The highlight of my school years was the annual picnic. Each year the day dawned with a trio of brave teachers taking about 120 boys to some scenic spot and letting them loose for the entire day. The highlight of the picnic was the biryani and no matter where we were, when the word went out that it was lunch time, hordes of hungry boys congregated to the designated spot and stood in line with plates in hand. Usually a couple of boys would have volunteered (or been conscripted) to bring the biryani and they stood aside the huge vessels serving out the rice with a piece of chicken or mutton depending on the type of the biryani. If you were lucky and knew the boy well, you got a larger piece or a couple of pieces. We would gorge ourselves on the biryani and spend the remainder of the afternoon a little dazed, like stuffed pythons, and the rest of the year waiting for the next picnic.
Growing up, biryani was an exotic dish. My mother did make a mean chicken or mutton pulao, however it was not biryani. As with many meat dishes, biryani was introduced to India by Persian travelers/invaders and has now established itself as a popular dish. It could best be described as a rice dish made with spices and meat – usually chicken or goat. My friend Abdul, brought biryani for the first three picnics and his description added to the mystique of the biryani. His mother would buy the meat (usually goat) late in the evening. After cleaning the meat and marinating it, she would start cooking at 1 am. Spices had to be ground by hand, kilograms of onions chopped, lots of ghee and the entire effort would culminate at 6 am, just in time for the 7 am departure from school. And of course, the ratio of meat to rice had to be at least 3 : 2 by weight. Considering that Abdul’s mother had to make biryani for about 60 hungry boys (each boy could eat his own weight in biryani), she declined to make biryani after 6th grade and it was left to our classmate Saad’s stalwart cook to pick up that share. Saad’s biryani was fantastic and holds many fond memories for me and my classmates. After a hiatus of 28 years, a small group of my classmates were treated to the “Saad biryani” again at a reunion last year. I missed out on the reunion and the biryani and will have to bide my time and hope that I get to taste it sometime in the future.
Considering that we did not make biryani at home, the only biryani we ate was when my dad brought biryani occasionally from a restaurant. While my dad would reminisce of the biryani from “Lucky” restaurant in Bandra, Bombay, simply called “Lucky biryani”, the restaurant we got biryani from was the “Taj Hotel” at Russell Market in Bangalore. Chicken biryani was about Rs 10 a plate in the mid eighties and the server would remove a bowl full of biryani, put it in a banana leaf along with a leg of chicken and a boiled egg and then wrap the whole bundle in a piece of newspaper that would be bound with twine. The “raitha” or salad would be served in a plastic bag along with the salan (gravy) in a separate bag. The biryani was delicious and its aroma would linger on my fingers even after I had washed it with soap. The “Taj” is an institution in itself and I have heard that it supplies biryani to the Iftar hosted by the Chief Minister of Karnataka. Apparently the clientele is mainly Hindu and business is down on Hindu festivals when Hindus do not eat meat.
After I left India, my opportunities to eat biryani were few and far in between. Biryani served at Indian restaurants here were a pale shadow of of the ones served in India. Meat with rice masquerading as biryani. My friend Irshad introduced me to Shan Biryani Masala and for a few years I made biryani using their “Sindhi Biryani Mix”. The result was pretty good, though I could never bring myself to pour in the amount of oil they would recommend. I started experimenting making biryanis from scratch about a decade ago. This involved cooking the meat with spices and onions to form a quasi curry and then layering this curry with half cooked rice and baking the whole dish in an oven to get the “dum pukt” effect. The entire process, starting from cleaning the meat took about 3 hours and even though the end result was delicious, was fairly tedious. Last year, my sister-in-law Anu gave us a link for a “Hyderabadi Dum Biryani” recipe on YouTube that we adapted and we have since not looked back. This biryani gives the best bang for the buck, is quick and easy to cook and the end result is just delicious. We use basmati rice to make our biryanis, but my dad swears by the “jeeragasamba” rice that is used to make biryanis at some restaurants in Bangalore.
Over the years, I have eaten biryanis at different places. “Richies” in Frazer Town in Bangalore was our favourite for a few years and I would always stop by there on a visit to Bangalore. “Bahar” in Hyderabad serves delectable biryani, so does “Paradise”. An interesting biryani that I got to eat was the one sold at a spare parts store in Erode, Tamil Nadu when I had visited my brother’s in-laws’ house. The owner, to supplement his spare parts business had apparently started selling homemade biryani at his shop and I guess over time, the spare parts became a side business with the biryani taking over. Each town or city boasts of its own special biryani joint or joints and connoisseurs argue as to which one is the best. Given the geographic and cultural diversity in India, it is only natural that there are several varieties of biryani such as the Hyderabadi biryani, Awadhi biryani, Bombay biryani, Bhatkal biryani and so on. The best biryani that I have eaten to this date was the one graciously provided to us by my brother’s friend, Dr. Pasha in Bangalore in 2004. We had a fairly large family reunion and the biryani arrived at the appointed hour in a large vessel. The biryani was just exquisite! The rice was cooked just right and spiced to perfection. The meat just melted in our mouths! Cousins who had shied away from mutton in the past found the biryani irresistible. “Pasha biryani” of 2004 vintage has now become our standard for comparing biryanis.
I cannot really speak of biryanis without mentioning Andhra biryani. My first introduction to Andhra biryani was at the famous RR restaurant on Church street in Bangalore. Spicier than the biryanis we were used to, it left a trail of rivulets coursing down my forehead. Later on, just after we were married, I got to eat Swathi biryani at Aparna’s house and was impressed to see Aparna polish off a plate of biryani! It was perhaps my first inkling that I had met and married a fellow traveller with whom I could embark on many culinary adventures in the future. Swathi is a restaurant on West of Chord road in Bangalore and their Biryanis in the late nineties were just delicious, sadly their standard has dropped and we no longer visit them. Nagarjuna is another popular Andhra joint and their biryani is definitely worth trying. Nandini has managed to standardize their biryani across their different franchises in Bangalore. The Andhra biryanis I suspect are more of pulaos and differ from traditional biryanis which typically involve layering rice with meat gravy and then cooking them on low heat, but they are delicious nevertheless and can hold their own. I get my fix of Andhra biryani here at “Hoysala” when I visit NJ. Hoysala is one of those rare Indian restaurants that serves delicious, authentic South Indian food and their quality is consistently great.
Let me finish from where I began. Each September, after sports day, my high school in Bangalore celebrates “Old Boys’ Day” on the first Sunday of September. Old boys spanning across batches from different parts of India and the world descend into our school. Various activities are planned but then again the highlight is the spicy biryani served for lunch along with cold beer! Just as we stood in line for biryani years ago, “boys” stand in line once again for the serving of biryani, raitha and baingan ka salan (brinjal curry). We’ve grown older, travelled across the world, eaten biryanis at several restaurants but our appetite is undiminished…and it still is a special thrill to get a large piece or if we are lucky enough, two pieces of meat with our biryani!