutta on the map.
I realised Dubai really had pretty good options, and I became far more embracing of the biryani. I even started ordering something called the kabsa, which is a Saudi dish, and seemed like a first cousin.
And then, a Calcutta biryani chain — that used to be one of my favourites back home — opened shop in Dubai. I now needed to educate ignorant diners about how a truly great biryani tastes like. In the very first week of its opening, I took two of my friends out for dinner: a north Indian from Delhi and a Goan from Mumbai.
The north Indian was prompt to scoop a spoonful into her mouth.
“Well?” I asked with bated breath.
“My God!” she said. “This is so bad! So bland! How can you eat this? Trust you Bongs to have an inverted notion of everything.”
The Goan was more politically correct. “Hmmm, interesting, but not sure if I’d like to come back for seconds.”