Ambrosia of the Subcontinent – the Biryani Blues

Wafiur Rahman
Thursday, June 8th, 2017


My personal take on Biryani


I still remember how much I used to hate the idea of going to weddings when I was a little boy. My mother would always dress me up formal and tie my laces for my matching shoes. I just never understood why two people would sit at the stage and smile for five or more hours, for five hundred people out of whom probably only fifty were their close relatives and friends. My mother did not allow me to eat the food at weddings until I was 6 years old. I did not bother to complain, as I was too busy wandering about with other kids, playing games or simply looking at the thousands of lights and flowers getting wasted for just one night.


But this article is not about wedding occasions and how much I detested them. This article contains my feelings about my very first experience of tasting Biryani, a dish that was only served at weddings, a dish that changed my whole perception of wedding occasions. That night, not only my mouth but my heart and mind both experienced a taste that I would never forget.


The name biryani is derived from the Persian word “berya” which means “fried” or “roasted”.  Biryani is a dish which has a combination of spices such as cinnamon, ghee (clarified butter), cumin, cloves, bay leaves, coriander, mint leaves, ginger, onions, and garlic. These spices are fried in rice and then mixed in meat such as beef, mutton or chicken. There are quite a few myths that involve the history of biryani and how it came into existence, but as always every culture has their own story to tell.


The history of biryani is shrouded in secrecy and myths. After that fateful night I could not get the taste of biryani out of my head and on the car ride back home I asked my parents how and where it was first cooked. The story is that it was originally the food of the nomads in West Asia, who, at daybreak, would dig pits in the ground, put in the rice, meat and spices in an earthen container and cover the pit. After finishing their work in that certain part of the area, where the rest of their tribes had settled in, they would uncover the pit in the evenings, only to find the appetizing aroma seeping from the ground. Thus, they would mix all the food that they had into one pot and share it amongst themselves, and this way none of the food was wasted.


Another very interesting story that I came across during my research on this delicious dish, is the Indian version. Historians claim that the Nawabs of Punjab wore matching turbans for each variety of Biryani, and as legend has it, their wives would make 49 different kinds of Biryani, some of which were even made from fish, quail, shrimp, deer and hare. This Biryani is referred to as the Hyderbadi Biryani as it originated from the city of Hyderabad in India.


Another story that my grandmother would tell me is the story that took place during Ramadan. Ramadan is a month that comes once every Islamic year, where Muslims fast for an entire day, from sunrise until sunset. They do not eat or drink during this time, and traditionally break their fast at sunset with family and friends. The reason behind fasting for a month is so that we can realize what the poor people have to go through every day. Allah wanted us to feel the pain of not having 3 meals a day, and the idea of not being able to drink water or eat any sort of food helps us to realize the importance of food, and not to waste it.


The myth goes back to earlier days when wealthy families would lay out a buffet at the time of sunset in order to satisfy the hunger that they had throughout the day. Even though they were taught by the Prophet, that everything that lies on the rich man’s table must also lie on the poor man’s rug, which was not always the case. Therefore, sometimes the poor people would gather whatever meat, rice or spices they had and mix it all together in earthen pots and cook them.  This is how biryani came into existence through religious customs.


This story has an interesting twist to it, as I found out that biryani is not only available to a rich man’s plate, but is available to anyone including a poor man. Anyone can make biryani.


Today, Biryani can be found almost everywhere. I had tasted the spicy biryani of Old Dhaka in Bangladesh, the Hyderbadi biryani of India mixed with chutney and yoghurt, the biryani made by my aunt with spices from England and I had even tasted biryani in Jackson Heights in New York. However, nothing can ever replace the first taste of biryani I had, that night, at the wedding of a distant relative. Biryani is an excuse to celebrate anything, whether it is someone’s wedding, birthday or anniversary. Often girls of marriageable age in Muslim families are asked, “When are you treating us to Biryani?” thereby implying “When are you tying the knot?”.


In the past, cooks who had the most delicious recipes of how to make the best biryani passed on their skills to generations in a hereditary manner, keeping the recipes a family secret. Making the Biryani was certainly an art and it continues to be so. One needs to use the ingredients in the right proportion to make a perfect biryani.


When I used to travel abroad with my family when I was younger, there were nights when I longed to have some biryani and regretted travelling to countries which were not familiar with this South Asian “spiced rice delicacy.” One night I could not control my feelings anymore and I did the only thing I could. I opened the refrigerator and took out whatever spices and beef I had and concocted a sham of a biryani. The result was not so bad either, it definitely did not taste exactly like what I could have had at home, but it sure was good enough to make my cousins lick their plates clean. The connotations of the dish may have changed over a period of time but the taste none the less has remained impeccable and nothing short of ambrosia.

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