The origin of the word ‘Biryani.’

There is no Eid without biryani, and wherever there is biryani there is Eid (festivity). The word biryani has its origins to the Persian word ‘birian’ which means frying before cooking. It entered the Oxford English dictionary in 1932, where it is described as an Indian dish made with highly seasoned rice and meat, fish, or vegetables.


There are various theories about the origin of biryani. While some believe that the Mughal cooks invented it, some others believe that the Arab merchants brought the dish to India. Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, says that the Persian dish pilau was transformed into biryani in India. Akbar, who is known to have merged Indian culture with Persian traditions, extended this process of synthesis to his kitchen as well. The Persians marinated meat in curd. The Mughal cooks added spices, almonds, garlic and onions to the curd to make a thick coating on the meat. They then cooked the meat briefly and poured it into a pot. Like the Persians who partially cooked rice for pilau, the Mughal cooks did the same and added the rice to the meat. Saffron soaked in milk was added for the colour and aroma. It was then cooked like the pilau with coal on the lid and below. The resultant biryani was spicier and more aromatic. The Ain-i-Akbari, a chronicle of Akbar’s time too talks of the tweaking of Persian dishes to include Indian flavours.


Spanish traveler Sebestain Manrique in his travelogue describes the food sold in the markets in Lahore in 1641. He says, “Among these dishes the principal and most substantial were the aromatic Mongol bringes (biryanis) and Persian pilaus of different hues.”


Aurangzeb too was a great lover of biryani and sought out the best cooks. He once asked his son to send Sulaiman, who cooked biryani to work in the imperial kitchens. When his son refused, a frustrated Aurangzeb asked his son to send Sulaiman’s pupil who was as skilled as him.


With the expansion of the Mughal Empire the biryani too reached newer regions and took newer forms. It became the spicier Hyderabadi biryani in the court of the Nizams. When the British deposed the Nawab of Lucknow Wajid Ali Khan to Kolkata, he was unable to meet the meat expenses. His cooks added potatoes to the biryani. Till this day, the biryani in Kolkata has potatoes. The Hindu bookkeepers of the Muslim rulers made a vegetarian biryani and called it Tahiri biryani.


There are also theories that dishes like the biryani existed even before the time of Mughals. 11th century Persian traveler Al-biruni in his Takht-Al-Hind describes Indian dishes which are very similar to the biryani. Some scholars argue that the Arab merchants first brought the dish to the Malabar Coast. Perhaps that’s why the Kerala biryani tastes different from the Mughlai biryani. Some texts mention that the Tamils made a dish like biryani called Oon Sor in 2AD to feed the military. It was made with rice, ghee, turmeric, pepper and bay leaf.


With time the biryani has been evolving. These days we have the readymade biryani mix where one has to simply add the rice and meat for a hassle free biryani. The microwave ovens too come with a biryani option in their auto-cook menus, where one has to simply add all the ingredients in a dish and keep it in the oven. Perhaps, the evolving nature of the biryani has made it so popular that we don’t mind eating an Andhra biryani on a plantain leaf or a home-delivered biryani in a paper box.




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