Craving Biryani

The savory rice dish that can be found in many variations has become the pizza of South Asia

September 26, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

At the end of a long, scorching day in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, my colleagues and I, participants in a journalism fellowship, were famished. After a hair-raising lift in an auto rickshaw through the teeming metropolis and a pearl-shopping spree, it was time to indulge in a third local pastime: biryani.

We were steered to Hyderabad House, a franchise specializing in biryani as it was prepared for centuries to the specifications of the nizams who ruled the once princely state.

Expecting a sumptuous setting worthy of royalty, we were let down by Hyderabad House's glum surroundings. Soon, though, came a feast of biryani flecked with carrots, potatoes and okra, as well as raita and chewy naan that conjured the city's Mughal past and its signature perfume of piquant spices, herbs and condiments.

Our dreary setting receded with each savory bite of Hyderabadi dum (steamed) biryani, a concoction of basmati rice and meat marinated in yogurt laced with ginger, garlic, chiles, cardamom and floral-scented kewra and cooked in a copper pot called a handi.

Biryani was once reserved for weddings, birthday celebrations and Eid, the Islamic celebration at the end of Ramadan, a monthlong holiday that concludes Oct. 12. Today, biryani, often served with a gravy of green chiles and garnished with crispy fried onions, fried raisins and hard-boiled eggs, has become the pizza of South Asia.

Soothing, fortifying and lavish, our meal was tangible proof that India's vanished royalty "left behind a courtly redolence that enchants both palate and imagination," as Chitrita Banerji writes in Eating India: An Odyssey Into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices.

In Hyderabad, biryani is served from late morning until late in the evening in countless locales from the famous Hotel Paradise to the drabbest of carryouts. You can even have a "jumbo pack" of chicken biryani delivered to your door, raita included.

Biryani, an extravagant form of rice pilaf, is found in dozens of variations across India and throughout the Muslim world. Hyderabadi biryani stands out for its pungency, which may come from tamarind, tomatoes or lemon juice, says Sajida Nomani, who once lived in Hyderabad, as she prepares the elaborate dish (using lemon) in her Wheaton kitchen. "When I lived in northern India, we used almonds and poppy seeds," she says.

Hyderabadi biryani is "more sour," says Nomani, who remembers how its scent wafted across the courtyard from a nearby kitchen, where cooks prepared her wedding feast years ago. Nomani had just arrived in Hyderabad for an arranged marriage to a city native. "At first, [the local] biryani didn't appeal to me," Nomani says. She grew accustomed to the fragrances and flavors of her new home.

In her book, Banerji distinguishes Hyderabadi biryani by its "katchi" mode of preparation. "The meat is not precooked when it is added to the rice," nor is water added to the pot, she says. "The juices released by the meat are supposed to provide just the right amount of moisture."

"The rice has to be right. The meat has to be right," Nomani says. That's why she leaves katchi biryani to the professionals. Nomani is more likely to prepare a "pakki" style of Hyderabadi biryani, in which the ingredients are partially cooked before they are blended together and steamed to perfection.

Hyderabadi biryani often is served as well with a thin stew called mirch ka salan in which "long, fat green chiles have been simmered in a tangy broth," Banerji says. "The ingredients of the broth include copra [dried coconut], sesame, whole coriander, whole cumin and peanuts, which are all roasted and ground together before going into the broth with tamarind and brown sugar."

Biryani is a slow food. At the Columbia vegetarian restaurant Mango Grove, Hyderabadi dum biryani is "cooked over a very slow fire," manager Minu Bisda says. The biryani is served with lemon pickle, raita and pappadams. "We put a lot of love into it so that everybody will get happy," she says.

As her mother cooked, author Asra Nomani recalled how biryani's comforting properties - and its availability - sustained her during an unsettling stint in Karachi, Pakistan. One night, she placed an order with a carryout called Student Biryani that promised delivery within 30 minutes, "just like Domino's," Nomani says.

While awaiting her dinner, Nomani told herself that if the biryani arrived promptly, she would stay longer in Karachi. It did. "The biryani guy kept me here," Nomani later wrote in her diary.

Biryani traditions continue to evolve, often upending other civic customs. Hyderabadi journalist Lalita Iyer speaks of "midnight biryani," consumed by friends after a night of revelry. Because Hyderabadi restaurant kitchens typically close at 10:30 p.m., "five-star hotels" have wrangled reclassification as coffeehouses after a certain hour to serve biryani into the wee hours, Iyer says.

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