The aroma of biryani …and the absence of chilli in an authentic biryani.
‘There is no use of chilli. A biryani in its purest form has saffron. Potato is still up there whether it’s in there or not – I’m sure that the Indians have added it. It’s saffron, it is prunes or plums, and it’s pistachios, and maybe almond silvers, and caramelized onions or fried onions, and meat. That’s it – it’s aroma.’
— British-Iranian chef, Sabrina Ghayour, speaking at this year’s Dubai Literature Festival.
And with that one eloquent swoop, Sabrina Ghayour – nicknamed as the ‘golden girl of Persian cookery’ by the media in UK – downgraded the majority of biryanis in Dubai as ‘not authentic’.
I am inclined to agree with Sabrina. My Indian upbringing has left me with two fundamental lessons of life: my mother is always right, and my mother makes the best biryani. One could argue that the latter lesson is simply a culinary chapter of the first.
My mother had perfected her biryani during her childhood in Hyderabad, the southern biryani capital of India (the northern being Lucknow.) As Sabrina described, this homemade biryani was a dish of thoughtfully curated aromas that announced its presence even before it arrived at the table. As you stepped out of the elevator and in through the main door, the seductive scent of saffron, caramelized onions, melted ghee, toasted whole spices and almonds would creep up like invisible fragrant fingers and coax you into the kitchen for a pre-meal peek.
Far from being an everyday occurrence, biryani was reserved for the most special of occasions: Eid, special guests, my father’s birthday. Its preparation was not to be taken lightly, which is why Sabrina’s stringent biryani standards struck a chord with me. A biryani fit for royalty is one that beds saffron and toasted whole spices together with layers of parboiled rice and carefully selected meat. The tightly sealed pot cooks sluggishly over a weak flame, until the rice grains emerge smelling like they have just sauntered through the charmed alleys of a medieval spice souk. The final crowning step is a golden-brown tiara of caramelized onions and toasted nuts, which infuses the air with sweet, mellow, nutty fumes that you make your chest swell as you lean in for the first serving. A biryani worth its aroma has no use for excessive chilli peppers or off-the-shelf spice blends that storm the senses rather than seduce them.
Born out of the fusion of exquisite Persian pilafs and spiced dishes of India, biryani as a royal Mughal dish has now become a staple on the menus of most Indian, Pakistani and Arabic restaurants across the country. We have commoditized biryani across the everyday tables of the common man. Like falafel and hummus, it is available on every corner, in all possible variants, from meat to vegetarian, and at prices so low that they sometimes make shawarmas look extravagant.
Food historian E.M. Collingham describes the original biryani as a “spicier Indian version of the Persian pilau.” But spice was not synonymous with chilli – an ingredient that only entered Indian cooking much after Vasco de Gama landed on the Malabar coast in the 15th century – but rather with aromatic ingredients like saffron, cinnamon and ginger. In fact a recipe for zard birinj penned by a courtier during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s times calls for the use of these aromatic spices along with ghee, raisins, almonds, pistachios, rice and shockingly, sugar. Though the recipe goes on to say that people do make it with meat and salt rather than meat and sugar.
Far removed from the flamboyant kitchens of the Mughal empires, closet-sized cafeterias across the UAE served a barebones biryani – devoid of pricey saffron and nuts and often heavy on chest-burning garam masala if their patrons hail from the Indian subcontinent. Most mid-tier Indian and Arabic restaurants often scrimp on saffron too, though a few aspire to authenticity with almonds and caramelized onions. A dish that deserves single-minded love and deliberation is just one line item in a menu meandering through an eclectic expanse of gravies, lentils, breads and ‘American chopsuey.’
Then there is the handful of public catering kitchens that parcel out Dh10 takeaway biryani flavoured with the iconic Gulf-region loomi or dried limes – a definite deviation from the courtly recipes. Some commercial kitchens will stain a few grains with yellow food colouring, a tinted hat tip to the world’s most expensive spice that if enforced, would make a Dh10 biryani an endangered dish on the menu. Biryani has come to symbolize any sort of rice and meat pilaf – unless it is vegetarian, in which case you can skip the meat too. Aroma is left to the painstaking realm of home kitchens, upscale restaurants with a budget for saffron, and flowery prose buried in food history books.
What most restaurants in the country do get right is the superior quality of basmati rice and its cooking technique, which was originally derived from the lofty Persian standards of rice cookery for pilau. Collingham affirms that “the Persians judged the quality of a pilau by the rice, which was supposed to swell up completely, but without becoming sticky and forming clumps.’ Given the sizable Indian and Iranian communities in the UAE, cooks have perfected the art of ensuring that every grain of rice is separate and fully elongated. Clumpy rice is a starchy sin that is rarely, if ever, committed across restaurant biryanis in town.
The question is whether biryani democracy is a legitimate reason to lower the scented standards of authenticity across the streets of Dubai. Sabrina Ghayour confessed in a later interview that ‘authenticity is only a building block, a foundation for innovation’ and that societies should evolve with the environment rather than being overly protective over their recipes. If people do not eat meat, why not have a vegetarian biryani? Or if people cannot afford saffron, ‘the currency of courts,’ why not leave it out? Or if people love chilli, why not toss it in? ‘I’m all for chilli in biryani,’ she admitted, ‘I love it.’
Despite Sabrina’s forgiving attitude and inclusive approach to culinary evolution, I am not convinced. Chicken eggs will be chicken eggs, caviar will be caviar. Unscented rice dishes that aspire to be biryani are undeniably delicious and affordable in their own right, but should be appropriately humble in their claim. Call them what they truly are – pilafs, pulao, or simply ‘meat and rice’ – and let the Mughal emperors rest in peace.