Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch
Chennai: Biryani capital of India?
Don’t laugh. Tamilians h ave not only fallen in love with biryani, they have also innovated and created new variations
One of the many ironies of living in today’s India is that at a time of rising Hindu consciousness, the one dish that keeps growing in popularity is one with a distinctly Muslim origin: biryani. According to Zomato and Swiggy, biryani has become one of the most ordered dishes in India over the last two years. New delivery operations and restaurants dedicated to biryani keep opening. On social media, fights break out on the subject of biryani: which is better, Kerala Biryani or Lucknow Biryani? Is there such a thing as vegetarian biryani?
While I have written often about the biryani boom and the role of South India in the biryani explosion, I had only dimly registered that Chennai had now become the centre of the biryani craze. Then, a few months ago, I drove from Chennai airport to the Taj Fisherman’s Cove hotel, a distance of about an hour, and was startled to see how many restaurants and takeaway places had huge signs advertising biryani. Forget about Chennai’s famous idlis which we outsiders come to eat. It’s biryani the locals are crazy about. I was lucky to try a home-made biryani sent by food-hunter Fazil Badrudeen. But when, I wondered, did Chennai become like Lucknow where people sent biryani to welcome visitors?
Last month, I was back in Chennai and noticed once again how biryani-mad the city had become. I turned to two other food-hunters I respect: Shabnam Kamil and Dr Wasim Mohideen. Both agreed with me that Chennai was fast becoming the biryani capital of South India. But they also startled me by pointing to the huge range of different biryanis that characterised Tamil Nadu.
But first, a little background. All the evidence suggests that pulao was created in the Middle East and Central Asia and then made its way to India. Biryani, on the other hand, is distinctively Indian. It was probably created in the Mughal era, either as a court dish (the traditional view) or as a way to feed the masses (a convincing counterview). We know how biryani spread from Delhi to Oudh, and from there to Bengal and how it went from Delhi to Hyderabad.
But, most South Indian biryanis present a special problem. Did biryani really travel from the Mughal court to say, the Malabar coast? I am of the view that many so-called South Indian biryanis are not biryanis at all in the North Indian sense. They are meat-and-rice dishes that developed independently of the North and then ended up being lumped together as ‘biryani’.
Besides, it is not as though only Delhi had a connection with the Middle East. Kerala’s trading routes to the Middle East predate any contact between that region and North India—they even predate the birth of Islam. Certainly many Malayalis believe that their riceand-meat dishes may have been influenced by contacts with such places as Yemen in pre-medieval times.
MOST SOUTH INDIAN BIRYANIS PRESENT A SPECIAL PROBLEM. DID BIRYANI TRAVEL FROM THE MUGHAL COURT TO THE MALABAR COAST?
All this may or may not be connected to Tamil Nadu. We do know for certain that meat-and-rice dishes turn up in ancient Tamil literature. Some people have even linked the term ‘pulao’ to a word used to describe a South Indian meat-and-rice dish. I asked Shri Bala, the chef and acclaimed historian of Tamil food, if she thought the current biryani boom was a revival of an ancient Tamil trend. She was skeptical. She thought that the two were unconnected.
On the other hand, Tamil Nadu does have a huge biryani tradition that most North Indians are unaware of. Ask Praveen Anand. Ever since he helmed Dakshin for ITC hotels, Praveen has done more for South Indian food than any other chef. Over the years, he has travelled across the South, coaxed recipes out of grandmothers and eaten at dives and dhabhas, trying to discover lesser-known dishes. Praveen told me that he was staggered by the variety of biryanis he had found in Tamil Nadu, many of them made in ways that were alien to North Indian biryani-cooking.
I turned to Shabnam and Wasim for recommendations. They recommended Nayeem in Periamet, a Muslim-dominated area that was famous for its biryanis. So, I ordered biryani from there. It was fine but hardly memorable.
Shabnam and Wasim had also suggested I try the Kongu-style biryani from Coimbatore. I ordered some from the Erode Amman Mess in Besant Nagar. They also recommended Dindigul Biryani. Both were delicious and unusual.
I called Chef ‘Nat’ Natarajan, formerly of the Taj, who has been, for many years, my guru in all matters relating to South Indian food. Nat said that Coimbatore was a prosperous town with many influences from the rest of South India, so their biryanis were hybrids. They even added coconut milk to biryani, a heresy in North India.
I worked my way through Wasim and Shabnam’s list. They recommended Pandias in North Chennai which made a greenish biryani with an unusual Korma to go with it. This was also unlike any biryani I had eaten before. They had asked me to order Madurai Biryani from Madurai Kumar Mess and it was one of the best biryanis I ate in Chennai.
Was Chennai’s biryani boom based on these delicious regional variations? Well, yes and no. Most places in the city eschewed these more exciting biryanis and made what seemed to me to be South Indian versions of North Indian biryani. For instance, most South Indian biryanis have traditionally used short grain rice. But these biryanis were made with long-grained rice (not basmati but some cheaper hybrid variant usually ).
I asked Wasim if they were really South Indian dishes. Or should we treat them as North Indian biryanis made by South Indians?
No, he said. There were important differences in technique and ingredients between North India and Tamil Nadu. For example, these biryanis did not bother with the aromatics of Oudh. And nearly all of them used lots of tomato, which is not a feature of North Indian biryanis.
Praveen Anand told me that the Chennai biryani boom was recent and it relied on non-traditional styles of biryani which were new even to most of South India. It had got to the stage, he said, where even Christian weddings featured so-called Chennai biryanis, and biryani was the subject of discussion everywhere in the city. Shri Bala dated the beginnings of the boom to the start of this century and said that the biryani’s popularity had spread because of social media.
Chef Nat had a more interesting theory. He dated the biryani boom to the IT boom. Just as the Silicon Valley IT boom was powered by guys who only looked away from their screens to wolf down some ramen, the Chennai IT boom led directly to the biryani boom. Techies liked to order biryani because it was a one-pot meal that they could eat quickly and then return to their screens.
Nat also made some interesting technical points. He said that people often overlooked that biryani in Chennai was made differently from the North. One common technique was to make the meat korma and to then add parboiled rice to it. The rice was finished in the pot and absorbed the korma juices. Another way was to put toasted raw rice in the korma and let it cook in the gravy. This was complicated, he said, so only good chefs could pull it off. There was no layering of meat and rice and no dum as in the North. Ideally, the biryani was cooked on a wood-fire and then finished by covering the pot and putting more hot wood or coals on top of the lid. No atta was used to seal the lid. There were no purdahs.
Purists may find Chennai biryanis a little too contrived. They are not the traditional biryanis of Tamil Nadu. And their use of long-grained rice may make them come off as masala versions of North Indian biryanis.
But that’s okay. If South Indians can tolerate North Indians making keema dosas, then the rest of us should applaud, not criticise, these biryani innovations!
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
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