Legacy of the Royal Indian Biryani

[My article on “Legacy of the Royal Indian Biryani” was originally published in the International food magazine called Zomppa (on June 23, 2011). I am grateful to Belinda and the whole team of Zomppa for publishing this article.]

When Mongolian conquerors invaded India around 13th century, they did one good thing: they introduced the Persian and Afghan food culture in India. This, along with India’s own, rich food culture, marked the Indian culinary renaissance. The kormas, kebabs, koftas, pulaos and the most flavourful of them all – the biryanis –started aquiring their Indianised reincarnations in the royal muslim kitchens of the nizams and nawabs of India. There were specialised royal cooks for making the biryani, and it is believed that there were more than 50 distinct kinds of biryanis in India itself, thanks to India’s rich treasure of a variety of aromatic spices!

The exact origin of this culinary masterpiece is lost in time. Some people even think that biryani actually existed even before that in India itself, although in a slightly different form, in the period of Babur’s rule, which is much before the mughals came to India. Another legend says that Timor, also known as Tamerlane, brought it down from Kazakhstan via Afghanistan to Northern India.

Although the nizams and nawabs relished the biryani themselves, interestingly, some people believe that these were never a part of the menu for the royal guests: they wanted to keep their own recipe a secret! Each of the royal cooks had their own patented method and ingredients for making the biryani, which soon became associated as an incredible part of the food culture of that region. So Hyderabad got its own form of biryani, Lucknow relished the other kind, the Awadh and Kolkatta had their own delicious versions – all extremely competent!

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Nizami Chicken Biryani (right) with Kachumber (left)

The secret of cooking the perfect biryani
Making biryani is what we call it a “culinary masterpiece” in India! It really takes a lot of practice and patience before one makes that “perfect” biryani. Traditionally, to create a magical effect, an array of ingredients, such as kewra (Pandanus flowers) water, rose petals, rose water, mint leaves, jasmine flowers, lemon, milk and saffron were added to this dish for perfecting it in terms of the flavour, colour and smell. The right amount of ingredients added at the right time of cooking, the quality of rice, the amount of heat, the kind of vessel used for cooking and the right cut of meat are some of the factors determining the taste of the final dish. The authentic biryani must use the succulent meat from the front thighs of a male goat, along with the bones and cut into big pieces. Traditionally, game meats included peacock, partridge, deer, boar and hare. With the passage of time, chicken, turkey, prawns, lamb, beef, vegetables, mushrooms and fish have been replaced in place of those game meats satisfactorily.

The biryani should be cooked in its own steam, covered with a tight lid and additionally sealed with wheat-flour dough. The secret is in the spices too! The correct quantity of spices and mint leaves, the use of pure ghee (clarified butter) and the best-quality aromatic rice (e.g., the long-grained basmati rice) are indispensable in order to prepare an authentic biryani. The age-old way of testing whether the biryani has been properly cooked was to throw a handful of biryani on the ground: if all the rice grains had fallen separately, it meant that the biryani was just perfect!

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The ways of cooking: kacchi and pukki
Pukki—The method in which the meat and the rice are cooked individually and then combined together in layers. This process is easier and less time-consuming. The North Indian biryanis, e.g., the Lucknow biryani, is a type of pukki biryani.

Kacchi—In this method, the raw, marinated meat is layered with raw or half-cooked rice. The South Indian Hyderabadi biryani is a form of kacchi biryani.

The apparatus
Traditionally, in an earthen pot called handi, the meat, spices, mint, coriander leaves, the essences, crisp-brown onions, rose petals (optional, depending on the type of biryani) and rice were layered, the bottom and top layers being the rice always. Saffron dissolved in milk is poured from the top. The handi was sealed with a flour dough and put on hot coal embers to cook.

These days, in our modern kitchens, we don’t use handi or coal, but any deep-bottomed vessel (preferably non-stick) with a tight lid and the usual gas oven. The trick is to use a thick pan under the main vessel (i.e., the main vessel should sit on this pan), in order to avoid the bottom layer of meat to get burnt, while slow-cooking for about 40­–50 minutes.

I am happy to share with you all a Hyderabadi-style kacchi biryani recipe.

Nizami Chicken Biryani

Ingredients:
  • Whole chicken leg pieces: 2
  • Meaty pieces of chicken, with bones: 6
  • Onions: 2
  • Yogurt: 1 cup
  • Aromatic rice (like the basmati variety): 2 cups
  • Bay leaves (divided): 4
  • Cinnamon sticks, 1 inch (divided): 4
  • Cloves (divided): 6
  • Peppercorns (divided): 8
  • Green cardamoms (divided): 4
  • Black cardamom: 1
  • Nutmeg powder: ¼ tsp
  • Mace petals: 4
  • Cumin powder: 1 tsp
  • Coriander powder: 1 tsp
  • Cumin seeds: 1 tsp
  • Garam masala powder: 1 tbsp
  • Kewra essence: 8 drops
  • Rose water: 8 drops
  • Saffron strands: 1 tsp
  • Warm milk: ½ cup
  • Coriander leaves, chopped: 1 cup
  • Mint leaves, chopped: 1 cup
  • Ghee (divided): 6 tsp
  • Salt (divided): 6 tsp
  • Water: 3 cups
  • Wheat flour dough: For sealing the lid
Method of Preparation:

Fry the finely cut onion strips in 2 tsp ghee, till these become crisp and brown. Remove in a bowl and set aside.

Add the saffron strands to the warm milk, keep aside.

Marinate the chicken for 1 hour with 2 tsp ghee, 3 tsp salt, 1/4th cup each of chopped coriander and mint leaves, cumin seeds, the coriander and cumin powders, two bay leaves, two cinnamon sticks, three cloves, four peppercorns, two green cardamoms, the black cardamom, nutmeg powder, mace petals and the yogurt.

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For the rice, boil the water and add 2 tsp ghee and two cinnamon sticks. Also add half each of the cardamoms, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaves to it. Now add the rice and 3 tsp salt and cook till it is 40% done. Switch off the gas and drain the water well. Reserve the spices in the rice.

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In a heavy-bottomed non-stick vessel, add the marinated chicken. This becomes the first layer. Then add 1/4th cup coriander-mint leaves on it, topped with some fried onions, spreading evenly, which becomes the second layer.

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The third layer is a layer of rice.

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Again, add coriander-mint leaves (1/4th cup) and some fried onions at the top of this and spread this out.

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Add half the saffron-milk mixture to this from the top, in a circular motion. In the next layer, add the remaining rice. The topmost layer would have the remaining 1/4th cup coriander-mint leaves. Top this up with the rest of the onions. Finally, add the garam masala powder, kewra essence, rose water and the rest of the saffron-milk mixture, in a circular manner.

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Now cover the vessel with the lid tightly and seal it with a dough. On a medium flame, first put a thick-bottomed frying pan. The main vessel containing the biryani should sit on this frying pan. Cook over the medium flame for 10 min. Now lower the flame to the minimum and slow-cook for 40 min.

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Remove the seal now, take some portion of biryani from the top portion in a plate and percolate down to bottom to collect a little bit of each layer. Enjoy this dish with kachumber, made by mixing yogurt, chopped onions, chopped cucumber, chopped tomatoes, a little salt and red chilli powder!

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