Food Stories: Tahiri

The nawabs of Hyderabad hired vegetarian cooks to create a meatless biryani, which is how the tahiri came into being.
13 Oct, 2015

Tahiri, a simple nutritious food that I love but do not make often enough. My mother and grandmother used to make it at least once a month, unlike my own once-a-year stint.

With a side of mint coriander chutney and vinegar-soaked sliced onions, Tahiri's simple goodness like no other. It is delicious on the plate, easy on the wallet, provides adequate nourishment for the body and soul, and needless to say, is perfectly spiced to satisfy the desi desire for a meal with a zing.

Rice dishes vary considerably across different areas of the subcontinent, with regional biryanis, pulaos, tahiris and khitchris prevailing in varying forms; each claiming their own version to be the best.

Before the advent of Mumtaz Mahal, Akbar the Great made Asfa Jahi the Nizaam of the great state of Hyderabad. It is rumoured that the Nizaam wanted Hyderabad to own a royal rice dish, so he had his kitchen give it a twist and thus evolved the legendary Hyderabadi biryani.

However, the most special biryani may be the one that does not have meat. The nawabs of the region hired vegetarian cooks to create meatless biryani, which is how tahiri came into being.

Yakhni rice is a universal and ancient food, and has gathered most world cuisines in its embrace. Tahiri finds its ancestry in pulao and not biryani, since pulao rice is cooked to perfection in meat stock, and tahiri in vegetable stock.

But some argue that the biryani is the real ancestor of tahiri, since tahiri – cooked with vegetable masala* – serves as an alternative to the the meat masala of biryani.

The Persian cooks let the rice sit in salted water for several hours so it would shimmer like crystals, and expected the rice to plump to perfection in the boiling stock. They rejected the quality of the rice if it clumped up or became sticky.

Centuries later, Tavenier, a French traveller and cultural anthropologist observed that the best rice suited to make vegetarian tahiri and meat pulao was cultivated southwest of Agra. It plumped to perfection, with each grain separate and fluffy.

When Babur arrived in the subcontinent, he abhorred the cuisine.

He was used to a hearty meat-based nomadic shepherd's diet, and hailing from central Asia, the meat pulao was a fundamental repertoire to any central Asian kitchen.

The cultural mesh of Persia, central Asia and India gave birth to an offshoot of the pulao, the wonderful biryani; it was in the Mughal kitchens that the elegantly subtle pulao was introduced to the Indian spices giving birth to the delightfully fiery biryani; which, in essence, evolved to vegetarian biryani in the kitchens of Uttar Pradesh.

The chefs in Lucknow prided in making the fragrant tahiri and maintained that the sophistication of the dish was in its subtlety of meatless flavour, where the floral essence of the rice and fragrance of the vegetables enhanced the taste.

The elite cooking of Pakistan and India expresses its central Asian, Turkish, Afghan and Persian roots, but we cannot ignore that its nourishment and flavour was epitomised because of local spices, indigenous ingredients, regional cultures and races native to the region.

Subcontinental food is unique and has evolved over centuries to become what it has today: rich, vibrant, and flavorful.

Today, I use my mother’s recipe to make tahiri. Needless to say, it was an expected hit, so my once-a-year stint is sure to become a monthly fare. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours:


1½ cup basamati rice
1 onion
2 tomatoes
2 green chillies
1 tsp. fresh ginger garlic
Salt to taste
Red chillie powder to taste
½ tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. turmeric
1 large potato, cut in small cubes
½ cup to ¾ cup chopped cauliflower
½ cup peas or carrots (optional)
1 black cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf (each)
4 to 6 black pepper corns
4 cloves
Oil to taste


Heat the oil and brown sliced onions, adding tomato, green chillie, ginger garlic, salt, cumin, turmeric and red chilli.

Cook on high heat for a few minutes, adding potatoes, cauliflower, pea or carrots. Cook for a couple of minutes and pour in 3 ¼ cups of hot water, along with whole garam masala.

Then add the washed rice and cook on high heat until the rice absorbs the vegetable stock and appears parboiled.

Seal shut to initiate dum cooking on low heat. Once the rice plumps, serve with chutney, salad and raita.

