Ask Arva Ahmed what she thinks is an au­then­tic biryani, and the foodie says it’s her mum’s. Smart, we say.

In a new weekly col­umn, Arva Ahmed ex­plores the UAE’s in­cred­i­ble culi­nary brush­strokes

Friday - - Contents -

There is no use of chilli. A biryani in its purest form has saf­fron. Potato is still up there whether it’s in there or not – I’m sure that the In­di­ans have added it. It’s saf­fron, it is prunes or plums, and it’s pis­ta­chios, and maybe al­mond sliv­ers, caramelised onions or fried onions, and meat. That’s it – it’s aroma.’

Those are the words of Bri­tish-Ira­nian chef Sab­rina Ghay­our, speak­ing at this year’s Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture.

With that elo­quent swoop, Sab­rina – called the ‘golden girl of Per­sian cook­ery’ by the me­dia in the UK – down­graded the ma­jor­ity of birya­nis in Dubai as ‘not au­then­tic’.

I am in­clined to agree with Sab­rina. My In­dian up­bring­ing has left me with two fun­da­men­tal lessons of life: my mother is al­ways right, and my mother makes the best biryani. One could ar­gue that the lat­ter les­son is sim­ply a culi­nary chap­ter of the first.

My mother per­fected her biryani dur­ing her child­hood in Hyderabad, the south­ern biryani cap­i­tal of In­dia (the north­ern be­ing Luc­know.) As Sab­rina de­scribed, this home­made biryani was a dish of thought­fully cu­rated aro­mas that an­nounced its pres­ence even be­fore it ar­rived at the ta­ble.

Its prepa­ra­tion was not to be taken lightly, which is why Sab­rina’s strin­gent biryani stan­dards struck a chord with me. A biryani fit for roy­alty is one that beds saf­fron and toasted whole spices to­gether with lay­ers of par­boiled rice and care­fully se­lected meat. The tightly sealed pot cooks slug­gishly over a weak flame, un­til the rice grains emerge smelling like they have just saun­tered through the charmed al­leys of a me­dieval spice souq. The fi­nal crown­ing step is a golden-brown tiara of caramelised onions and toasted nuts, which in­fuses the air with sweet, mellow, nutty fumes that make your chest swell as you lean in for the first serv­ing. A biryani worth its aroma has no use for ex­ces­sive chilli pep­pers or off-the-shelf spice blends that storm the senses rather than se­duce them.

Born out of the fu­sion of ex­quis­ite Per­sian pi­lafs and spiced dishes of In­dia, biryani as a royal Mughal dish has now be­come a sta­ple on the menus of most In­dian, Pak­istani and Ara­bic restau­rants across the coun­try. We have com­modi­tised biryani across every­day ta­bles. It is avail­able on ev­ery cor­ner, in all pos­si­ble vari­ants, from meat to veg­e­tar­ian, and at prices so low that they some­times make shawar­mas look ex­trav­a­gant.

Food his­to­rian EM Colling­ham de­scribes the orig­i­nal biryani as a ‘spicier In­dian ver­sion of the Per­sian pi­lau.’ But spice was not syn­ony­mous with chilli – an ingredient that only en­tered In­dian cook­ing much af­ter Vasco da Gama landed on the Mal­abar coast in the 15th cen­tury – but rather with aro­matic in­gre­di­ents like saf­fron, cin­na­mon and gin­ger. A recipe for zard bir­inj penned by a courtier dur­ing Mughal em­peror Ak­bar’s times calls for the use of these spices with ghee, raisins, al­monds, pis­ta­chios, rice and shock­ingly, sugar. Far re­moved from flam­boy­ant kitchens of the Mughal em­pires, cafe­te­rias in the UAE serve a bare-bones biryani – de­void of pricey saf­fron and nuts and of­ten heavy on chest­burn­ing garam masala. Most mid-tier In­dian and Ara­bic restau­rants scrimp on saf­fron too, though a few as­pire to au­then­tic­ity with al­monds and caramelised onions. A dish that de­serves sin­gle-minded love and de­lib­er­a­tion is a one-line item in menus, me­an­der­ing through an eclec­tic ex­panse of gravies, breads and ‘Amer­i­can chop­suey.’

Some com­mer­cial kitchens will stain a few grains with yel­low food colour­ing, a tinted hat tip to the world’s most ex­pen­sive spice that if used, would make a Dh10 biryani an en­dan­gered dish on the menu. Biryani has come to sym­bol­ise any sort of rice and meat pi­laf – un­less it is veg­e­tar­ian, in which case you can skip the meat too. Aroma is left to the painstak­ing realm of home kitchens, up­scale restau­rants with a bud­get for saf­fron, and flowery prose buried in his­tory books.

What most restau­rants in the coun­try do get right is the su­pe­rior qual­ity of bas­mati rice and its cook­ing tech­nique. Clumpy rice is a starchy sin that is rarely, if ever, com­mit­ted.

The ques­tion is whether biryani democ­racy is a le­git­i­mate rea­son to lower the scented stan­dards of au­then­tic­ity across the streets of Dubai. Sab­rina con­fessed in a later in­ter­view that ‘au­then­tic­ity is only a build­ing

A biryani fit for ROY­ALTY is one that beds SAF­FRON and toasted whole spices with lay­ers of rice and MEAT. Crowned with a TIARA of caramelised onions and toasted nuts

block, a foun­da­tion for in­no­va­tion’, and that so­ci­eties should evolve with the en­vi­ron­ment rather than be­ing overly pro­tec­tive of their recipes. If peo­ple don’t eat meat, why not have a veg­e­tar­ian biryani? Or if peo­ple can­not af­ford saf­fron, ‘the cur­rency of courts’, why not leave it out? Or if peo­ple love chilli, why not toss it in? ‘I’m all for chilli in biryani,’ she ad­mit­ted. ‘I love it.’

De­spite Sab­rina’s for­giv­ing at­ti­tude and in­clu­sive ap­proach to culi­nary evo­lu­tion, I am not con­vinced. Chicken eggs will be chicken eggs, caviar will be caviar. Un­scented rice dishes that as­pire to be biryani are un­de­ni­ably de­li­cious and af­ford­able in their own right, but should be ap­pro­pri­ately hum­ble in their claim. Call them what they truly are – pi­lafs, pu­lao, or sim­ply ‘meat and rice’ – and let the Mughal em­per­ors rest in peace.

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