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What the Fork: Kunal Vijayakar Explores the Luxuriousness, Lavishness of Biryanis of North

When you imagine luxuriousness and lavishness in food, it is here in the north. Life itself was an extravagance. Did not the Nawabs of Awadh, the Mughals, the rulers of Kashmir, Rajasthan, and other princely states live a life of epicureanism with fulsomeness and in glut? Frau, firewater and food were the order of the day, out of which food played a formidable role. The meats were luscious and the spices rare, the curries usually thick, moderately spicy and creamy. The dramatic use of raisins, plums, apricot, pistachios, almonds, cashews, and pine-nuts was fairly common even in everyday foods. Dairy products like milk, cream, cottage cheese, ghee and yogurt added a sense of opulence, audacity and hauteur to the dishes. From this breeding and consanguinity comes the northern version of our favourite dish, the Mutton Biryani.

Lucknowi Pulao

Starting with the Lucknowi Pulao, there are many places you can get a Biryani in Lucknow. But the old decrepit, haughty, remnant Nawabs or Khansaamas, who claim to trace their lineage back to the days of Wajid Ali Shah (Nawab of Lucknow), who now earns a buck or two entertaining gawking tourists and monarchists to food and fable of the bygone days, insist that traditionally, Biryani was never made in the courts of Awadh, it was always a pulao. This brings us to the immortal argument about the difference between a Pulao and a Biryani. As much as I would like to, I don’t think I am qualified enough to debate on this issue, but the largely accepted rendition is that, a pulao is made by sautéing meat, adding uncooked rice and cooking both in the stock. While the biryani is raw or semi-cooked rice layered over cooked meat. Though there are some who say there is no difference except that biryani is richer than a pulao, and that’s the only difference. This is what I believe a Lucknow Pulao is, it’s long grain basmati rice, cooked in aromatic spiced mutton stock, to which marinated meat and saffron is added after being half cooked. Then cooked together. The pulao is not as oily as a biryani, and is gentler, subtler and aromatic with the essences of rose water and kewra.

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Moradabadi Biryani

The Moradabadi cuisine itself is fascinating. Since Moradabad itself was established by Murad Baksh, Shah Jahan’s youngest son and a firm advocate of harmoniously merging the land’s Rajput roots with his Mughal influences, the cuisine too grew into a compelling mix of traditions, culture and community influences. So, the Moradabadi Biryani, which is a product of this marriage, is classically low on spices and high on flavour. The Moradabadi Biryani is cooked with ‘kaccha’ Basamati using whole (khada) spices, and appears a light pale yellowish- white, owing to the absence of turmeric or saffron. It’s a mild fragrant, simple pulao like biryani, increasingly and lament fully made with chicken rather than mutton. Of course, food historians vehemently sneer at the Morabadi Biryani. Their view is that since Moradabad was never a state ruled by a king, prince or nawab, and that since only occupying feudal rulers have always had the leisure and luxury to experiment with food, this version, the Moradabadi Biryani, is a local aberration. Honestly who cares? As long as you like it, and perhaps, if they stopped using chicken.

Kashmiri Biryani

This is how I would describe a Kashmiri Biryani. A Biryani cooked in the traditional dum style using tender pieces of sheep, not goat, layered with basmati rice, freshly grounded spices caramelized onions, mint leaves and coriander. The mutton is marinated in soured curd and lemon juice giving it a sourness that you can find in so many Kashmiri dishes especially like in the iconic ‘Goshtaba’. Spiced gently with dry ginger powder, fennel powder, Kashmiri red chilli, this biryani stands apart because of the usage of a profusion of nuts and dry fruits and even fresh apples, all available in abundance in this fertile land. Now imagine all this meat, rice, spices and fruit cooked with a little bit of milk. Heaven on earth.

Delhi Biryani

Much like the Bombay Biryani, the Delhi biryani has been generated, regenerated, and degenerated several times over. The Degi Biryani so popular in its chicken form in most corners of Delhi, isn’t really what Delhi must have started out with, all those centuries ago. To give the city it’s due, Delhi had its own cuisine. Not Mughlai, not Punjabi, but Dehalvi Cuisine, which I shall go deeper into in a future column. Dehalvi style food was created and perfected in Delhi’s narrow lanes and mohallas, native homes and even the Royal Mughal kitchens of Delhi. A cuisine that got long buried under the rubble and debris of Delhi’s turbulent past.

This Biryani, however is simple, mild and flavourful. Traditionally, the ratio of meat used in the Delhi Biryani is one-and-a-half times the quantity of the rice to the meat. The usual masalas including floral favours such as star anise embellish the taste. Saffron is used, of course, if the pocket permits, or an unusual ingredient, Harsinger flowers, also called night jasmine or Parijaat, which are white fragrant flowers with orange stems are used. These flowers were soaked in water and that water was then added to biryani for colouring and fragrance. It’s a rich and simple flavour of meat and rice.

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Culture and cuisine leave its own design on history. Our country has witnessed scores of invaders; and every invader brought his own culture and a new cuisine. In the north, the influence of the Turks, Arabs, Persians, and Afghans from the 15th to the 19th century during the reign of the Mughals raised cooking to an art form, its virtuosity, which included the Biryani and the Pulao as one of its finest showpieces. A work of art embraced by not only the north, but in time, any and every part of India.

Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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