—Photos by Fawad Ahmed

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Naveed Oct 13, 2015 02:52pm
Sometimes it simply excels actual Biryani.
Shaha Oct 13, 2015 02:53pm
My favourite....
Rani Sharma Oct 13, 2015 02:59pm
In India Hindus have cooked BHAAT for centuries, before the Muslim invasions. They would line the bottom with vegetables that were available during those times to prevent burning to the vegetables and rice above this layer. Then they would place additional thickly cut raw vegetables on top to prevent steam from escaping, thus cooking the rice below. The Persians took this technique and adapted it by using potatoes at the bottom and also using flour to seal the edges. Keshar BHAAT ( saffron rice) is a common dish that we prepare when we offer worship to God, Lord Krishna.
Rani Sharma Oct 13, 2015 03:01pm
It should not be forgotten that rice was imported into the mideast from India. The mideast simply does not have the climate needed to cultivate rice. They learned from the Hindus.
Ahmad Oct 13, 2015 03:03pm
yummy. I recall my childhood when my grandmother used to make this dish. I can still feel the amazing taste in my mouth. Thanks a lot for this article.
Rumaisa Mohani Oct 13, 2015 03:27pm
What a delicious writeup ! In writings of my great grand father Hasrat Mohani, he fondly mentioned "Tahiri" frequently made by his wife, Nishatunnisa Begum.
Amita Gupta Oct 13, 2015 03:46pm
We have been eating tahri since child hood and wy mam used to add dal badi in it without onion garlic using ginger green chilies ane garam masala and it tasted awesome
Mir Ali Oct 13, 2015 03:54pm
@Rani Sharma. Looks like you are very uninformed about history of the world. Have you heard about the Mesopotamian and Egyptian Civilization ?. They have been growing rice for more than 8000 years in case of the Mesopotamian / Iraq also includes parts of present Persia (Iran).
Goga Nalaik Oct 13, 2015 04:01pm
Though I've never heard of it but your description makes it yummy. Can you please send me some through Fedex
Syerix Oct 13, 2015 04:30pm
@Rani Sharma well not really, rice has been produced in Turkey and Central Asia, India is not the "Only" country who produced rice. Also, Vegetarian Food has no popularity even amongst Hindus (for example please refer to Chettinad Cuisine)
APakistani Oct 13, 2015 04:46pm
my fav dish . . .
prathak Oct 13, 2015 04:53pm
@Rumaisa Mohani Hasrat Nomani Or Pandit Malviya all loved Tahiri or Tehri in Bhojpuri
Atit Mishra Oct 13, 2015 05:16pm
Thanks Bisma for reminding us of this dish with related anecdotes. I thoroughly enjoyed it reading and will cook once in a month as suggested and attempted by you.
Rani Sharma Oct 13, 2015 05:20pm
@Syerix Rice went to the mideast from India. It might have come to India from China or south east asia.
Adventurer Oct 13, 2015 05:42pm
@Rani Sharma If Hindus made then why don't they have it and what is need to export to Muslim countries. Cheer up it is food related matter and do not spoil the taste by bringing in Religion.
Adventurer Oct 13, 2015 05:45pm
@Syerix They used to make beef biryani
gautam Oct 13, 2015 06:16pm
@Rani Sharma The Turkish type of rice, Tropical "sinensis" or more correctly, "japonica", did indeed come directly from a Chinese source, not an Indian origin. Indian rices may have had an origin in the greater Yunnan-Champa-Southe East China, well before the Han civilization reached there. Origin in this area does not mean domestication by Han peoples, for whom rice was not an "original" grain. Millets were. We don't know the full story yet. Wild rices are known from India, and harvested there to this day. The aromatic gene is now suspected to have originated in the same Yunnan-Champa area, ONCE, and filtered slowly through Assam and along the Himalayan foothills. There are at least 3 major classes of aromatic rices, tiny, medium and the long grain. Each has a different type of starch, hence stickiness or fluffiness. Regarding pulao, the etymology says it all. pala + anna, with sandhi, or phoneme combination, in Sanskrit, gives palaanna, from which pulao, pilaf, polo, etc. all derive, as do kichari, mash-khichari, etc. derive from khecara + anna, khecara meaning birds or those that move in the sky, kha, and anna, rice. Pala means meat.
