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The biryani invasion

The biryani invasion

Biryani dominates online orders in Kathmandu, followed by momo, burgers, pizza, fried chicken, rolls, samosas, naan, chowmein, and noodles.

A few months ago, I was surprised to read news about the popularity of biryani in Kathmandu. Initially, I thought its influence might be shaping Nepali cuisine, but then I realized that food transcends geographical boundaries. I became confident that a unique variation of the biryani—Nepali biryani—would gradually emerge.

In my role as the research and development chef for a prominent airline and event company, I delved into the intricate world of biryani, uncovering its fascinating history and evolution. Biryani, a culinary gem and global sensation, has its origins shrouded in mystery, with theories pointing to its introduction by the Mughals from Persia or its creation in South India as the ‘Oon Soru’ or ‘one-pot meal.’

The Mughals, renowned for their culinary expertise, left an indelible mark on biryani by introducing Persian ingredients, cooking techniques, and the iconic ‘dum’ cooking method, similar to how we cooked ‘pakku’. In this technique, rice and meat are sealed in a pot over a low flame. Saffron and yogurt played a pivotal role in shaping the biryani we savor today.

Biryani’s historical journey through ancient India is evident in references to similar rice dishes like ‘yavasa’ mentioned in the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian book by Chanakya. The Mughals’ influence, particularly their love for saffron, yogurt, and the dum technique, significantly contributed to the rich and aromatic flavors of biryani.

Regional variations of biryani across India add to its charm, from the fragrant and sweet South Indian biryani to the globally renowned Hyderabadi biryani. In my exploration, I found that biryani has become not only a beloved dish but also a top choice for home delivery, ranking as the number one most-ordered dish on various online platforms in India. And the same thing is happening here in Nepal.

When I’m stuck or short of a dish during my food presentations for the airline, and if I have to prepare a staff meal, biryani is my problem solver. It’s a last-minute fix that is so versatile, accommodating lamb, chicken, fish, seafood, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, Jain Hindu, or Muslim preferences. It serves as a main dish fulfilling everyone’s desires.

Has anyone cooked biryani? There is a precise technique and process to follow, creating layers of mostly meat and rice with fried onion, mint, coriander, rose water, kewra water, yogurt, clarified butter (ghee), saffron, and a carefully selected blend of whole garam masala, finished with garam masala powder – the key to biryani, along with long-grain aged basmati rice.

In essence, biryani is a rice dish that originated in India but has spread worldwide. It’s a fragrant rice dish enjoyed with various meats, vegetables, and spices. Here, we will explore some famous biryani dishes from different countries.

In Saudi Arabia, it’s called Mandi; in Bahrain, Machboos or Machbosh; in Qatar, Mashkool. An epic Ruz Sayadeya, or Egyptian seafood rice, starts with a base of onions caramelized to perfection. In a hot pan, add a drizzle of oil and then add grated onions, spices, salt, and pepper, stirring over low heat until the onions are caramelized and have a deep amber color.

Is paella, the national dish of Spain, related to Spain? Although both are very popular rice dishes, paella is a dish from Spain that originated after the Arabians invaded and ruled the Iberian Peninsula. Paella is usually made with bomba rice, which is highly water-absorbent, giving the dish a mushy texture. Apart from meat, lots of seafood like oysters, crab, prawns, etc., are used in this dish. It’s conventionally cooked in a paella pan, a flat-bottomed, broad dish with handles on both sides. Traditionally, it was cooked on weekends by men who used to rest on weekends.

Did pulao become paella? With Arabs bringing rice to Spain, it’s likely they also brought numerous rice dishes. Imported dishes get ‘translated’ by local ingredients and culture. I’m confident that Arab predecessors didn’t include pork sausage in their rice dishes. Given some Muslims’ aversion to shellfish and other non-fish sea creatures, black paella may be indigenous to Spain.

But dishes like Arroz con Pollo? They’re likely just minor variations on the theme of pulao, pilow, pilaf, and biryani.

Biryani’s history reflects dynamic evolution, adapting to changing tastes and preferences. Modern variations include different meats, the incorporation of vegetables, and the creation of fusion biryanis. Chefs and home cooks have showcased their creativity with innovations such as biryani bowls, wraps, and healthier alternatives like quinoa biryani.

The journey of biryani from ancient India to its current global popularity is a testament to its enduring charm and the adaptability of this timeless culinary delight. As a chef, I’m excited by the continued innovation and creativity surrounding biryani.

Due to its growing popularity, biryani can even be found in unique variations in countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Brunei, and even Thailand. Biryani spread like wildfire through India and eventually found its way up to Nepal.

The author is a UK-based R&D chef