By Zara Ali:
It’s 6:30 in the morning. Chowk, the old market place in the heritage city of Lucknow, is coming to life. Push carts roll away with sacks of rice, pulses, flowers and vegetables. The smell of spices mixes with fresh flowers, camphor and incense. The butchers are hanging freshly slaughtered goat on the hook. At the tea stall round the corner, newspaper delivery boys sip their cuppa in a cloud of steam.
Men sit on benches in the dimly lit verandah of the house -cum-restaurant while a restless crowd waits outside. Mohsin, the owner and chef, opens the lid of a giant vessel and the waiting crowd goes “aah”. To these regulars, the aroma is the appetizer. Some claim to know exactly how good it has turned out just by the fragrance that wafts across the street. Mohsin expertly uses a quarter plate to serve biryani, which is taken to the tables. Biryani for breakfast is a way of life here.
Biryani has come a long way from Persia to Lucknow and to the hinterlands of India. Biryani’s journey appears to have many paths. One can be traced back to Esfahan in Iran and the other to the spice trade route through which the Arabs brought it to Delhi and from thereon, Nawab’s led the legacy.
In Esfahan, a technique of cooking known as baryon, which literally translates to fried or roasted meat, was immensely popular. Food lover and an expert in Awadhi biryani, Rehana Ali shares a nugget from an old persian manuscript called Anees-ul-Talabain. “Khwan aarasteh avardan briyani wa sabzi, wa sirkeh wa” this translates into: “table was set, they brought biryani and vegetable and vinegar”. The roots of the dish which finally came to be known as Biryani, may lie in this one dish and the cooking method, but it is speculated that it was the union of the Persian pilaf and the Indian rice dishes which led to the birth of the Biryani.
The vegetarians, not to be left behind in sharing this “food of the gods”, were quick to engineer several vegetarian versions of it. There is for instance, the rose biryani, the motiye ki biryani (jasmine biryani), the paneer biryani (cottage cheese) and the annanas biryani (pineapple biryani) all emanating from the kitchens of Lucknow.
There is, however, nothing simple about the complexity of the dish’s taste or the passion it arouses. A biryani, depending upon which region it is being cooked in and which kitchen it has descended from, and most importantly, whose hands creates it, changes color, texture and taste.
Awadh ki Biryani is the stuff legends are made of. There are few people in the world, and this includes chefs, academicians and historians, who can state definitively whether the famed dish of Lucknow is a biryani or pulao. Ali, a regular foodie, is adamant that Lucknow has pulao, “an ancient and classic dish”, while Raunak considers Lucknawi biryani to be one of the original claimants to this title.
The journey of biryani from Persia, Central Asia to Hinterlands of the Indian peninsula was helped by conquering armies and the princely kingdoms such conquest installed.
Amidst many doubts between pulao and biryani, Lucknowites enjoy this nawabi delicacy. When in Lucknow, nobody should miss this culinary delight, Awadhi biryani marks its niche in taste and aroma.