Mumtaz Mahal, the legendary wife of Shah Jahan, was a creative person and truly left her mark on history. Among her many interests, she was an accomplished cook, and as legend has it she invented biryani.

The story of biryani is rich and royal, and here’s a glimpse.

Recent history of biryani dating to the 18th and 19th century tells us many a stories as to how the rice dish gained popularity far and wide in the region.

The story of biryani from the Mughal kitchen to the 21st century and how it gained popularity far and wide in the region

Lucknow was called Awadh and, since the Mughals were ruling at the time, the royal palace introduced the subcontinent to the Awadhi Biryani. And we can thank Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, for adding the rustic potato to this culinary gem. The spud is a fabulous addition to the rice dish; it adds texture and a delicious complementary flavour to the meat and rice.

Can you imagine, if Wajid Shah had not come up with the potato epiphany, how boring this particular variation of biryani would be? Despite all the different twists to the dish, such as the Sindhi Biryani with potatoes, the Memoni Biryani with tez masala, the Kachay Gosht ki Biryani that is cooked in garam masala spices without tomatoes and the Bohri Biryani, popular in Karachi and Bombay, it is actually Lucknow that lays the ultimate claim to it.

Biryani is a celebratory dish in more ways than one; it is cooked at a time of celebration, and when it is cooked it is time to celebrate. Where the variety of pulao dishes are known for their aroma, the different kinds of biryani platters are known for their spices, masala and unique fiery flavour. Having lived in Karachi all my life, I know the taste of a deliciously spicy Sindhi Biryani and can also distinguish between most styles of biryani. The cooking style is somewhat different from other regional biryanis and there is no use of rose or kewra water, as is common in most Mughlai dishes.

However, the Awadhi Dum Biryani must wear the crown out of the many dozen varieties out there on the desi platter. It was only during Shuja-ud-Daula’s, and his successor Asaf-ud-Daula’s, reign in the 1750s that Awadh’s dastarkhwan was overwhelmed with culinary delights and money was being spent voraciously in lieu of sublime grandeur in culinary delights. The royal paraphernalia included half-a-dozen kitchens, where hundreds of chefs drained the royal exchequer preparing hundreds of meals. Thus emerged the Awadhi variety of biryani from long experiments of experienced chefs. We may rightfully conclude here that, while the Nawabs drained the treasury in lieu of extravagance while playing chess, of course, the Europeans aimed at, and were successful in taking over the subcontinent. And a century later, when Wajid Ali Shah, sacked from his throne, was sent to Calcutta by the imperialists, his entourage brought the Awadhi Biryani to the city of palaces.

The Calcutta Biryani’s defining mark is the invariable chunk of a large potato. There is really no documented evidence, but it is assumed that with rising expenses, over generations, meat was reduced and potatoes added. A true biryani lover today would rightfully complain if a plate of Kolkata Biryani, like the Sindhi Biryani, was served without the potato chunk.

Biryani reached Hyderabad Deccan with Aurangzeb’s southern aspirations. He had left behind Nizam-ul-Mulk as his representative in the Ara Kadu area. It is said that the Nizam’s chefs developed 47 varieties of biryani, and among them is the famed tahiri. We can safely assume here that the meatless biryani may be a result of forced austerity. However, today I share a sublime biryani fare, one that is bound to leave a mark. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.

Kachay Gohst Ki Biryani

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 lbs. mutton (leg meat)
  • 3 mugs basmati rice
  • 6 oz. to 10 oz. oil
  • 3 to 4 large onions, sliced
  • 4 teaspoons freshly chopped garlic and garlic
  • Salt to taste
  • Red chilli powder to taste
  • 10 green cardamoms
  • ½ to ¾ teaspoon, peppercorns
  • ½ to ¾ teaspoon, cloves
  • 2 to 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 black cardamom pods
  • 16 oz to 20oz yogurt
  • 6 to 8 green chillies
  • ½ bunch coriander leaves
  • Orange food colour (a pinch)
  • 8 oz to 16 oz water
  • Dash of lemon juice
  • Ingredients to be added to boiling rice:
  • Salt to taste
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 3 black cardamom pods
  • ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
  • ¼ teaspoon cloves

Method

Heat oil and add meat, one-and-a-half sliced onions, ginger-garlic paste, salt, red chillies and whole garam masala. Cook until half done, adding brown onions (fried earlier) yogurt and lemon juice. Once meat is tender, set it aside. The biryani masala is ready.

In a separate pot (colander) boil water adding whole garam masala and bay leaves. Once water comes to boil add pre-soaked rice, keeping the rice to a tender crisp phase, since we only cook the rice completely in the dum phase. Drain rice; layer the pot with rice, topping with a layer of biryani masala, adding a second layer of rice. Top with fried onions, sprinkle food colouring, cilantro, mint, a pinch of garam masala powder and two teaspoons kewra. Seal pot with foil and lid. Keep full heat for five minutes and medium to low heat for 15 minutes, to complete the dum. Let sit for 10 minutes, mix and serve.

Garnish with green chillies, mint and chopped cilantro. Serve with a side of kachumer (chopped onion, tomato and green chillies salad) and raita.

Originally published in Dawn, EOS, October 20th, 2019

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