Origins and evolution of biryani

An aromatic journey of the finest rice and spices


August 30, 2017

/ By / New Delhi


Some versions of biryani have boiled eggs added to them, at times substituting meat

A popular rice dish, biryani is savoured across India. Prepared in styles that vary with regions, it has varying stories of its origin.

Long grains of rice coloured in the hue of saffron, enveloped in the aroma of cinnamon, and glistening in the luxury of ghee or clarified butter, biryani has all the right reasons to be a favourite of many across India. Known for its fine quality of rice and myriad spices, it is relished in most parts of the country and prepared in only slightly varying styles in different cities, and with all its richness in place. Its preparation involves tossing rice in ghee, before the flavours of cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, bay leaf, cloves, nutmeg and other spices can be simmered in. With dosages of rose water and kewra water (distilled water from the flowers of pandanus used for flavouring), it is given a royal treatment, but interestingly is believed to have rather humble roots.

The stories that revolve around

While some say that biryani was brought to India by the Turk-Mongol conqueror, Taimur, in the year 1398, some believe it was brought to India by the Mughals. Popular food writers and critiques, however shun both the ideas.

“One version is that the Mughals brought biryani to India which is completely untrue because the dish was known even before Babur got here. Another is that Timur brought biryani with him when he came to plunder the sub-continent. This is nonsense. If Timur did bring biryani, then he must have brought it from his homeland. But there is no record of biryani existing anywhere outside of India in that era,” writes renowned journalist Vir Sanghvi in his column.

But while Sanghvi subtly denies of the dish being brought to India by the Mughals, one cannot deny the connection it had with the royal courts.

As one tale goes, Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan  once visited her army, only to find them in an undernourished state. She then had the cooks prepare a meal that was both savoury and nourishing. Spices were added, and so was meat, thus evolving one of the first few variants of this dish, or so is believed.

The dish eventually became popular across the Mughal empire. Royals from Lucknow and Hyderabad too are believed to have been the connoisseurs of it and the ones responsible for its very first variants.

Twist of taste and tales


Biryani from Kolkata is mildly spiced and may have boiled eggs along with meat and potatoes

While biryani with meat is what most would prefer, especially the royals, the tastes had to be twisted. A call of the hour then, the new variant turned out to be a much savoured one.

According to legend, when the King of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was dethroned by the British in the year 1856, he changed bases and moved to Kolkata from his capital Lucknow. Fond of the good food that would be prepared inside his royal kitchen, he had his cooks come along with him. But the scarcity of money had dawned in, and the royal’s indulgences were in a flux. It was then that his cooks decided to innovate the dish and substitute meat with potatoes.

But as the stories have their share of twist, some claim that that the potato was added to the biryani as it was an exotic vegetable at the time, and not because the rulers were running out of money.

Whatever the truth, potato biryani is popularly consumed in Kolkata, where people also throw in some chunks of meat along with the much loved potato- the USP of the dish from this part of the country.

Other variants of biryani include the famous ones from Hyderabad, Lucknow, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Indian states which have the dish spiced up in comparison to the mildly spiced biryani from Kolkata. With their own sets of twists in tastes and tales, these biryanis are all unique yet rooted to that one story food experts are still trying to figure out.

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