Approximately 31.2 million people live in the capital of India, Delhi. This unique population includes people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The geography has Chittaranjan Park, Lodhi Colony, Janakpuri and Delhi-6. As more and more people settled here, they brought with them their culture. In faces, food, markets, and societies, Delhi in its cosmopolitanism represents a mini India.
People of all states and cultures have a range of biryanis to choose from in Delhi. The present-day city is made up of restaurants on the internet like Behrouz Biryani, Biryani Blues, and Biryani By Kilo that deal in traditional and new forms, a Moradabadi biryani corner at almost every street of Delhi, South-Indian restaurants selling their own style, and finally Delhi-6 with their Mughlai Biryani.
But among all these flavours, is there an original Biryani of Delhi?
According to Sohail Hashmi, a Delhi-based historian and writer, the original recipe was bland made with meat and rice. “In fact, chillies were not used in Indian cooking at all. The use of chili came with Indian housewives who brought it from Portugese farmlands.”
Delhi shares an old relationship with biryani, as it was perfected in the Mughal kitchen. For many, the original Delhi biryani is the Mughlai preparations from the narrow lanes of Old Delhi. According to one theory, Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Shah Jahan, visited the army barracks; she found that the Mughal soldiers looked undernourished.
As a result, she asked the chefs to prepare a dish with meat and rice to provide a balanced diet to the soldiers. The dish that was whipped up and cooked over wood fire came to be known as Biryani. But the story does not end here.
This recipe blossomed into regional variations wherever it went. In Moradabad, it was made with a strong flavour of green chillies, and the rice was cooked along with the rice. In Hyderabadi, biryani found various flavours when Emperor Aurangzeb appointed Niza-Ul-Mulk as the new ruler of Hyderabad.
His chefs reportedly created almost 50 different versions that used fish, shrimp, quail, deer, and even hare meat. Hyderabad was also the place where the Kacchi Yakhni Biryani was fine-tuned and perfected.
The khansamah of the nawabs, who were connoisseurs of food, gave way to a range of culinary masterpieces including the Tunday kebabs. Their biryani found its flavour with the traditional dum pukht method where both meat and rice were separately cooked, and then stacked with colours and spices to cook.
When Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was banished to Kolkata, he could not afford the traditional Awadhi mutton biryani due to budget constraints. The skilled local cooks replicated it with perfectly cooked golden brown potatoes instead, which became integral to the biryani of Kolkata.
Further South, the nawab of Arcot, the Nawabs of Arcot created their own version of the biryani in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu. This biryani is generally accompanied by dalcha (a sour brinjal curry) and pachadi (a type of raita). The best known sub-variety of the Arcot biryani is the Ambur biryani that uses the squat seeraga samba rice, a traditional Tamil Nadu variety.
With the passage of time, new varieties were added to the biryani. “For me, biryani with chillies and spices is strange. But people prefer whatever they want. So, now we have concepts like Butter Chicken Biryani,” said Hashmi.
With the Mughlai dum, all the flavors came to Delhi to stay. Like the city itself, the concept of biryani here is vast and inclusive. Mughlai dum biryani may have geographical importance, but in a sense, all biryanis are equally original.
It is an invention that has evolved through thousands of years, by many foreign dynasties, Indian rulers, and local chefs. The Indian palate evolved, and the original recipe changed every time with a new cultural twist. “That’s the excitement of food,” added Hashmi.