What’s the big deal about rice and meat together in the same dish? Plenty, especially if you come from Hyderabad, Lucknow or Kolkata. Some of the best biryani I’ve eaten has been at Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton, prepared by a Hyderabadi royal called Begum Kulsum. She’s married in Lucknow, but fiercely retains pride in the cooking of her childhood home. Her sufiana biryani is a deceptively simple dish, with none of the bright colouring that distinguishes most biryanis. There was no meat in the biryani either, but the fragrance remains with me to this day.
Hyderabadi biryani is the ultimate test of a good cook. It’s traditionally made with uncooked, marinated lamb or beef, and layered at the bottom of a pan with rice in various stages of doneness, that at the top being more pre-cooked than the rice nearest the meat which is only 25% cooked. Accomplished cooks turn out a scrumptious dish in less than an hour; lesser mortals land up with a sodden mass. The point about all biryani, however, is to have perfectly cooked meat with flavourful rice, preferably in the same dish, although there are some, perfect legitimate, versions of biryani in which the two ingredients are browned and cooked separately and combined only in the final stage. That, to me, smacks of cheating. And biryani aficionados can tell whether both have been cooked together or separately? How? I’d love to know that myself. I can’t.
Lucknowi biryani, on the other hand, is made from stock rather than water, so the meat is first sautéed and then cooked separately. The rice is later cooked in the same stock. This precludes the concept of kachhe ghosht ke biryani. I’ve noticed that while Hyderabadi biryani has top notes and middle notes, Lucknowi biryani tends to owe its success to a homogenous blend of spices, so that no single one predominates.
When cooks from the Nawab’s kitchen fled to Kolkata post 1857, they set up an extension of their home style of cooking in a sort of Lucknow meets Bengal school. Metia Burj is now too grimy for words, and it’s hard to believe that it’s the place where Kolkata’s own style of biryani sprang from. Kolkata biryani is far spicier than its other country cousins, and distinguishes itself (if that is the right word) by its use of potatoes. Purists wince at the thought of whole, skinned potatoes in biryani, but there’s no denying that the humble spud takes on all the nuances of flavour present in the stock. I see little point in the rice – why not just have meat and potatoes? Surely two forms of starch in the same dish is overdoing it?
Haji Ghulam Dastgir in Metia Burj tel: 24698243 makes biryani on order. Though his ancestors were from Lucknow, robustness rather than delicacy is what defines his product. His advantage is that he does the Kolkata variety, complete with potatoes too. Sonargaon at Taj Bengal do a completely authentic kachhe ghosht ke biryani, as do almost ITC Welcomgroup properties. There’s no doubt, though, that the best biryani is served at Muslim weddings.