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Origins of Biryani

Origins of Biryani

By Sadaf Hussain

I love biryani. It is one of the thing that my mother cooks the best. The preparation is a bit complex. Every Indian household has their own way of preparing it, and their own secret ingredients. My mother tells me it is the water of a particular city which gives biryani a very different flavor. It’s a dish you find in different forms in different parts of the country, and when it comes to rating them, my favourites are Hyderabadi and Kolkata Biryani.

History of Biryani


People travel, and when they settle down on a particular piece of land, they also introduce their food to that land. Once such dish which traveled to India from foreign lands, was Biryani.

Before the British, India was governed by invaders like the Turks, Arabs, Persians, and Afghans. They introduced an interesting element to Indian cooking—food which must be wholesome, with plentiful flavour and spices. They also taught Indians to eat in a feast style. From the 15th to 19th century, India and especially Delhi, became famous for its Mughlai cuisine, under the rule of the Mughals. They introduced a variety of rice and meat dishes like Biryani and Kebab.

There are several historical accounts related to the origins of Biryani. There is mention of similar rice dish in Tamil Nadu as early as 2 A.D. The dish is called ‘Oon Soru’ and is composed of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf; and was used to feed the military. It was considered a meal that had a perfect balance to provide the required energy to the warriors.

Another interesting story traces the origins of the dish to Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), Shah Jahan’s queen and the inspiration behind the building of the Taj Mahal. It is said that she once visited the barracks and found under-nourished army men. Saddened by the sight, she ordered her chef to prepare a food which was well-balanced in flavour, nutrition and energy, for the soldiers and this flavourful rice dish was created.

A third narrative states that Biryani came about simply because a poor man was in a hurry to get to work, and mixed all the ingredients of his meal together to save time—accidentally producing this delectable dish.

But there is no doubt that it is our Islamic-Persian heritage that inspired and popularized the dish. The dish travelled to different states of India and was accepted by that state as its own, be it Kolkata Biryani which went with Nawab Wajid Ali, or Hyderbadi Biryani that was made by the Nizams governing small territories in Northern India, or Lucknow Biryani that was popularized by the Awadhs.

The dish that was once a royal luxury—a special cuisine in the Kings’ courts, can now be easily consumed and enjoyed at any restaurant near you!

If you’re looking for a different take on the dish—try Old Delhi. It is, as usual, famous for its hospitality and generosity of serving food that is rich in flavour and overly liberal with their oil/butter. One place where this dish is served with a twist is Dil Pasand Biryani near Jama Masjid. These guys are famous for being the largest supplier of Buffalo Biryani. What makes their Biryani special is the meat cooked for over three hours in fragrant saffron rice. Just like almost all the old stores in the area, this one is also very tiny and situated in a very narrow lane. You can enjoy the food along with the bustle of traffic and people around.

(The article was first published on the website www.foodandstreets.com)


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