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
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.