It’s a dish that stirs us up like no other. Bring it up in any gathering, and you will find otherwise amiable people turning into vengeful foes. I am referring to biryani, of course. If there is something that can spark an instant war, it’s this much-loved rice-based dish.
Lucknow thinks it has the best biryani while Kolkata says there is nothing as good as its potato-laden offering. Hyderabad scoffs at all this: who would want to have anything else when there is kachche gosht ki biryani — in which the meat and rice are cooked together! Dilli’s biryani has its diehard aficionados but is jeered at by other fanatics who point out that the food of the region was never nawabi, but was considered lashkari — that is, for the soldiers.
To my mind, the quiet winner in this never-ending battle is the delicious and varied range of biryanis from the South. Several small towns and districts have their own biryanis — a term that emerged sometime in the 13th century. Take Dindigul in Tamil Nadu. I had a wonderful encounter with this region’s spicy biryani in a small southern Indian town some months ago. A plethora of whole spices, coupled with green and red chillies, gave the dish a delightful kick. And, I can never have enough of the fiery Chettinad biryani, in which the rice is marinated with ghee, lending it a mouth-watering flavour.
Some will argue that many of the dishes that we refer to as biryanis are actually pulaos. The ‘Ain-i-Akbari’ of 1590, however, doesn’t draw a firm line between the two. So, whether a biryani or a pulao, the southern varieties are speckled with different kinds of meat, fish, fowl and seafood such as clams. There are interesting vegetarian rice-based dishes. And while some cynics believe that a vegetarian biryani is an oxymoron, the Andhra jackfruit biryani and Tamil Nadu’s masoor dal biryani have their share of fans.
Chefs sometimes use meat stock to enhance the taste of the dish. Several unlikely ingredients may be used to flavour the rice, too. Take Hyderabad’s doodh biryani, which is cooked in milk. The spices are bundled up in a piece of muslin, which is placed in the rice while it is being cooked. Some biryanis are cooked with coconut milk.
Southern Indian biryanis rise above most other regional offerings, possibly because rice is the staple there. You’ll find various kinds of rice, including red rice, being used for biryanis. Take Kerala’s meen choru, which is a fish biryani, where the fish is steamed, and then cooked with the rice. It works especially well with kaima rice, which is a small-grained rice known for its taste. Many of the dishes are cooked not with the long-grained basmati, but with varieties such as jeera or seeraga samba rice, so called because the tiny grains are like jeera seeds. Long-grained rice is used in Kerala’s atterachi (mutton) biryani, but the short-grain ponni rice adds to the taste of this dish, flavoured with, among other things, cashew, yoghurt, lime juice and coconut milk.
Further, the region has been enriched by diverse influences. Kerala, for instance, boasts of biryanis prepared in different ways by its three dominant communities — Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The biryanis of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana soak in simple coastal aromas, as well as the rich flavours of the Nizam era. Karnataka’s many regions — from Mangalore and Coorg to Udupi — have special biryanis that make the mouth water. And let’s not forget that they are seasoned with some of the best spices that you get in the country, which come from the South.
If the North has countless kinds of rotis and paranthas, the South has an array of biryanis and pulaos to offer. For those who enjoy their rotis as much as their biryanis, the plate is always half full.
Andhra kodi biryani
- Chicken drumsticks 1 kg
- Basmati rice 500 g
- Onions (sliced) 1 cup
- Ginger-garlic paste 2 tbsp
- Tomatoes (sliced) ½ cup
- Green chillies (slit) 5-10
- Oil ½ cup
- Ghee 1½ tbsp
- Cinnamon 1 stick
- Cloves 4-5
- Green cardamom 4-5
- Bay leaves 2-3
- Curd (whisked) 2/3 cup
- Paste of poppy 2 tbsp seeds (khas khas)
- Lemon juice ½ tsp
- Mint leaves ¼ cup
- Coriander leaves ¼ cup
- Salt to taste
Heat oil in a heavy-bottom pan. Add onions and green chillies. Sauté lightly. Add the whole spices and saute the onions till these turn golden. Put ginger-garlic paste and tomatoes. Sauté. Add chicken and sauté, searing the chicken lightly. Now add in the whisked curd and poppy seeds paste. Season with salt and lemon juice. Add 1 litre of water to cover the chicken completely. Cover the base chicken gravy with soaked basmati rice, and let it cook for 20-25 minutes on dum. Garnish with ghee, mint leaves and coriander leaves. Serve hot with onion pachadi.
(Recipe by Chef Solomon of Dakshin, Sheraton, New Delhi)
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