rajeev Oct 13, 2015 06:38pm
Why vegetarian?
ali ahmed Oct 13, 2015 07:22pm
thank you ,i will try
SARA Oct 13, 2015 07:29pm
one of my , no my whole family's, favorite dish.... loved it.... thanks for sharing the history!
Somu Oct 13, 2015 07:49pm
Second, the spices for Pulao, Biryani, Tahiri come from Kerala in India. This is the whole reason Arabs traded with India, europeans invaded India. In persia, Turkey and other arab lands, these spices were a luxury a few centuries ago. They were common in India. Many a woman in India had an opportunity to perfect these dishes. All credit should not be given to the royal courts and chefs of Mughals and Nizams. The women were and are creative too.
reality bites Oct 13, 2015 07:57pm
My mom made tahiri with goat meat, tomatoes, potatoes, and any left over fresh vegetable like egg plant, carrots or even mushrooms from the frig. Accompanied with hyderabadi or bombay style achaar or yogurt chutney.... Yummmmm.
Ali Shahani Oct 13, 2015 08:45pm
In Sindh Tahiri is called to dish of sweet rice cooked with Jaggery!
zs Oct 13, 2015 08:57pm
Yes its good...but only once a year
bkt Oct 13, 2015 10:28pm
Please tell the author that during Akbar's reign, the great state of Hyderabad was not part of the Mughal Empire. The same was the case with his son Jehangir. It was Shah Jehan who started expansion into the south of India and Arurangzeb's treatment for successes in the south and his resulting alienation is well documented. Moreover Asif Jah appears during the reign of Jehangir arriving from Persia by which time Akbar is long dead. And a key ingredient in Tahiri --- the tomato -- arrives from the Americas, through the Portuguese.
Ahmad Oct 13, 2015 11:17pm
And this is how we lost Tahiri before .... People stay focused we are talking about food here not the origin of Rice or religion ... I am worried next we will start talking about origin of mankind .... And the poor Tahiri will be lost again ....
Fan Oct 14, 2015 12:59am
This is my number 1 most favorite homecooked dish, even more than biryani or pulao. In our house, we like to crank up the spice factor way high, that's the only way to have real tahari
bkt Oct 14, 2015 02:31am
@Somu : You are quite right there. India supplied garlic, ginger and a whole lot more. But what India is known for now was a spice that did not exist then and was imported from the Americas, namely the red and green peppers which makes the food "spicy". There was no mirch in the foods until the Americas were discovered. But the king of Foods -- garlic -- was found in India (but may also have originated further east in Indonesia)
Reddy Oct 14, 2015 05:38am
Really like your recipes and history info behind each dish. Great photos too. I visit Dawn most of them to read your recipes. Dawn site is 100 times better than any Indian sites.
chandragupta Oct 14, 2015 07:16am
I cook this dish on weekends. We all love this in my family.
Atul Oct 14, 2015 07:24am
@Mir Ali Please do not make this an anti India Forum. For the benefit of everyone, when rice was tested genetically the most oldest variety of rice was from India The botanical name of rice is Oryza Sativa ... named after Seeta the wife of Lord Rama as she was raised from the earth. Please look it up ..Indus Valley civilization were probably aware of it as they grew stuff when the water supply was plentiful in those areas.
Mohammad Rafique Etesame Oct 14, 2015 08:40am
Really, it is very delicious dish. My wife has prepared it. And I had dinner with chatni, salad and raita.
Sajjad Oct 14, 2015 11:22am
Reading the comments, unfortunate to see how this wonderful yummy article has turned into another Indo-Pak agenda !!!
anil saxena Oct 14, 2015 12:31pm
A superb history of Tahiri
C Roy Oct 14, 2015 12:42pm
Wow... this sounds delicious.. will try this on the weekend.
prafulla shrivastva Oct 14, 2015 01:46pm
@prathak , My mother used to cook Tahari, with milk, battleground, green chilly, cummin seeds. I always remember flavour & taste of the same, even my wife tried but she could not create that flavour.
Irfan Husain Oct 14, 2015 03:32pm
Thank you for a wonderfully informative article.